Smart Appliances: Designing Interfaces In The Connected Home

"Smart" design plans for connected lives, not screens everywhere. Gauging by the number of devices being proclaimed as smart at CES 2013 it’s clear the term means different things to different people. Here we offer six design insights to make connected appliances truly smart.

Many factors inform peoples’ decisions when purchasing large home appliances. When the time comes for the purchase people need better incentives to justify a premium price tag. Would be buyers already have a smartphone or a PC or a tablet and increasingly likely, all three. This reality makes the ability to run photo slideshows, glance at a calendar or check weather on a fixed display in a kitchen seem redundant, even pass√©. Buyers know that a major appliance should last a decade or more, and the purpose of a major appliance is proven. Still unproven is the idea of a tablet-like screen slapped onto the front of a major appliance.

Smart fridge graphic

Long lasting appliances & unproven benefits. The lifespan of a refrigerator is measured in decades, not months. The more an appliance experience relies on third-party add-on services, such as Netflix or Pandora, the more the appliance will need to be future-proofed to receive OS and app updates.

Tablet PCs are still so new that it’s hard to predict their usable life. We’re taking what we know from the short replacement life of handsets and averaging it with what we know of desktop PCs and we think it will fall somewhere in between. A tablet-like screen embedded in a fridge will be ready for replacement long before the appliance reaches the end of its life.

The promise of smart means devices are connected to a larger network of other devices and data. Connectivity —¬†whether through NFC, Bluetooth, WiFi — gives users more precise and more flexible controls and other capabilities that we are only now beginning to discover. The opportunity is to add value with the connectivity, not by adding more screens, but by empowering existing screens to deliver insight and control to users.

Beyond putting touch screens on everything, future connected appliances need to resonate with users’ true needs and fit into their lives within the existing digital ecosystem.

01

Design An Appliance Experience, Not A Tablet Experience

When you put a large touch screen on home appliances, it is easy to fill it up with features and apps that people are familiar with in other mobile experiences. It is a common mistake. The newest offerings out of CES include a smart refrigerator with an 8 inch touch display featuring Picasa, Twitter, WeatherBug, AP News and Evernote integration. Do we really need a Twitter stream on the refrigerator? The refrigerator even lets parents tap into a baby monitor. The product design focus seems no longer about the refrigerator’s place in the ecosystem, but instead seems like an attempt to make a kitchen space seem more plugged in. The addition of screens on household appliances too often result in long feature lists and functionalities that aren’t related to the core use of the appliance.

Adding cloud services does not magically make a good appliance better. In fact cloud add-ons can often add unnecessary complication. A successful home appliance experience should be as simple as possible and focus on a small number of well defined functions that the product does well.

02

Sense The Environment And Enable Smart Automation

If adding a screen and access to an app store on everything doesn’t exactly fit the needs of consumers, then what are the unique opportunities connectivity can bring to home appliances? The answer lies in context-aware sensors and automation. With their prime physical locations in our homes — and when equipped with an array of sensors — connected appliances can learn a lot about us, our space, and our daily patterns. Sensors that detect motion, temperature and faces can sense users and the environment and make useful assumptions about context. With clearly defined rules, connected appliances can react to certain situations and make smart decisions. These smart automations can take the burden from users and increase efficiency by handling tasks in the background. These systems can also gradually learn about users over time and improve the accuracy of the assumptions they make to better understand user needs.

The Nest learning thermostat is packed with an array of sensors to detect activity, light, humidity, and temperature. With smart algorithms and processing power, Nest builds patterns by tracking every time users in a household manually adjust the temperature. Over time Nest can automatically adjust temperatures to your liking based on your past adjustments and activities at home so you don’t have to control it manually as often. Sensor-enabled automations that are driven by data will allow connected appliances to adapt to a household’s dynamic fluctuations without overburdening users with constant manual input.

03

Turn Data Into Insights

Visualizations in the app interface help Jawbone UP - Visualizations in the app interface help Jawbone UP users correlate how their eating, exercise and sleep affect their mood and energy level.

Most automobile drivers use their cars daily but are slightly intimidated to look under the hood and would not have a clue what to do with the readings that a mechanic is trained to understand. Similarly, sensors in the home may collect a deluge of data, but the raw data alone will rarely be meaningful. The opportunity for data-driven services is to translate data into insights. It is insight that brings understanding and can change behavior. These insights can help users better understand themselves and encourage them to make better choices that may lead to an improved lifestyle. Beyond collecting insights about individuals, the connectivity could allow users to see themselves compared against their friends or a larger community of users. The Jawbone Up wristband and mobile app is a great example of packaging collected data to deliver useful insights to users. Jawbone mobile app visualizes data collected by the wristband into easy-to-understand infographics which helps users discover the connection between the raw numbers and their habits. Over time users can get a better understanding of their daily activities, sleeping patterns, eating habits and see how small things like walking the dog or eating 300 fewer calories for lunch can help users meet their health goals. If such insights can come by way of a small wristband that weighs less than one ounce, we believe smart, connected appliances both large and small have the potential to similarly equip users with information and tools to make better decisions.

04

Design With The Larger Ecosystem In Mind

Real connected appliances should offer deeper insights - like this 1960 ad in Maclean’s, touting the beauty of nickel-chrome plating, adding screens and streaming media to appliances is only a surface treatment.

Ecosystem is sometimes a word used to describe a platform (iOS or Android). But ecosystems are much bigger than a platform or a single person and her devices. It is important to understand how appliances exist within their larger ecosystem — the ecosystem of managing a person’s life, or the ecosystem of managing a household. When a screen is added to an appliance, it risks becoming orphaned — lost among a growing set of other screens. Orphaned screens will not do. This approach, if carried to its natural conclusion, will quickly make interacting with the entire suite of home appliances cumbersome because each will have its own distinct interface. Rather than think of the appliances as stand-alone products, designers need to finds ways to integrate them with the existing digital device ecosystem and leverage the companion screens users already engage. Instead of adding screens take advantage of mobile phones and tablets.

By allowing connected appliances to collect and share data with other appliances through a central service, the size of the system and the scale of insights can expand. Information — such as the average duration of a shower or the average size of laundry loads — could inform the broader system about overall water use or electricity use. A central service makes it possible to give consumers broader insights that can help them adjust their behavior for efficiency and savings.

FitBit Flex - This device is primarily a set of sensors and is therefore the wristband almost completely passive. Flex has few manual inputs or outputs beyond the simplest interactions. User interactions are reserved for smartphone where displays are already generous. Only when synced to a mobile device does the Flex deliver health tracking details and insights.

Appliance manufacturers would do better to look at the success of personal fitness trackers: Nike+, Nike Fuel Band, FitBit, Jawbone UP. None of these wearable products have screens. What they do instead is measure, track and share data with a service. The service is accessible via familiar devices (mostly smartphones). This lets the sensor do what they do best and lets the smartphone do what it does best.

05

Design Companion Experiences With Remote Access

One way to realize and enable the macro ecosystem is through companion devices. The companion experiences enabled by smartphones or tablet devices used in tandem with another device creates new opportunities for monitoring and controlling appliances remotely. No longer tied to the physical locations of the appliance, companion screens give users the gift of flexibility through access and control over their home on the go. Companion screens can display progress of an ongoing task, monitor energy use, initiate an action, or allow remote diagnosis when something goes wrong. There are a few products that are leading the way in adding remote access to the product experience. Nest mobile app allows users to adjust home temperature from users’ laptop, smartphone, or tablet so that they can remotely adjust the climate before they walk in the door. Samsung is working on an a companion app that will allow the user to start and stop the washing/drying cycles remotely which means people can remotely start the drying cycle at a time when the energy costs less. When designing for companion experiences, it is important to thoughtfully examine specific use cases that are relevant to user needs, and plan for intuitive and innovative remote control functionalities.

06

Good Product Experience Comes From Collaboration Between Disciplines

We’ve already established that you can’t slap “smart” onto the face of an appliance on it’s way out of the factory door. The design process should begin in the conception phase and include all design and engineering disciplines. A good product experience is not owned by a single discipline. We believe industrial designers, user experience designers, and engineers need to collaborate early and often in the design process to define the overall product experience. It is wrong to design a product feature set first and then an interaction layer, with cloud add-ons last. Frequent collaboration between disciplines will enable the components to be integrated between software and hardware. The teams need to be in sync with each other in terms of user needs, use cases, usability, form factors, and the engineering realities that affect design solutions. With this type of collaboration smart features won’t feel so much like add-ons, but instead will define the products’ identity.

In order for future, connected home appliances to take off in the consumer market, we need to get past the gimmicks and offer functionality — including ecosystem integration — that is relevant to people’s needs. This means including making its core function smart, not merely adding on a smart layer with over-the-top services. Each home appliance should be viewed as a unique, competent tool that, when connected to a larger ecosystem, is able to deliver more control and more insight into the management of a home that ultimately means more satisfaction and improved lives.

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