Bettina Streit


The way to a smart home

In the meantime, an almost unmanageable number of providers of smart home technology are active in the market, which is currently worth around 20 billion. After all, every seventh person in Germany is supposedly using smart home applications. The market is growing by 17% annually. But one in four find it too complicated to use, even people who do not use smart home technology themselves. Reason enough for us to take a closer look at the user experience in the smart home.

The fact that this topic cannot be limited to smart home apps alone, but must be viewed more holistically becomes clear when providers of smart home technology advertise use cases such as "switching lights on and off via smart phone".

To turn on a light, the user would first have to unlock the lock screen, search for the app, open it, find the lamp he wants to turn on, and turn it on. Much more complicated than simply turning on a light switch.

Wow. Up to 6 steps until the light is on.

To bring light into the dark and reliably uncover optimization potential for the user experience in the smart home, we decided to use the Rapid Contextual Design (RCD) process.

Where does the shoe pinch for residents of smart and less smart homes? Is it really the light switch?

2015: Smart is when the configuration is simple!

We conducted qualitative contextual interviews at the users' homes - some with owners of smart homes in their fullest sense, some with residents who have solved certain problems with isolated solutions and others who have no smart home technology at all. After structuring the statements in an affinity diagram, we found some common assumptions confirmed. But others surprised us as well.

  • The respondents consistently attach great importance to an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable. Light, temperature, air quality and music are the most important parameters besides security.
  • Among the classic topics of comfort, security and energy saving, the topic of comfort has emerged as the most important one, while security is viewed very differently, mainly due to the living situation. Energy saving is a topic where residents of existing properties did not see any possibilities for optimization without major renovation measures, which is why the monitoring of consumption data, which is often offered, is also felt to be superfluous.
  • Surprisingly, automation is viewed very sceptically: Reasons are that current solutions do not work properly. People are afraid of losing control. And there are activities that you don't want to let go, because you enjoy doing them.
  • It also became clear that the control of lighting, blinds, ventilation and the like should be as direct as possible: This means that it should not only be possible to control the blinds via the in-house display somewhere in the hallway, but also via a push button right next to the window and thus have a clear local reference. And the circuit must function without delay.
  • Residents who already have smart home technology that allows flexible linking of switches and sensors have described the configuration as extremely cumbersome. Therefore, the settings were only made once and never changed later. And this despite great dissatisfaction with the current configuration. One preferred to come to terms with the status quo.
  • Furthermore, it is a great challenge for users to think up meaningful automation rules that actually prove themselves in everyday life. Only a small part of our lives takes place on a completely regular basis and is therefore difficult to map in scenarios that are valid without exception. This makes it all the more annoying when you are sitting on the terrace in the evening and the blinds are lowered as dusk falls and you can't get back into the house <lol>.

Therefore, we see the greatest potential for optimization - based on the current state of the art - in the configuration of switches and automation rules.

Example of our Tablet User Interface, which makes creating automation rules very easy.

What is possible in the future?

But even if the configuration is simplified in the way described above, the question arises whether this is a really big leap in terms of comfort.

That is why we have gone one step further and have explored further possibilities through so-called "visioning", which promise even more comfort in the future. As a benchmark for technical feasibility, we have set ourselves the year 2025.

The solutions we have found in this process are not completely new. But they have been developed exclusively on the basis of real user requirements, which ensures that there is an actual need for them.

2025: Only self-learning is really smart!

The idea with the most potential - as we find - is a self-learning system that creates automation rules itself. It must be able to predict recurring user actions (e.g. raising the roller shutter) in connection with a certain situation and execute the action automatically.

This would be a real comfort gain and solves most of the problems in the area of control. Situations can be composed of parameters such as brightness, time of day, day of the week, presence, movement, possibly temperature, season of the year, human vegetative signals and much more. The set of rules could be incomparably more complex and thus be able to describe the diversity of human life. Of course, it requires a certain willingness of the user to trust the system and to support it in learning.

Also in this scenario, we believe that the light switch will continue to be necessary, even if its meaning changes. On the one hand it can always happen that a resident suddenly has a different need than the system predicts. And he must always have the possibility to intervene in order not to feel disempowered. On the other hand, the light switch becomes a medium of communication with the self-learning system. The user communicates his needs via this.

Example of a storyboard of a bedroom scenario and the values that are recorded there via sensors on different days. The basis for self-learning systems.

Bettina & Josef

More about the topic:

Bettina Streit

Managing Director & Usability Engineer


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