7 Tips for Better Smart Light Apps

Smart lights are getting shockingly inexpensive. Last month, the price of a WiFi enabled light bulb dropped as low as $8. As a result, more homes can afford internet connected lights.

But even at $8, smart lights need to provide a better user experience than a traditional bulb and switch in order to convert one-time buyers into repeat customers. As more mainstream users can afford connected lights, the apps that were previously mostly used by persistent early adopters will now be put to the test by the masses. For all consumers, the experience with a smart light starts with a mobile app. Unfortunately, for many, that’s also where it ends.

We’ve identified a few simple things most smart light apps can do better.

1. Familiar interfaces.

Smart light users need to learn how to control their lights with an app. Some part of that learning curve is inevitable, like figuring out how to pick a color that will actually look pleasant in their living room (hint: it’s not bright green). To make sure users don’t get frustrated and give up, an app can minimize the learning curve by adopting interfaces that are already familiar.

One way to leverage what users already know is to model the UI on the physical world, like the light switches that people use every day. Simple on/off switches represented as toggles and dimmers will do the trick. But beware of physical dimmers and switches that people don’t know how to use offline, either. In other words, stick to conventional interfaces that users intuitively know how to control.

In addition to physical analogies, users have developed intuition for how to interact with their mobile devices. Apps can leverage that intuition by keeping common features in familiar places and represented with common icons and labels. That said, the best interface is no interface, so don’t include features that are not needed and don’t fill the home screen with features that users rarely need to use.

It can be difficult to pinpoint unfamiliar features as the cause of user frustration. Yet some of the reviews for apps on this list say that “[the] interface is ridiculous,” “just plain weird,” “not intuitive at all,” and “has the flow, look and feel of an app that was designed by geek engineers.” These are clear calls for a more familiar UI.

2. First interaction.

It needs to be super clear how to set up a light the moment a user opens the app. If a bridge is needed, it also should be easy to set up. As one App Store review eloquently put it:

One would think that the first thing a new user would want to do is set up their new lights, right? You’d expect a “Welcome! Let’s guide you through setup.” Nope. Just a bunch of integrations and a suggestion to, “Buy more lights!” Really? You guys should be embarrassed by this app. Try again please, with a designer this time.

Once a user has set up the first light, make it easy to explore the rest of the app and have some fun! Don’t keep users stuck in a configuration wizard longer than they need to be. Once they have been able to control their first light from your app, that excitement will be the best motivation to install more lights around their home.

3. Default scenes.

After setting up a light, a user should be able to start using the app without any configuration. For example, one Philips Hue user was delighted to find that the app was “instantly usable with the four basic scene colors.” Other light apps require users to go through complicated configuration before they can start using scenes, which is reflected in unhappy reviews. Users need a way to experience the benefit of a feature before they spend time on configuration.

Default scenes will also allow you to guide the user to making good choices and show off your lights in the best way possible. You know better than a novice user what temperature is best for reading and how to combine different colors into a pleasant scene.

4. Easily accessible switch.

The home screen of the app needs to make it really easy to dim and turn on/off the lights. These controls should be the most prominent and the screen can’t be cluttered with less important features. People are used to being able to walk over to the physical light switch in the room and easily turn on or dim the lights. No one wants to solve an interface puzzle before going to bed or when their voice assistant accidentally puts their lights in party mode. Keep the basic actions easy and accessible.

5. Group lights by spaces.

Several App Store reviews praise apps that have added support for controlling multiple lights as a group. Users often complain when this feature is missing. For users who have multiple connected lights in a room or a larger area, it is helpful to be able to control all those lights in one interaction.

One thing to stay away from are long lists of room types that users can pick from. If you want to offer users some alternatives, pick a smaller number of common rooms like “living room” or “bedroom” and allow users to create their own labels for extra flexibility. Alternatively, the commonly used room types can be presented as auto-complete options. That way you don’t need to take up valuable screen space with an exhaustive list that is difficult to understand. This is a good feature to iterate on over time based on usage data that may show unique patterns or behaviors specific to your user base.

6. Separate color temperature.

Colored lights are a lot of fun, particularly at dance parties. But few users take advantage of the full color spectrum on a daily basis. Some of the better apps on our list will therefore allow users to either use a full color picker or only adjust the temperature of the light. The color temperature is a one-dimensional range from cool to warm, so using the same interface as the color picker (usually a full circle) is often confusing.

7. Actionable error messages.

Error messages can be a helpful tool when a user needs help. But they also signal to the user that something in the app isn’t working. To avoid making the app feel broken, messages should only be used when they are really actionable. As one App Store review writes:

This app was clearly built by engineers with no human-centered designer involved. The error messages are cryptic and the opposite of helpful.

To avoid this, messages should always clearly state what’s wrong and the action the user needs to take (e.g. “please check your internet connection”). If the action doesn’t technically require the users’ participation (e.g. “try again”), it often makes sense to retry on behalf of the user rather than overloading them with error messages.

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