How to Make a Hot Thermostat App

The increased adoption of smart thermostat promises more convenient and energy efficient homes. Conventional programmable thermostats reduce energy use by 30%. Smart thermostats promise additional savings on energy bills. But that requires users to be able to fully navigate their thermostat and the app that they use to control it in order to take advantage of the additional energy saving features.

1. Location is a key feature.

A big reason users get smart thermostats is to save energy. People want to be able to adjust the temperature based on the weather or to control their thermostat from remote locations. The best way to save energy, however, is to automatically turn off the heater or A/C when people leave the home. As one user writes:

It’s 2019, where is the geofencing? With Nest I had a perimeter of X miles away from my home the Nest would know I was away and raised the thermostat temp so I was not wasting money on the AC.

Though Nest has a geofencing feature, its poor performance is a very common topic among the app store reviews. The feature is also difficult to find as it’s hidden in the app settings, which is usually not part of the natural user journey. Making the geofencing feature prominent and easy to use is key to making sure users get the most out of their thermostat app.

2. Familiar interactions.

Users need to learn how to use their thermostat app so that they can easily make adjustments without having to think about it. The app can minimize that learning curve by adopting interfaces that are already familiar to users.

People have developed some intuition for how to interact with their mobile phones. Apps can leverage that intuition by keeping common features in familiar places and represented with common icons and colors.

Even if a feature looks innovative or seems clever, users won’t enjoy if they don’t know how to use it or feel like they need to follow instructions to figure it out. This app store review is a good illustration of that problem:

Manual shows how to install but not how to use. People not familiar with swiping screen will not find air quality panel.

The best interface is no interface because you don’t need to learn how to use it at all. So don’t include features that are not needed and don’t fill the home screen with features that people rarely need to use.

3. Replicate the physical thermostat.

Modern thermostats were invented over 130 years ago and have carried forward many common interfaces that have become intuitive to users. The app should model familiar UI from the physical world, like the buttons and toggles that people use every day. Don’t introduce a control that users never seen in a home or wouldn’t know how to interact with physically.

The same thing goes for colors and symbols that are commonly understood offline. Everyone knows that red means hot and blue means cool, so that’s not a good opportunity for a bold redesign!

The app should also try to mirror the interface on the physical thermostat as much as possible so that the user doesn’t need to learn two different interfaces for one product. For example, several app store reviews complain that the Ecobee app became more confusing when its design no longer replicated the design of the physical thermostat.

4. Core features on the home screen.

When digitizing controls that people would otherwise easily access on their hallway wall, the app needs to make it very quick for users to access those features. Users need to be able to set the temperature or turn off the thermostat from the home screen. These controls should be the most prominent and the screen can’t be cluttered with less important features. As one App Store review eloquently put it:

Who in the world has two homes in which they need to control the temperature? The latest update forces each user to now add more clicks to get to the main page just to adjust the temperature.

Users are also frustrated when the app loads too slowly. As one user writes: “The app takes FOREVER to open. By forever I mean 15–20 seconds easily.” When your experience competes with a control easily accessible on the wall, any latency will be particularly annoying. So make sure to optimize the speed of your app for a good smart home experience.

5. Self sufficient hardware for core features.

It’s great if you can make it super simple to access the core features in the app. But you should not force users to always use the thermostat app, especially for the basic interactions.

Sometimes a user is standing next to the physical thermostat and doesn’t have their phone handy. Other times users are not able to log in to their app for whatever reason. Imagine staying with friends or family only to discover that the futuristic thermostat on the wall won’t allow you to cool down a sweltering room without being added as an authorized user.

Making the core functionality inaccessible without the app is a sure way to frustrate users to write negative app store reviews and discourage invaluable word of mouth advertising.

6. Avoid jargon.

Thermostat apps tend to have a surprising amount of industry jargon that’s often confusing to users. We’ve seen terms like “setpoints,” “faults/system log,” and “hum auto” be used without much context that could help explain these words. Try to avoid jargon and label features in a way that new users can understand. Here’s some examples:

Setpoint ➡ desired temperature

System log ➡ activity

Dehum ➡ dehumidify

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. They 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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