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Making Sense of Smart Home Integrations

It’s pretty convenient to be able to turn on your lights from your mobile phone before you walk in your front door. But what’s cooler is if your lights turn on automatically when you open your garage door, unlock your front door, or when your smart camera senses motion. Many smart home products only realize their full potential when integrating with other products. Connecting your lights to your camera can turn a simple light bulb into a home security feature that makes it looks like you’re always at home when burglars are around.

More and more integrations are cropping up in smart home apps. Quite a few products integrate with Amazon Alexa — in fact over 60,000. Smart home companies naturally feel the need to offer integrations in their mobile apps to provide more value and justify the extra cost for adding internet connectivity to their device. But which integrations are actually crucial to the experience of a smart home product? And how do you make sure that the integration provides a good user experience?

1. Why do it: users ask for it.

The easiest way to tell that your smart home product would be better with a specific integration is when users consistently ask for it in the app reviews. Here are a few examples from the Google Play Store:

I want to be able to have a Samsung SmartThings light turn on if a Notion door sensor moves. Or turn on an Arlo camera if Notion detects water…
Great service, inexpensive camera. App is a bit slow and clunky, but does the job. Would like to see app improved and Google Assistant integration, then 5th star!
Keeps forgetting my presets and doesn’t connect to Google assistant. That’s the only reason I bought the bulb, so that I could use it with my Google assistant

But don’t blindly follow app reviews. Users who ask for integrations in app reviews are often power users. Their interest in an integration doesn’t necessarily suggest that the integration will be widely adopted by mainstream users. Consider if the other product is sufficiently popular or the use case solves a common need like meaningful home automation or security before investing significantly in a particular integration.

2. Why do it: your product is a sensor.

Many smart home products are, at their core, internet-connected sensors. These products — like cameras, motion detectors, and thermometers–alert the user of changes around the home, often through push notifications from the mobile app.

Sometimes these notifications on their own can be sufficient, like when a camera spots motion in your home and sends you the footage so that you can determine if it’s a cat burglar or just a cat. But for most products, getting a notification that your bedroom is too cold or that it’s raining on your lawn makes users feel like the smart device isn’t actually solving any problems. Those types of devices are particularly good candidates for integrating with other products. With the right integration, you can actually solve those problems by automatically adjusting your home’s temperature or pausing your robotic mower when it’s raining.

3. Why do it: your users have other sensors.

Products that change their environment, like smart lights, can also benefit from integrations. For example, it makes sense to integrate a thermostat or smart light with a connected car or smart lock. Connecting those products, you can accurately tell when a user is heading home to set the temperature or light up the house only when needed and save electricity when no one is at home.

Mobile apps can sometimes get away with leveraging the phone’s built-in sensors–like geofencing capabilities–to power similar use cases. But anyone who’s tried using the Nest’s location-based Home/Away feature will tell you that phone-based geofencing is usually not enough:

Home/away assist does not work reliably. some days it works perfectly, and other days it does not work at all. hours after leaving home, I’ll check the app and realize my AC is running. What’s the point in spending $250 on a smart thermostat if you have to manually adjust it every time you leave? -Google Play Store reviewer

Integrating with other products allows you to provide a truly “smart” experience for your users and encourages them to continue to invest in smart home ecosystem, including buying more of your products.

4. How: focus on a user problem.

Like any product feature, an integration is only valuable when it solves a user problem. The worst integrations are those that start with two companies deciding to partner and only later think about how their users would use a connection between their products. It’s better to start by identifying what problems users have and then think about whether an integration would be the best way to solve those problems.

When integrations don’t solve user problems, users tend to get annoyed because they take up valuable space in the app, like this Google Play Store review suggests:

The light bulbs are great, but the UI on the app needs a lot of work. It’s very clunky and old fashioned, it could use a healthy dose of material design, with a nice side menu to store away some of the integrations . . .

Every integration that doesn’t solve a problem for a given user will end up looking like clutter. Make sure that the integrations you have are valuable, and consider how and when to show them to users. Restaurants with extensive wine selections don’t just list every wine along with the entrées. Similarly, you don’t want to tack on a long list of integrations next to the primary features in your app.

5. How: tell a story.

The worst UX for integrations tells users to connect another brand without telling them what the connection will do for them. An integrations is just like any other feature in your app. If users can’t instantly tell why they should use the feature, they’re unlikely to explore it further. And no, an explanation a few screens into the connection flow won’t cut it.

Instead, an integration should have a concise description that explains how it solves a user problem, ideally with a visual that communicates the use case with minimal text. Mobile users tend to interact with apps without reading, so the more a feature can describe its functionality with pictures or icons the better. 

The importance of telling a story for an integration is the reason products focused entirely on integrations–like IFTTT–ensure their interface provides affordances to describe each use case. On IFTTT, each integration has a card which shows the brands that it connects and a title focused on the use case. The card also has space for an additional description to tell a richer story when necessary.

6. How: in the user journey.

When smart home apps offer integrations, they will usually hide a list of brands in the settings section of the app. That’s not a very discoverable place for features. A better practice is to surface the integration directly in the user journey, the same way a user could expect to discover any other product feature. While not a smart home experience, a good example of this is how Peloton allows users to connect a heart rate monitor right before they are about to start a bike ride.

Placing an integration in a meaningful place in the user journey will also help tell the story about what the integration does. That way, the description of the integration can be short enough that users may actually read it on a mobile screen.

If the integration powers an automation feature that users can set-and-forget, it probably doesn’t make sense to continue to surface the integration in the user flow once enabled. In that case, a good practice is to tell users that they will be able to reconfigure or disconnect the feature in the app settings. Once users know about the feature, the app settings section is a familiar place to rediscover it.

7. How: measure impact + iterate.

Like with any new product feature, integrations need to be introduced gradually to maximize adoption and impact. That means you may not want to launch a ton of integrations at once if you can’t measure their effectiveness and respond to user feedback.

Start with the one or two integrations that are likely to have the biggest impact. They should be common use cases and enough users should have the other product. Figure out the relevant short and long term metrics for success. The relevant short term metric will often be increased engagement in the app and the long term metrics may be increased retention and number of units sold.

Track how users interact with the first integrations, listen to feedback to improve them, and build additional integrations when it makes sense based on data.

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