Will Your Smart Home Product Achieve Mass Adoption?
This article was originally posted on Forbes.
Until now, smart home technology has primarily been enjoyed by early adopters. Most mainstream users have not been motivated to add more connectivity to their homes, but I believe that’s about to change.
Last year, the number of U.S. homes with Alexa and Google assistants nearly doubled to 41%. Europeans have been more suspicious about inviting one of the tech giants into their home, but even Europe has seen significant adoption. The average family is trying to figure out what to do with a smart speaker in their kitchen, so they buy a smart light or switch to try out the Jetsons’ life. And so it begins: The race among Amazon, Google and Apple to become the dominant assistant is finally driving mainstream adoption of smart home devices.
The smart home industry now includes all the major consumer-facing hardware companies. Every household brand you can think of has been experimenting with a few connected product lines for a few years and now feel ready to take the plunge.
My company provides smart home experiences optimized for usability based on user research and comparative analysis of existing smart home experiences. Through this experience, I’ve seen firsthand that to be suitable for mass adoption, smart home products need to be useful and usable. That’s the challenge they will face over the next few years. Below is my advice for how leaders in the space can start to overcome those two challenges.
A useful product allows the user to accomplish a desired task. If people can’t see the utility of a smart home product, they won’t try it. For some products, the main utility comes from the underlying devices rather than its connectivity, so users might not want to invest in a smart version of that product.
For example, the main utility of your coffee maker is to brew you a cup of coffee. The fact that you could turn on a connected coffee maker remotely adds little utility, so people might naturally be skeptical of giving it a try until there is a killer use case.
If you’re stuck on how to start, try looking to the many useful smart home devices for inspiration, such as the ability to automatically turn off lights, heating and appliances when leaving one’s home for convenience and to save energy.
Other popular use cases come from cameras, motion detectors and security devices. Connecting monitoring devices to other devices in the home can unlock even more security features, like automatically turning on the lights when an outdoor camera spots a potential intruder to create the appearance of someone being at home. It’s also easy to see the utility of automating tasks that people don’t enjoy, such as vacuuming, mowing and watering plants.
The smart home space is already full of use cases that mainstream users find useful, which means there is a lot of insight new entrepreneurs can gain simply by studying what made other brands successful.
A product’s utility isn’t sufficient. Users also need to be able to figure out how to use the product to derive the value. For a smart home product, the usability of the digital interface is critical. Many devices are controlled with mobile apps, many of which are not particularly user-friendly, and poor usability is frequently reflected in reviews and ratings. My company creates apps for smart home devices, so I’ve learned a few ways to ensure your brand’s product is user-friendly.
First, a product needs to be well-designed for its intended purpose and audience. For example, unlike a social media or gaming app, a smart home app will not be used multiple hours per day. As a result, users will not have an opportunity to learn any new interactions in the app. Smart home apps are mostly set-it-and-forget-it until you want to quickly change the temperature of your thermostat or check when someone last entered your house. Busy users need to instantly be able to figure out how to accomplish a task without poking around in the app.
Your app should also leverage users’ existing knowledge, such as standard iOS and Android features seen in other apps and features that remind users of well-known interactions in the offline world, like simple toggles and sliders. Your app should also anticipate what actions users will want to take most frequently and make those features prominent on the home screen. Hide less common features in logical places in the user journey.
The best smart home experiences balance usability and usefulness by making the smart home product immediately useful without much configuration. This way, users can instantly experience the value of the smart home product before investing much time.
I’ve observed that many smart home products have not struck the right balance between usefulness and usability for mass adoption. That’s because until now, smart home products have mostly been used by early adopters who have influenced how these products evolved over time. Unfortunately, I’ve found that early adopters tend to have very different expectations of usability and usefulness. Early adopters expect products to be useful and will not use them otherwise. They tend to be more tech-savvy, prefer to have more features that cover all their different use cases and can figure out how to use a product even if it’s not instantly intuitive.
Having optimized for these early adopters, most smart home products today are not intuitive enough for mass adoption. Most of their iteration has been about adding more features to satisfy these power users and indiscriminately polluting the app home screen with each new feature to make it well-known at launch.
As smart home products are entering the homes of mainstream users, I believe their success on the market will be determined by whether they are able to rapidly simplify the user experience for mass adoption.