What users do is, sometimes, what they want

Smart home technology adoption and adaption

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

(Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll)

There are two kinds of technology users in the world: those who try to get exactly what they want from it, as a means to an end, to serve what they perceive to be a good and beneficial usage, and there are those who don’t. Only sometimes it seems to be that both kinds dwell inside the same user and in the same mode of usage. Smart home users make a good example for this.

For it is always an issue with the sort of technology that eventually becomes an integral part of our daily life routine, one with which we do whatever it is we do: should it specifically do what the user means for it to do or should it offer him one or many different new ways to do things? But when a technology of habit so to speak, enters into probably the most habitual place of them all, our home, “‘which is to be master” becomes more of an issue than ever.

To begin with, it would probably be very unwise of smart home providers to somewhat overlook, let alone not to take under any consideration at all, their potential user’s habits and preferences. We all are, in a sense, creatures of an accumulated set of small domestic habits and gestures, so assuming to know what is best for the Smart Home users or what will become their new habit of choice is bound to antagonize at least some of them. A well devised approach for being accepted into ones intimacy of a home could start with the famous phrase: “first do no harm”. A smart home system can and should offer new ways of doing things around the house, ways which will become new habits in time, but ought to do so without aiming to replace altogether the original usage patterns but rather by gradually adding new exciting possibilities to them while allowing the user to choose, pick and alter.

So what do users do when presented with a Smart Home system enabling them to control several basic functions of their houses? Based on anonymous usage data collected from a set of random houses in which Mindolife’s Smart Home System is installed, the following chart was created:

It depicts the amounts of the two main ways of changing the “state” for a couple of end devices, compared to each other: remotely from the app or physically. What catches the eye at first is the difference between end devices that changes their state on their own (such as sensors) and those who are changed manually either physically or remotely (such as light switches and shutters).

But when comparing the physical change of state to changing it remotely is where we see something quite interesting about users and their behavior and habits. When it comes to using the shutter for instance users usually use them as before – closing and opening them from the physical switch even though they also use them remotely. And the same goes with the Boiler (water heating system) where users do not switch entirely to operating it from afar, even though they can: old habits are hard to change, and why should they at all?

When it comes to the lights a surprising thing is to be noticed: a near draw between switching lights from the physical switch to remotely switching them. And the question is how come that the most habitual action of them all around the house – that of switching on and off the lights in a room upon being present in it – is done almost half the times from the app?

Well, one explanation could be that users have automated their lights to the extent where every light switching – from the physical switch – is now connected to another light switching operation which the user saw fit to form a connection between the two. Another explanation could be that the users just finds it plausible enough and even to be a great usage experience to switch lights on and off around the place from their smartphone app.

At any rate, this comes to show that having control over one of the main features the ordinary house provides – be it as trivial as the lighting, or even because it is trivial – is very important to the users. That being said, we should now look on the other side of the matter and ask ourselves like Alice did: smart home system can be used in so many different ways and offer benefits that could – when applied – be endorsed by many who are still bound by their “not good as could be” habits. Maybe the user doesn’t know yet which features he might get and therefore cannot imagine his new potential needs?

One reasonable way of opening new ways for doing things and benefiting from the wide range of possibilities a smart home system can provide to the user, would be to provide a set of ready-made features that can be personalized for the user to choose from and alter getting the “smartness” as effortlessly as possible. Lights out scheme that the user can set the times and the lights participating in, different modes of operation such as “Power saving”, “Vacation”, “Away from home” and so on.

There is no bottom line here, no right or wrong approach. Any smart home system which will do “too much” or to “too less” will not be accepted by users. For it would seem very logical to have both Alice and Humpty Dumpty to be on the winning side of the argument by understanding that the question is how to make a Smart Home System that can do many new different things while still doing exactly what the user wants from it to do for him, probably more, but not less. Never assuming to have mastered what the users actually want or need.

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