Make your smart home useful, not tiring
September 09, 2022
January 06, 2023
Anyone who has a smart home knows that it can get out of hand quickly. For non-techies, remembering which light switches they’re allowed to use is a mental burden that far outweighs the value of being able to turn something on with your phone. I’ve put a lot of thought into designing my smart home to maximize its value without being a burden.
Without further ado, the three rules are:
- Don’t remove existing functionality
- Don’t teach people how to use your home
- Remote controlled isn’t smart
1. Don’t remove existing functionality
This rule is arguably the most important, because it’s the gatekeeper of burden. No matter how much cool functionality you add to your smart home, someone must always have the option to use it like a dumb home. This creates a sort of “opt-in” to your smart home features, allowing each person to interact with it as much as they want to.
Removing existing functionality can take many forms, but by far the most common revolves around lighting. Adding a smart bulb to a lamp is a great first step for a smart home, but many quickly realize that it presents a usability challenge as well.
If you want the lamp to run on a schedule, you can no longer turn it on or off using the switch. “No big deal!” you think initially, and happily whip out your phone to turn off the lamp. Eventually you start to realize that having a cell phone, with a specific app, logged in with a specific user simply doesn’t work as the only way to turn on a lamp.
What if someone stays the night at your place? Do you let them interact with the lamp how they normally would and just fix it after they leave? What if they turn the lamp on normally but then the schedule happens to turn it off 5 minutes later? There are lots of edge cases here, and they all result from removing the existing functionality of simply using the switch.
You may also choose to tell your guest about your smart home, maybe even share permissions with them so they can use their phone to turn the lamp on and off — but now you’ve broken rule number 2. That’s why I say rule number 1 is the most important. Follow it and you’ll find it much easier to follow the others as well.
2. Don’t teach people how to use your home
At the start of this article I mentioned maximizing value and reducing burden. The truth is, rules 1 and 2 are both focused on reducing burden. When it comes to your home, there is a fixed amount of burden that your fellow dwellers will accept. It may seem like adding more value will increase that willingness to deal with annoyance, but it usually doesn’t. Value is invisible in a well-functioning smart home, but burden is always visible.
Rule 2 is critical for reducing burden. As soon as you have to start teaching a family member or friend how to simply be in your house, you’re pointing out to them how this “smart home” is more work than a regular home. “I thought this was supposed to make things more convenient!”
Although rule 2 violations often come from rule 1 violations, they can also come from enhanced capabilities in your smart home. Here’s a couple examples:
"The garage light turns off 5 minutes after the door closes, so just remember to leave the door cracked if you're going to be out there longer than that."
"The basement lights turn off after 10 periods of no motion, so if they turn off just wave in front of one of the motion sensors."
"These lights have smart bulbs in them, so I put a cover over the switch but you can use your voice to turn them on and off."
Any of those sound familiar? Each instruction may feel small on its own, but it only takes a few before someone feels like they have to remember the quirks of each room in your home.
3. Remote controlled isn’t smart
Rule 3 is where the fun begins. This is where you can let your imagination go wild and really focus on maximizing value. Remote controlled smart homes are cool at first, but eventually you’ll grow tired of speaking to a voice assistant or reaching for a specific device — whether it’s a phone or stationary screen of some sort — to interact with your home.
Value skyrockets when your home starts to anticipate your needs and act on your behalf. Schedules are a great entry point to automation because the logic is easy to think through. If you consistenly get home from work around 5, you can set your thermostat to heat/cool your home at 4:30. Great! Now your home is a comfortable temperature when you walk through the door, and you didn’t have to remember to set the temp before you started your commute.
To take it to the next level, start thinking about what actions you already take consistently that you could trigger an automation from. For example, turning the basement lights on when motion is detected on the stairs. You don’t even have to automate the “off” for that to be valuable. If you turn on the lights every time you go down the stairs, then that’s one less action you have to take.
If you’re looking for inspiration, I’ll be sharing many of my favorite automations on this blog, so stay tuned!
Exceptions to the rules
Okay okay, they do say rules are meant to be broken. There will of course be some exceptions to these rules, and you have to weigh the burden and the value. For example, I still haven’t found a solution to smart bulbs in a lamp that lets us freely use the switch like a normal lamp. But we love our “circadian lighting” setup and find that the burden of using our phones to control them is worth the value we get. I don’t make these decisions lightly and generally limit my burden-adding use cases to 1 or 2 to prevent them from adding up.
It can be hard to find the right triggers for automation, so my advice when you’re stuck between multiple options is to simply pick one, live with it, and see how it goes! In a future blog post I’ll cover how I use gome-assistant and why I chose it over other options such as Node Red or built-in Home Assistant automations.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on my 3 rules, and if you will apply any of them to your own smart home.