Smart home user interfaces

Terry has written a blog post that’s given me an idea for one of my own. This is also sort of part 2 of my moaning about smart home stuff that I started on this blog last year.

Smart homes are lovely. I love being able to hit one button to turn off all the lights and appliances when I go out, or go to bed. The future is magic, and so on. It is even occasionally helpful, if extremely dorky, to be able to bark a verbal command at your voice assistant of choice to turn on lights when your hands are full (or covered in whatever you’ve been cooking). All my lights are smart, I have sensors all over the place, and generally speaking the tech gets out of the way.

My dad also has smart home stuff. He has the same smart speakers as me — I bought mine because his sounded good — and also has Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs. But the difference between my house and his is this: all his smart home kit has only one user interface. The almighty orb.1

See, depending on which inventor you believe invented electric light, we’ve been hitting light switches to turn on the lights in rooms for around 100 years. Granted, I personally have not been doing so for that entire time, but nonetheless it’s a pretty well-ingrained habit at this point. I go into a room, I hit a button, lights come on. I leave a room, I hit a button, lights go off. Except… this doesn’t work in my dad’s house.2

In my dad’s house — and in many other ensmartened houses I have been in — the smart bulbs are placed in existing light sockets with existing switches. This is fine, so long as the switch is always kept on, and nobody turns it off. This is less fine when a visitor does the natural thing and switches off the switch on the wall to turn the lights off, not naturally knowing the arcane Byzantine rules by which you run your house’s smart tech.

I like user interfaces I’m already used to. My smart stuff all has physical switches to operate all of it. Sure, it’s nice to be able to make the lights do fancy stuff in response to voice commands, but it’s also really useful to be able to just turn the lights on in a room normally.

I also like things with no user interface. We have a light fixture directly above the front door, which basically only provides light to the front door and very front bit of the hallway. There’s no need for that light to be on all of the time, so a motion sensor (and also a magnetic reed sensor on the front door, because I am a very fancy lady) turns it on only when there is someone there.3 I don’t need to think about that, or remember to turn it off, or intervene in any way. It just happens. It just works. And it’s great when I’m carrying bags of shopping through the door into an empty, otherwise dark flat.

This post isn’t to say my dad’s house is stupid. It’s more to talk about how we have the opportunity to design better interfaces for our homes now that smart home stuff is becoming more ubiquitous. If you are already all in with smart stuff, it’s really easy to add sensors, timers, routines and so on that just make things work a little bit more smoothly and seamlessly. My goal for all the automations in my house is for them to feel so natural, I stop noticing them after a while.

But, as discussed in my last blog post on the subject, my opinion on this is probably derived from the fact that I’m not the average smart home consumer; I want tech that will get out of my way. I don’t experience joy from setting up and tinkering with all the tech in the first place. I just want to be able to turn on the lights — even if I use the switch on the wall.

  1. Other voice assistants and platforms are available. You may have opinions about whether I own the correct ones. I do not care. 

  2. Much to the frustration of his partner. 

  3. I’m sure I’m only saving about 25p worth of electricity per year of not running that single bulb constantly, but hey, that’s enough to buy me a Freddo. 

About Skylar MacDonald

Reluctant technologist. CAD & Technical Lead/nerd at London Ambulance Service. Tech stuff, NHS/999 stuff, occasional Excel witchcraft. Views, regrettably, my own.