Navigant Research Blog

Are Smart Devices Too Smart for Their Own Good?

— February 22, 2018

There is so much promise around how smart devices will make our lives more comfortable, convenient, efficient, and automated. These devices are supposed to learn from our lifestyle patterns, analyze this information in real-time, and perform tasks seamlessly in the background, without it even occurring to the user that all of this smart stuff is happening. I have bought into this promise, having adopted several digital assistant-enabled devices and connected products, because I can see a future when all of this tech comes together to create truly smart homes. And I’m not the only one—these futuristic ideas about tech seamlessly, automatically operating in the background of our lives can be seen in popular media like Black Mirror and Her. This future is imaginable, lingering on the horizon.

The Problem with “Smarts”

However, we are still at the precipice of the technology revolution supporting the future scenarios as seen in pop culture. Don’t get me wrong, technologies emerging today really are smart, and are already making our lives significantly better. But at this time, many these devices are not actually delivering on their promise, and they don’t work that well in our everyday lives. For example, my colleague, who is also an early adopter of smart technology, has been having issues with his ecobee3 lite. His smart thermostat has started preheating at such early hours of the morning that he wakes up before his alarm clock, sweating. ecobee customer support has suggested that the problem may be because he likes to sleep cold, at 60°F, and wake up warm, at 70°F, and that the large variance in setpoint means the thermostat must kick on the heating system well in advance to make up the difference in temperature by the time my colleague is awake. The issue makes sense logically, but ultimately my colleague shouldn’t have to compromise on his desired temperatures. A smart thermostat should be smart enough to figure it out. And his Nest isn’t any better—when the cooling season comes around, his Nest sends him alerts that it is unable to activate his cooling system, when his home doesn’t even have a cooling system. I’ve heard countless stories of people tearing smart thermostats out of the wall to replace them with programmable thermostats, never opening the digital assistant device they got for Christmas because they don’t really know what smart things it can do, and returning smart plugs for plugs with a simple timer.

As a consumer, these examples have put doubts in my mind about how smart these products really are. As a research analyst, when I attend shows like CES where some of the most impressive and innovative products are on display, it makes me skeptical about how these devices will actually perform in the home. These devices are peddled to consumers as seamless, automatic, and easy to use, but sometimes it seems we are spending more time managing them than they are managing our lives. Perhaps these devices are too smart for their own good, and consumers are not ready for how advanced these products can be—we just want the old, dumb devices that we know will work. The learning curve for smart technology is steep and we are still in an early stage of piloting and innovation, but as these technologies reach the hands of mainstream consumers, vendors need to ensure that their smart products are delivering on their promises of being smart.

 

Alexa’s Super Bowl Pick Demonstrates Advances in UX

— February 1, 2018

Over the past week, the internet has been captivated by Alexa’s pick for the Eagles to win Super Bowl LII, with tweets, videos, and articles featuring Alexa’s latest mantra: “I’m flying with the Eagles with this one because of their relentless defense and the momentum they’ve been riding off their underdog status. E-A-G-L-E-S. Eagles.”

Though most will look at this latest Alexa craze with a small chuckle and admire the assistant’s cleverness (or, if a Patriots fan, seething and swearing off Alexa), to me this response demonstrates a small step forward in user experience (UX) that has been lacking in digital assistants.

What Is UX?

UX is an increasingly popular acronym floating around the tech industry (not to be confused with user interface [UI]), and it captures a field targeted at improving the usability, ease of use, and pleasure provided in interactions between consumers and products. In the world of digital assistants, UX is about the smarts of a digital assistant and its ability to complete tasks asked of it in a satisfactory way to users.

Some would argue that, while there have been significant strides in voice activation as a UI, one of the biggest obstacles to the mass adoption of digital assistants is lacking UX. For anybody who has used a digital assistant, this is completely understandable. There is nothing more frustrating than asking Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, or any other the other various digital assistants a simple question, only to have it not understand or reference something entirely unrelated. This type of mishap is frequent enough that it has even resulted in satire about the experience with digital assistants. One such example is a CollegeHumor clip where a woman asks, “Siri, how big is the Serengeti?” and Siri responds, “No problem. Show me pictures of spaghetti.”

Personality Is a Plus

While Alexa rooting for the Eagles isn’t exactly a groundbreaking advancement in the field of artificial intelligence and natural language processing, the fact that users are fascinated with this phenomenon and think Alexa has a sense of humor creates a more positive UX with digital assistants, and can help spur adoption of these devices. Personally, the fact that I get a clever response from Alexa on who will win the Super Bowl, while my Google Assistant says, “My apologies. I don’t know that,” gives Alexa a leg up on Google because taking a side is more personable than saying nothing at all. It’s a small gesture on Amazon’s part that makes a big difference in my experience as a user. As it so happens, I also agree with Alexa. Go Eagles!

 

Even My Grandma Has a Smart Home!

— January 25, 2018

There are all kinds of barriers to smart home adoption. People ask me all the time, “what do you use your Alexa for?” Unconvinced by existing value propositions, many consumers figure they need not bother with smart technology.

Smart Home Imperfections

Admittedly, for all the promise about how smart these products are and how they will change our lives, often they are not that smart and they fail to meet expectations. The countless times I have asked my Echo device a simple question, only to have Alexa respond with “Sorry, I don’t know that,” drives even the earliest of adopters to the brink. And that’s not even going into the issues surrounding installation, troubleshooting, interoperability, and cost. It makes many wonder, why all the fuss?

Smart Features Offer Ease

Despite all the reasons people find not to adopt smart home products, I have found a convincing case for even the biggest skeptic. I recently discovered my grandma has a smart home.

My grandma is no early tech adopter—she is 80 and her favorite hobby is quilting—and yet, she has a Google Home, a Nest Cam, three Philips Hue light bulbs, several ConnectSense smart outlets, and an iPad or iPhone to control them all, which is a more robust smart home ecosystem compared to what most people have—including me. Every evening when it starts to get dark, she uses her smartphone to turn on lamps, instead of having to bend over and switch them on. When she retires for the evening, she asks Google Assistant to turn her Hue bulbs on, instead of having to fumble around in the dark for a light switch. She doesn’t even notice the Nest Cam perched on her mantel, but it gives my family members piece of mind as they can check on her using their smartphones from wherever they are.

Gifting Smart Tech

There are, of course, a few caveats. My grandma hasn’t purchased any of these products herself. They have all been gifts from family members, which is important for vendors to keep in mind when targeting consumers. When a device malfunctions, she calls upon her children and grandchildren for troubleshooting, which usually involves walking her through an app over the phone or simply restarting a device. Though this works most of the time, smart home tech vendors need to provide maintenance and support to consumers.

My grandma also hasn’t installed any of these devices herself, though they have been plug-and-play enough for younger generations in the family, and many companies are increasingly offering installation services. To top it off, her smart plugs are integrated with Apple HomeKit, but they aren’t integrated with Google Assistant, meaning she can’t control them through voice activation—which highlights a common interoperability problem for most consumers.

If Grandma Can Do It, Anybody Can

While the smart home market has its challenges, there are emerging use cases that are convincing more consumers to embrace the technology. Smart home tech should not be used only by early adopters and younger generations, it should be used by everyone. If my grandma can use smart home products and services, then anyone can, and there is hope for the smart home market yet.

 

CES 2018: The Year of Behind-the-Scenes Innovation

— January 23, 2018

A year ago at CES, the event belonged to Amazon’s Alexa, with vendors touting Alexa integrations and displaying Echo devices prominently at their respective booths. At CES 2018, however, a single showstopper failed to materialize—unless one includes the power outage at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which was the biggest surprise (and I was there). In lieu of one standout product, I noted several key trends, including the ever-popular artificial intelligence (AI), a growing number of home healthcare offerings, an aggressive push from Google, and an expanding presence of French startups.

Everybody Is Doing AI

This year, much of the innovation is taking place in the backend software of smart products: the AI world. Nearly every company I spoke with flaunted the use of deep learning and AI. While the term AI was used loosely to describe algorithms and machine learning, this behind-the-scenes technology is progressing, which enables more advanced functionality for smart products. There are new and better algorithms, such as those used in Philips’ Hue Sync, which enables multiple connected lights to respond in sync to movies, video games, and music in real time. Advancements in machine learning are enabling digital assistants to recognize the voices of individual people and understand conversational context.

Home Healthcare Edges its Way into the Spotlight

Home healthcare continues to edge its way into more connected products, and this was underscored as I made my way around the crowded show floors. Offerings varied from elderly care solutions, to products for promoting better sleep, to services for people to better connect with their doctors. While propositions such as security, energy, and convenience are largely driving smart home adoption, healthcare solutions can provide enhanced value on a more personal or familial level. Health-focused products can help users better track their own health or the health of loved ones, and can help prevent unexpected illnesses and diseases.

Google Starts Taking CES and the Smart Home Seriously

Google’s presence was everywhere at CES 2018. The search giant’s messaging took over the Monorail, the Aria hotel’s display featured “Hey, Google” ads, and a giant Google gumball-style machine dispensed Homes and Minis to lucky CES attendees. Amazon took a lighter approach by booking ballrooms dedicated to business meetings with various Amazon business groups, including Alexa. This increased presence not only shows that these two companies are taking their engagement in the smart home market more seriously, but it also highlights the absence of Apple. Apple is being left behind in the smart home space, especially with the delay of its HomePod speaker and a continuous lack of traction with HomeKit.

The French Are Innovating

France’s efforts to become the startup capital of Europe were made obvious at CES by the sheer number of French startups present during CES 2018. From companies demonstrating software for making bathroom mirrors smart to Li-Fi-based IoT platform providers, the French are innovating and becoming a hotbed of opportunity for stakeholders across smart industries.

A World in Transition

Though CES 2018 did not have one major theme like that of past shows, the trends I observed fell in line with the progression of digitization that Navigant Research is seeing. Companies are transitioning from deploying hardware devices to enhancing their existing solutions through data and backend software. Large tech incumbents are recognizing the power of the smart home and investing heavily. New value propositions for this tech are emerging and providing more convincing use cases for consumers; new markets are growing from this opportunity. To learn more about these trends, see Navigant Research’s white paper on IoT and the Future of Networked Energy.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Digital Utility Strategies, Electric Vehicles, Energy Technologies, Finance & Investing, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Program, Transportation Efficiencies, Utility Transformations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Paige Leuschner","path":"\/author\/paigeleuschner?page=2","date":"5\/24\/2018"}