Living with Sensors

In the last few weeks we’ve been experimenting with domestic sensors – the first wave of commercial products in the Smart Home area of consumer electronics. As part of our research i’ve been immersed in a world where my plants send me emails and the occasional push notification warns when CO2 levels rise above 1000ppm in our studio (whatever that means).

Plant Sensor
This is my ‘Smart Plant’, the white object that resembles golf club is a wifi connected sensor.

Admittedly it’s been a slightly contrived situation; with half a dozen devices all running in close proximity, and mainly in the office rather than at home. But even having said that there have been some interesting findings and I thought i’d share them here for future reference.

Emerging principles and questions

1. Simplest Setup imaginable

Most of the systems and sensors i’ve played with are designed to make use of your home wifi network, this means that you need to grant them access to your router and give them permission to use your Internet connection. On the surface this seems fairly straightforward but when you have to run through half a dozen steps – including disconnecting and reconnecting to your network, downloading apps and optimal sensor positioning, you quickly see how prohibitive it will be to those less technically competent and patient.

Some of the smarter systems let you pair your devices using QR codes as a shortcut (this is actually a pretty good use of the format), or some other method that doesn’t involve lots of smartphone typing, but the reality is that unless your new system is pre-paired it’s a fairly awkward series of stages to go through. One exception is a system that promises to work straight out of the box; it uses bluetooth and cellular 2G data rather than wifi for it’s connectivity, but even thi solution comes with its own limitations.

Questions for designers: how long does the new systems take to get up and running? Will I need a smart phone to set it up? How much fun is the set up procedure? How technically confident will I need to be to install it?

2. Meet one need

As with many technology driven solutions, there is a desire to pack many features into new products. More features = more functionality, right? Wrong. And doubly wrong in this world of new technology; these new products can be overwhelming enough by themselves, multi-functioning open ended systems are even more complex and require a lot of learning by the user.

We could take a hint from the ‘App’ world here and make sure we are focusing on solving one problem at a time. It seems like there’s a clear analogy here between so called Modern Conveniences or ‘mod cons‘ of the 40s and 50s (the first wave of home technology products), each did one job and it was easy to grasp what the benefits would be — a washing machine washed clothes, a toaster toasted bread — meeting one need at a time is crucial to new users’ understanding and adoption these new systems.

Questions: how would you explain your new system to a 5 year old/85 year old? What current need are you meeting? How many functions does the product have? Is that too many?

3. Give actionable insights

It’s common for these new sensing devices to feedback information about their environment, but very few of them go a step further and suggest what the user should do with the information. One environmental sensor we experimented with was able to show the CO2 levels in the room, not only that, it sent a warning message as the level went past 1000ppm. But what does that mean? Is it high? Is it dangerous? Later it would send another warning message when the level had passed 2000ppm. Was this serious? Should we evacuate?

Turning raw data into useful information is only one part of the process, the crucial step further tells the user that 1000ppm is too high and that opening a window or door might be a good idea. If this is done well the user will learn much more quickly what the new sensor data actually means.

Questions: what should your user do with the data your system provides? How important or serious is this data? How should/could the user respond to this data?

WeMo Sensor kit

4. Fail very gracefully

Most of the sensors out there today are reliant on other technology to function, typically this means joining your home wifi network and often connecting to the internet through it. It’s a certainty that at somepoint these other systems will fail – the question is how the new sensor product handles this failure. These systems must be designed for the imperfect world they will go into, when something goes wrong how much of the full functionality can you still provide? And when things do go wrong don’t bombard the user with error and warning messages. (For a seven days after I removed the sensor, one of my plant pots was still emailing me demanding more water).

It does rasie the question of how error messages could become more ambient; just because i’ve given something the power to send me push notifications doesn’t mean i want to hear from it every hour.

Questions: how much of the system can keep running during a break in connectivity? Does it really need to connect to the internet? When things start to go wrong, how much can the system hide from the user?

5. Manage sensor fatigue

In the coming years we are going to invite dozens of self aware devices into our homes, and they will each have a voice to express their needs, observations and concerns. It’s going to be a hectic place to live if each of these new systems isn’t aware of the current ‘noise’ levels of their new homes. Systems should at least be conscious of this, if not actively able to adjust to better ‘fit in’.

I have an oven at home with an alarm clock that I never got round to programming, occasionally i’ll accidentally nudge into it and then it’ll beep at me. So i turn it off. In a house with 10 things that might all start beeping at me the quietest devices will probably remain switched on for longest. A reversal of the old addage that “the wheel that squeaks loudest gets the oil”.

But there is a counter concern that if these systems do too much by themselves that eventually people will become numb to the things that affect their environments: don’t fiddle with the complex air conditioning system for 5 minutes, just open the window.

Questions for designers: how many other systems will your new one be functioning alongside? How much extra stress do you load onto the user in the management of the new system? How will the new system be welocmed into a household?

6. Smile

Finally, this is a personal plee to keep some of the fun in these new systems. It’s all too easy to celebrate the technology and the amazing data that it can produce, but something that makes me smile will earn it’s place in my home. Apple does this very well, even if it does get carried away with it sometimes.

Questions for designers: is there an opportunity for a bit of fun? Will it make me smile?

I hope some of this might be useful to designers working in this field, there certainly needs to be a dialogue about what we feel is right and wrong in this new world. I’d love to know what people think.