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How can the user experience of smart homes be improved?

Experience smart homes in new ways

5 min

A two-year study of test households in Germany with Bosch.IO (formerly Bosch Software Innovations) as a project partner.

The smart home market in 2017

The market for smart homes is more appealing than ever before, thanks to the increasing role of the Internet of Things as well as hardware that is getting smaller and cheaper all the time. There are nevertheless some major barriers to entering this market. Existing system solutions remain technologically complex and only partially address users’ actual needs. How can the user experience of smart homes be improved?

The SmartLive research project tackled this question and successfully identified several hurdles to market penetration. SmartLive is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Researchers examined the suitability of smart home systems for end users and developed potential new solutions, keeping the focus on end users and their needs at all times.

"The spectrum of end customers’ needs is as broad as the market itself. If you don’t understand your target group, then your product will not succeed. So your development process needs to prioritize the user experience."
Corinna Ogonowski, University of Siegen

Use and perception of smart home technologies in everyday life

When it comes to smart homes, different people have different opinions about convenience, comfort, climate, security, safety, and energy management.

Exactly how end customers will ultimately use their smart homes is usually a matter of speculation. Members of the SmartLive research project addressed these considerations and evaluated the everyday suitability and use of smart homes, which looked at test households in the German towns of Siegen and Oldenburg over a period of two years. It became clear that various challenges occur at the different stages of product use.

  • Even before making their purchase, end users feel overwhelmed when trying to find a solution that meets their needs.
  • They also think that there is not enough information online.
  • End users of smart homes also resent the extra time and costs – incurred even before they move in – associated with installation and configuration of hardware and software.
  • For example, the manual pairing of hardware components with a smart home gateway makes the commissioning of said components time-consuming and prone to errors. In addition, people find it complex and difficult to configure rules to meet their specific needs.
  • The more time people spent in the SmartLive homes, the more interested they became in comfort, convenience, safety, and security. Saving energy became a lower priority.
  • Test households also expressed a need for better management of their smart homes – to identify disturbances or monitor conditions, for instance. The term “smart living” and the desire for an all-encompassing solution speaks to insufficient compatibility with other components, systems, and even the entire ecosystem (which includes smart meters and connected cars).

Development in cooperation with users

A focus on users is certainly beneficial when developing new approaches and concepts for smart homes. This emphasizes how users experience technology, instead of the technology itself.

The SmartLive researchers opted to take the living lab approach. This made it possible to bring many different players – the various companies and researchers involved in development as well as other stakeholders – together with end customers. Living labs also facilitate advancement of developments in real-world environments. Furthermore, this approach allows users to participate in various ways during the different phases of the design process.

Living labs ceased long ago to be tools of purely academic research. Consider the peak lab, a design-driven software company, for example: this SmartLive project partner set up its own living lab in Oldenburg. Such infrastructures and methods allow small companies, too, to benefit with regard to long-term product development. What’s more, living labs provide a better understanding of end customers as well as their needs and context of use. And thanks to continuous feedback from users, living labs make it possible to identify early on any drawbacks to concepts and prototypes. As a result, companies can help boost the likelihood of market acceptance long before launching a product or service.

"Our aim is to demolish the barriers between customers and smart homes. Thanks to the living lab, we were able to pinpoint fundamental weaknesses in existing solutions – which in turn helped us develop our shop & play concept."
Jens Läkamp, CEO of the peak lab.

SmartLive validates new approaches for the smart home market

The SmartLive project has given rise to three different approaches that could earn the market for smart homes long-term appeal.

Shop&Play: Select something online. Have it preconfigured. Use immediately.

Providers typically sell end customers system solutions, or preselected packages – such as starter kits with few devices. System users want personalized consulting to help them identify their smart home needs. That is why the peak lab and Bosch.IO created the Shop & Play solution, which advises customers during the selection process. This prioritizes users’ needs and how they will actually use technology – instead of focusing on the technology itself.

Shop & Play customers can customize their smart home and all its rooms to meet their needs and usage scenarios. The subsequent process for placing an order is a white label solution that can be integrated into different ordering systems. In this solution, the customer’s data is immediately saved in a customer relationship management (CRM) system. An order is generated and then sent to production personnel, who configure each system to the customer’s specifications and store its data in the CRM system.

As soon as the customer receives their system and connects to the internet for the first time, the gateway will immediately connect to the CRM system. A list is then sent to the gateway that itemizes all the components ordered by and preconfigured for the customer. The gateway will automatically recognize and permanently connect each device on the list the first time the customer uses it. Once all devices are connected, the CRM system takes all the scenarios that the customer described in their order and transfers them to the device management software in the backend. This software ensures that all applications are installed directly in the gateway and configured per specified parameters. The customer can immediately use their system without any manual effort.

open.DASH: A tailored dashboard system

As digitalization and connectivity take hold, devices are generating more and more data on events in and near private residences. This data can be leveraged for various applications concerning energy efficiency, convenience, and security. Improving transparency – by means of smart visual output, for example – can also make it possible to identify new opportunities for automation.

The challenge of visualization lies in how to create customized solutions that enable customers to obtain all the information they need and discover new use cases. open.DASH allows users to not only select predefined visualization elements, but also create their own visualizations step by step. This modular dashboard system was developed by two SmartLive project partners: the University of Siegen and the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. Customers can use open.DASH with any smart home technology, and use adapters to integrate various sensors and actuators into the system.

Smart homes on smart grids

Intelligent residences call for intelligent electricity distribution grids. A long-term goal foresees private end customers and grid operators alike being able to not only access information on the production and consumption of electricity but also actively manage devices. An important component in this scenario is the control box, which makes it possible to control heat pumps, photovoltaic systems, or electric vehicles. This control box serves as the interface through which smart grids, smart homes, and power grids communicate with each other by means of a smart meter gateway. Using control boxes helps keep distribution grids stable and prevent blackouts. In addition, they represent the first step in direct marketing (functioning as part of a market bonus model). The boxes facilitate the intelligent management of electricity fed in from renewable energy systems. Developing just such a component is the primary research pursuit of devolo, a SmartLive project partner. An interface between the smart grid and the smart home allows developers to create additional smart home offerings, which in turn will help expand this sector and boost customer loyalty.

habitat network – smart home services: Sustainable product development for intelligent residences

habitat network – smart home services is a consortium of companies and research institutes with years of experience in the smart home market. Its members pursue a common goal: actively involving users early on in living labs to develop sustainable smart home solutions that offer intuitive operation and meet the actual needs of users. habitat partners believe that the smart home needs to be transformed into an experience that de-emphasizes technology while spotlighting user experience.

More information

More details on the habitat network.

Get more information on the SmartLive sponsored project.