IOT Home Pt 1 – The Disunited States of Technology

Have you ever tried to make your home “smart”? If so, you’re going to love these next few episodes because the team’s taking a deep dive into the experience of the connected home. We set the stage in Part 1 with interviews from Misty Robotics and Wyzelabs. In Part 2 Rob’s going to walk us thru setup. Then, in Part 3 Aaron’s going to show us how ‘Smart’ devices could be smarter by taking cues from the human brain. In this episode, we’re talking to industry leaders who understand why we feel overwhelmed by the options of IoT. And the answer is political in a way you might not expect.

Is it that my home will be ‘smart’ if I connect it, or is that I need to be ‘smart’ to connect my home?

Ideate on this:

Whether we’re a product manager, a designer, the dictator of a regime, or an elementary school teacher, how do we empower adventurers, makers, creators, and developers to shape the future, without alienating everyone else?

About 5 years ago I was working with a small consultancy, doing UX for various startups, and one of the startups I worked with had a very grand, utopian vision for the future of the connected home, where all the things in your house would be “smart”. So eventually they adopted the name “SmartThings“. And when you’re part of a small startup like that you wear a lot of hats, so one of my responsibilities was to produce a Kickstarter video for the project. I think it still reflects the idealism we feel before we go to Best Buy. But then you’re standing there in the aisle and you have to ask, “Does my ring work with Alexa?” and “Will Alexa work with my nest?” and “Is this switch ZigBee or z-wave?” Why are these consumer electronics so confusing?

We got to speak with a few people in this space, one was my friend Ben Edwards who was one of the founders of SmartThings. SmartThings was eventually purchased by Samsung, and now Ben has moved on to work with Misty Robotics which makes these cool starter kits for people that want to create the Rosie the robots of the future. “One of the first things people are going to do when developing on the Misty platform would be to connect it to their home automation.” Ben says, “I think there are some aspects of the value proposition that we talked about at SmartThings that transfer over into a world of robotics.”

And then there’s the WyzeCam, which is this hyper-affordable, wifi-enabled home monitoring camera that kind of exploded on the market this fall. We had a chance to sit down with Elana Fishman who founded WyzeLabs with four of her colleagues from Amazon. “We started getting interested in the smart home space because we saw it as a way to bring interesting technology that could be really useful to people’s lives. And we saw that a lot of people weren’t having access to that technology for a number of different reasons. So our goal is to democratize technology.”

“Our goal is to democratize technology.”

Ok, so let’s hone in on this phrase for a second, “democratize technology”. Because it’s something you hear a lot in our world. What does that mean to you? If you were to look at the current state of government, you might assume that it means, “to not function well as a whole.” Or you might think of a liberation or a provision of access to the people.

The reality lies somewhere in-between. But the first thing we think of when we think of ‘democratization’ is a government where people have a voice. And there’s a reason why democracy appeals to a lot of people. Even the most benevolent human dictator would be limited by his one narrow perspective which would likely be very different from the perspective of his subjects. So even if he tried to make good decisions for his people, he’d likely misunderstand their real needs.

The truth is, companies vulnerable to the same principle. Product designers can spend years in a vacuum developing a product. But millions of dollars later when they bring the finished product to market, it flops because they overlooked something huge and didn’t understand what people really wanted. One example of this might be the Segway.

So for obvious reasons, and to varying degrees, but especially in technology, most product makers share the same ideals as democratic governments. They admit that they’ll never be “done”, and prefer to put the ideas out there and let people decide the future of these things with their purchase power and feedback. But, just like gov, there are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.

One of the benefits to this is that we all have more options. Today there are actually more connected devices on the internet than there are people. And the only way we could have gotten to this point is by being open. SmartThings was very much about open community, and “share early and often”. And a similar culture drew Ben to Misty. He admits, “Very similar to what we did at SmartThings, we’re saying, ‘we don’t know what people will want to use this for. We’re excited to find out, so we’re going to give you the tools that you need to create the things you find useful in your life.'”

So in part that’s what Elana is talking about when she talks about democratizing technology. She says, “We get great ideas when we go out and ask our users how they use our camera, and what we can do to make it better.”

Of course, you want to put your best foot forward. You don’t want to sell people on doing all your work for you. But what we’ve found is, that there’s a balance. Even the best feature can improve. As an example of this, Elana said that people used the “share” feature of their camera far more than the design team had expected. “It’s pretty common that you might want to share access to your camera with a loved one or a partner,” Elana offered, “but we were getting a lot of feedback that people wanted to share access during certain hours with a babysitter, or someone that was coming in to watch their children. And there are a lot of things like that that we just hadn’t thought of.” So by releasing a product early, their product was able to get feedback and adjust to the real needs of people.

So “the democratization of technology” means we get choices, and we can use those choices to change the future of the industry. We have a voice. That’s cool! But just as with government that choice comes at a price, and in this case, the price is that we have a bunch of ‘iron and clay’ that doesn’t work together. And the burden falls on us as consumers to some extent to figure out how to use this stuff. “It’s still a mess of different radio types and signals. There hasn’t been that shaking out of the industry, where one thing is totally going to win,” Ben said, “And so I think there still needs to be more patience while we try to connect more and more things.”

“I think there still needs to be more patience”

“There’s this promise of what smart home technology can do, and there’s a gap between that promise and the reality for most people,” noted Elana, “And I think people that are super technical love to get features early and play with them. But others just need to buy a baby cam and it just needs to work for them. In my opinion, the worst kind of technology is the kind that almost works but doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, you’re done with it, but if it just fails some of the time, that’s a really tough place to be.”

Ben says the trust factor is super key. “It takes dozens and dozens of times to build the trust, but only one time to completely obliterate the trust that you have in a product like this.” Ben felt that this was contributing the “trough of disillusionment” that IOT and smart homes technology is going through.

When you have one thing that’s meant for many personality types, there’s the potential for everyone to be a little disillusioned. We’d love for everything to just work, but in the meantime, maybe Ben is right about the need for patients. If we consider the transition from cassettes to CDs, it was not an immediate switch. The technology had to be adopted early by people willing to spend premium prices for technology that was less than ideal. As more and more people adopted the technology, tapes were slowly replaced. But the process took over a decade.

“It’s funny,” Ben admitted, “early on we shared a lot of stages at conferences with leaders in this space like Tony Fadell of Nest, and they were saying we were 10 years away from mass adoption of these technologies. And we thought Tony was just being pessimistic, but it turns out he was probably right on. We were a lot farther away than we thought.”

Lessons Learned

So, whether we’re a project manager, a designer, the dictator of a regime, or a school teacher, it turns out we have common challenges. How do we empower the adventurers, creators, and technophiles to shape the future, without alienating everyone that relies on stability? Our interviewees gave us 4 key actionable lessons.

1) Focus on one thing at a time.

“I would say really lean toward the market you’re going for and go all in,” said Ben. “I think we stepped back from that at SmartThings a little bit and didn’t put our full resources into developer relations and the developer community.”

Elana says they have a pretty involved group of beta testers that are very technical and enjoy getting early access to features so that they can help find bugs in the software. “So we’ll release things to that group early, get feedback, and then once we’ve really vetted it we’ll release to the general public.”

2) Don’t be afraid to start small.

There’s a fairly small team at Wyzelabs. “We try to strike a balance between introducing new products and features, and supporting and improving existing ones,” Elana says.

“I often say the best size for a company is somewhere between 15-30,” said Ben. “We grew from time of acquisition from about 70 (employees) to about 250 in a year. That is just way to fast. After the Kickstarter campaign, SmartThings developed a dual gaze. And of course once you’re owned by Samsung, one of the largest consumer electronics companies in the world, I think it did get muddied, and we went away from our target market some.”

3) Have a realistic plan.

“The risk is that it takes time,” says Ben, “and as a venture-backed entity, your investors want return sooner rather than later. That’s the window you put yourself in when you accept venture money. And I think in SmartThings history, in the early stages, we had revenue, but we had much bigger expenses. I think that hurts a company in its early stages because you’re always chasing that next round of financing. If you can build sustainability in from the beginning, you won’t be at the mercy of your investors.”

4) Keep your ear to the ground.

Elana says the most important thing for them is to build a relationship with their customers. “We want to imagine how we would build and price products for our friends,” she says, “We have a very engaged community on all the major social platforms. We have a close relationship between product support and development. We do surveys. We have a beta community. We have a UX person that does studies. We try to hit all the different bases because there are a lot of things that a user might not be able to articulate. Our hope is that we can make products that delight because we can anticipate what our customers will want because we know them so well.”

“It’s funny,” Ben recalls, “I went back recently and took a look at the Kickstarter video you made for SmartThings, and I still think it’s pretty spot on for what they’re moving towards and want to build. We’ve already envisioned many of the scenarios, and they’ll only become more and more possible as these things are being connected. People mock the things that are being connected… refrigerators, blenders, and vacuums.. it is mockable in it’s current state. But once you have a palate of options out there as a maker or integrator, you’re going to start to see the scenarios that haven’t been thought of before.”

So that’s the spirit in which this industry was built. And even though it’s confusing, for now, I think understanding that context can help us be patient like Aaron said. Because really technologists and politicians agree, “democracy can be a little messy sometimes.”

What can we learn from this to make better experiences tomorrow?

  1. Focus on one thing at a time.
  2. Don’t be afraid to start small.
  3. Have a realistic plan.
  4. Keep your ear to the ground.

We’d like to thank Ben and Elana for sharing their insights with us this week, and as always we’re very interested in your insights as well! As a burgeoning podcast, we’d love your feedback. So all this month, leave us a review on iTunes or Google Play and you’ll automatically be entered to win one of two WyzeCams to add to your connected home. Just send us your username so we know who you are, via Twitter dm @ideateTeam, or drop us an email. We look forward to hearing from you!

Hiromi loves creative challenges — anything that involves beautifying, building, making, solving or overcoming obstacles. He's toured in a band, done art installations, produced short films and facilitated maker events. Hiromi currently lives and works in Sacramento, CA with his wife and English Bulldog.

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