In The Smart Home Market, Is Design A Deal-Breaker?

With waves of new products being released, mainstream consumers are weighing up functionality versus design

In a recent article, TechCrunch praised a Berlin start-up’s new product as “one of the sexiest Wi-Fi routers” the writer’d ever seen, as well as its rejection of the perceived earlier trend for shaping routers, in which “designers basically go for the black box with lights on it’ approach and head home.” This focus on design, lifestyle integration, and product appearance has permeated the entire smart home industry, and may be influencing consumers’ decision-making — moreso than function — in this growing market.

In July, home improvement giant Lowe’s commissioned a Smart Home Survey from Harris Poll. After surveying more than 2,000 U.S. adults, the firm found — among other, more detailed assessments represented in an infographic — that 52% felt that “having a ‘smart’ home is at least somewhat important to them,” Entrepreneur reported. Among curious consumers’ top concerns, the survey showed, are the convenience of and interconnected-ness between home management devices.

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If recent market moves are any indicator, smart home companies like Nest are hitting the mark in terms of consumer desires by combining streamlined device design, whole-home management, and simplified controls in their products. As Nest co-founder (and Apple iPod designer) Tony Fadell recently told Fast Company, “We’re not just a beautiful-looking connected device that helps [consumers]. We’re a beautiful-looking connected device that also works with [consumers’] utilities.”

Among its achievements to date, Nest revealed, has been wide-ranging recognition for its products by major figures in the design community. In 2013, the company received its second Red Dot award, a Design and Art Direction (D&AD;) Award nomination, and a Gold International Design Excellence Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America, a prize given in “celebration of design excellence in products, sustainability, interaction design, packaging, strategy, research and concepts.” The sleek thermostat has even found its way in museums: the London Design Museum promoted Nest in its 2012 Designs of the Year exhibit, while New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum will include Nest Learning Thermostats in its permanent collection and its 2014 “Beautiful Users” exhibit.

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Many of Nest’s signature items have been designed, Fortune revealed, by Fred Bould and the team at Bould Design‘s Silicon Valley offices. The firm is quickly establishing its expertise at designing streamlined, subtle devices such as Nest’s famed thermostat and the “simplistic,” egg-shaped health monitor from Lively, which is targeted at senior citizens and “includes wireless sensors that attach to pillboxes and automatically notify relatives when grandma or grandpa forget to take their medication.” As Business Insider reported, Bould has also helped to shape “some of the hottest startups doing hardware,” having designed such self-contained products as the Hero3 GoPro camera and Roku’s web video streaming box.

Bould described some of his thoughts on the nature of design to Core77, including what he views as the design world’s biggest problem:

For design, the biggest misunderstanding comes from where it begins and where it ends. I think that every designer has their own idea of where that continuum lies. For some people, it’s somewhat superficial. For others, it’s very deep and intrinsic.

Bould also told Carnegie Mellon University, his alma mater, that focusing on drawing has helped him “see and understand form,” while studying physics “opened [his] eyes to the wonder and elegance of how things work.” Bringing this dual-minded focus on form and elegant function to the design of Nest’s energy-saving products has seemingly helped promote the company, as well as establish its prominence in the industry. “I get a huge amount of satisfaction in helping companies like Nest reach their goals and potential,” Bould added. “I’ve seen many instances where design has had an extraordinary catalytic effect on a young company’s success. It’s very gratifying.”

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As TechCrunch noted, innovation platform Quirky recently unveiled its plans for Wink, a “platform [which] integrates different smart objects into one ecosystem,” similar to Nest’s “Works With Nest” platform and Apple’s upcoming HomeKit. Quirky has arranged for 15 companies — such as GE, Honeywell, and Phillips — to offer almost 60 Wink-ready products by July of next year, and has kept product design well in mind while developing its strategy for the smart home landscape. Mike Sullivan, GM of Power and Connected Devices at Quirky, explained:

We are a product-driven company and our entire business model is around building products that solve a problem for consumers. We’ve designed our Quirky + GE line to be sleek and stylish – the kind of products you’d want to show off in your home.

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Making these products affordable is also a central concern for Quirky, he noted. Citing a present lack of public information on smart home products, Sullivan pointed out that people often “see the connected home as unaffordable or unattainable,” and that “[Quirky + GE] want to change that perception;” to this end, the companies have rolled out instructional guides and info packets on their products, and “made [their products] to be amongst the lowest cost on the market to encourage people to start digging into the connected home.” He added,

We’ll continue to make design a central theme, but we think of design both as an aesthetic component and a functional one. Our emphasis is on beautiful, efficient products that make your life easier and are cost effective at the same time.

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Yet another major player in the smart home arena is up-and-comer SmartThings. Launched in 2012, the start-up quickly found success on Kickstarter, raising almost five times its $250,000 goal from backers. Its stated mission at the time was “[adding] intelligence to everyday things in your world, so that your life can be more awesome” — a pursuit that has continued to receive resounding support from investors. At the conclusion of Series A funding, SmartThings had over $15 million in investment funding, and was finally acquired by Samsung Electronics in July of 2014.

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As VentureBeat reflected in January of this year, smaller home device start-ups like Birdi – which makes a connected, combination air-quality monitor/CO sensor/smoke detector — will benefit from the success of bigger smart home companies, such as Google’s purchase of Nest; in addition to consolidating larger competitors in the smart home market, the move “also gave the fledgling industry a major stamp of approval.” Kari Ramirez, Communications Manager for eBay (North America), noted that the site’s recently launched Innovators Collective page has gathered together “small startups who are selling next-gen lifestyle goods,” and companies focused on “solving everyday problems for the home.” As a home for many connected products, the page features such products as the WiFi-enabled LIFX Lightbulb and the Learning Thermostat and Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarm from Nest, and offers discounts on certain lifestyle items.

In addition to pointing to our love for feeling secure and getting multiple benefits in sleek packaging, the smart home trend may indicate a deeper tone among consumers, some experts speculate. John Dimatos, Kickstarter’s lead for tech and design projects, pointed out the rise in emotionally targeted devices, such as items which can be described as “remote hugs” — as coined by Tom Igoe — for their ability to catalyze or acknowledge human reactions. He also noted that our desire to link our supportive tech together — and therefore link up ourselves — is part of a greater human trend:

We’re starting to see home connectivity move upward in the “hierarchy of needs” — it starts with things like security and safety, but then it moves up into things like smart cooking scales and smart gardens. And then into connections between people, via their devices, in the background.

Nest, Quirky, GE, SmartThings

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