An open letter to my "Smart" home

This post was originally published on the Bresslergroup Blog.

We need to talk. You may have noticed I’ve been a bit … distracted lately. It’s been ages since we upgraded firmware, or got lost down a troubleshooting rabbit hole together. I saw the email you sent about your updated privacy policy, and — to be completely honest — I never actually took the time to read it.

I know, I’ve changed. You have, too — but I’m afraid we’re growing in opposite directions. I don’t think I’ll ever really understand you. And you just don’t seem capable of picking up on — much less meeting — my fundamental needs.

I’ve come to realize that we see things differently, you and I. The way I see it, a home is more than just a collection of rooms and zones clustered around a centrally located router. It’s a place to build a life and a family. A place of respite where a man can set aside the stress and strife of the world, and rejuvenate his spirit with the love and companionship of the family he’s built.

A man’s home should serve his purpose; a smart home even more so.

But goddammit, you are completely shitting the bed.

The Honeymoon Period Is Over

For nearly 40 years, up until about three and a half years ago when our first son was born (The Before Time), I bobbed about in a vast sea of choice and leisure. A domain governed primarily by my own personal preferences, whims. and fleeting interests. Boredom was a type of experience one could have, and hobbies were activities specifically designed to avoid it.

I’ve always enjoyed a compelling challenge. I’ve spent weeks building and painting WWII aircraft models. I’ve built drones. I’ve replaced sinks and installed bathtubs. I designed, built, and continue to maintain an elaborate garden railway system in our backyard — despite having no particular interest in trains, and under the pretext that it was “for my son.” Figuring things out and overcoming the inevitable obstacles has always been a big part of the fun for me.

So it was with you at first, my elusive temptress.

You made vague promises; allowing me to believe that with enough tinkering, I could achieve anything I desired. And we had our moments. That first Hue Lightstrip I set up in the new nursery seemed great; a tentative first step that seemed to justify further investment.

Hue lights can help create a fun atmosphere, set the stage for bedtime, or offer minimal visibility without waking the wee ones.

Hue lights can help create a fun atmosphere, set the stage for bedtime, or offer minimal visibility without waking the wee ones.

I began to encounter your limitations and flaws one at a time, accepting each as I altered my plan or found a workaround. I showcased my cleverness even as I concealed your flaws and excused away your limitations. I was in too deep to do anything else.

I diversified and expanded. I added Sonos Speakers. Nest Cameras and Nest Protects. Harmony Remotes. We cut the cord and went all Apple TV. Things took a while to get set up correctly. Often what I hoped to do wasn’t possible but I forged on, thinking that if only I could get things configured just right, I’d reap the rewards of my initial effort in perpetuity.

I soon learned that heartache and frustration would be my only rewards.

My family grew, my kids grew, my Smart Home grew. My free time shrank to nearly zero. (To put it in terms you’d understand: I added several peripheral accessories that require nearly all of my bandwidth and processing power. My firmware was updated to a version that allocates most of my resources to these new peripherals’ proper configuration and debugging. Also, my privacy policy was updated.)

That’s when I started to really notice how nothing ever seems to just work when you need it to.

I realized how needy you are.

You Weren’t Designed for This

I also started to notice how being a parent of small children fundamentally changed my relationship with you, my Smart Home, and your products. Things that seem trivial to a non-parent are potential disasters to a parent of young kids.

When an infant or toddler needs attention, he needs all the attention. When he wants something, he wants it now. He doesn’t have time or patience for delays, fumbling, firmware updates, signing in, password recovery, 2-step authentication, or tours of your latest features. 

Last week I turned away for thirty seconds to fish out my phone and skip a terrible song that had popped up on the speaker, and the pause nearly sparked a tantrum. The other weekend I was trying desperately to play white noise to soothe my wailing infant. I was frozen like a deer in headlights, not able to find what I needed, and my kid was inconsolable.

At Bresslergroup, we often design medical devices and other products to be used in demanding environments where stress, noise, and chaos can make it difficult to think clearly. My home is now a similar environment, and it’s clear that you weren’t designed for this.

I once read that caring for young kids is essentially a temporary disability, and as someone who’s had two of them, I concur. The physical and cognitive effort required to care for an infant and toddler can severely hamper “normal product use.” It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, and a source of both expanding empathy and irritation.

My oldest was frightened when our Nest Protect smoke alarm announced “Smoke has been detected — an alarm will sound. It will be loud.” He ordered them all removed for inspection. Why not offer a few reassuring phrases that the “nice lady” could say when prompted by a parent?

My oldest was frightened when our Nest Protect smoke alarm announced “Smoke has been detected — an alarm will sound. It will be loud.” He ordered them all removed for inspection. Why not offer a few reassuring phrases that the “nice lady” could say when prompted by a parent?

The fact that more things aren’t designed to encompass the needs of parents with young children boggles my mind. It’s not exactly an uncommon state of affairs. I look around my house at all the “workarounds” we’ve put in place (which is always an indication that a design is not meeting a need, BTW) — baby gates, cabinet locks, bumpers. There’s an entire industry built around it.

How are we smart enough to design smart thermostats, smart TVs, and smart smoke detectors, but so dumb about how they’ll fit into the lives of such a huge part of the population? Anything designed for the home should account for the fact that in all likelihood, at some point there’ll be kids running around and at least one adult huddled in the corner, sobbing into a plastic cup of Pinot Noir.

I Thought We Knew Each Other

Ultimately I’ve noticed that these products each have a feature or two that could be considered “smart,” but the whole thing is a house of cards ready to fall apart at every turn. And frankly, it’s not very smart. My son was less than two when he could have predicted I go to work every day and come home, following a basic routine. Why doesn’t any of my technology get this, or offer me anything useful?

My lights can’t just come on when I’m nearby, or get a general sense of when I go to bed? Why must I initiate twelve interactions before a single note emanates from the speaker? Can’t it make an educated guess? I thought we knew each other better.

I remember the moment I realized I could no longer make use of my wall switches or lamp switches. This was the beginning of the end of my infatuation with you. I realized how handy these had always been. I battled with muscle memory so as not to inadvertently switch them since they must forever now remain in their “on” positions.

I became keenly aware of the number of steps involved in the marketing appeal, “Control your lights with your phone!” (For the record, there are seven steps: Pull out your phone. Unlock it. Find the app. Open it. Find the room/light/etc you want. Choose it. Turn light on or off.)

I noticed how often I walk around the house with no phone, or anything else, on me. Underwear doesn’t have pockets, you know.

Let’s Go Back To Basics

I have some suggestions for how we can begin to turn this around. Let’s start by laying out some expectations around the term “smart.” The following guidelines represent the promise of “smart” — sure, it’s the ideal, but I believe we can get there:

Smart requires less effort. “Work smarter, not harder” is a popular saying, because one of the main benefits of being smart is the ability to figure out how to achieve the same result with less effort. (This is why nerds lack physical strength and agility.)

Smart delivers better outcomes. It solves a need or set of needs more completely; solves a larger set of needs; creates a positive emotional response; or provides a social benefit.

Smart learns and anticipates. It picks up on patterns and anticipates what I need, delivering it before I have to ask for it. (Anyone named Jeeves knows this.)

Smart makes connections. It connects various aspects inside and outside the home, allowing communication and collaboration that enables better learning and more powerful solutions.

Smart guides informed decisions. It gives actionable insights versus raw data. It elevates important information when I need it. (Tell me it’s going to snow, even if I don’t usually care about the weather.)

Smart self-regulates. It doesn’t require the user to be smart, or have loads of free time to spend figuring out a new device. Ideally it sets itself up and fixes itself.

Smart adds value. Many smart home devices are intended to protect us or help us when something bad happens — fires, intruders, etc. The best of them find ways to be useful outside of that primary function. 99.9% of the time, my house isn’t on fire, but Nest Protect at least offers a handy nightlight when I walk by in the dark. How can these devices provide more value when everything is okay?

Our cameras capture all sorts of precious moments we might otherwise miss. A truly smart system could surface these as an added benefit.

Our cameras capture all sorts of precious moments we might otherwise miss. A truly smart system could surface these as an added benefit.

A Final Rant — and a Request

It’s funny — when I realized that what I really wanted was for our lights to just do what they should be doing for the most part with some ability for me to make minor on-the-fly alterations, I set up elaborate on/off routines mapped to our typical weekdays and weekends.

Let me say this more clearly: I SAT DOWN AND THOUGHT ABOUT MY FAMILY AND OUR COMINGS AND GOINGS AND THEN MANUALLY TOLD THE LIGHTS TO GO ON AND OFF IN DIFFERENT ROOMS ON DIFFERENT DAYS AND TIMES.

Do you get why that’s wrong?!

I guess if I had one request for you, my Smart Home, and the designers who create devices for you, it would be to think a little more about how you define “smart.”

Knowing how to do a lot of things doesn’t necessarily make you smart if they’re the wrong things, or if you do them at the wrong time.

In my experience, the smartest people are the ones who listen best, and that’s what I’d suggest. In your next generation, don’t try to do more things, or connect with the most devices. Try to pay a little more attention to the people whose lives you’re trying to improve … so they don’t have to spend so much time paying attention to you.

Bill Horan