Smart Homes – Why Users Matter

The term ‘smart home’, or ‘smart house’ was first used in 1984 by American Association of House Builders. Since then, the term ‘smart home’ has been given a number of definitions, including:

a residence equipped with computing and information technology which anticipates and responds to the needs of the occupants, working to promote their comfort, convenience, security and entertainment through the management of technology within the home and connections to the world beyond [1].


Motivations

In recent times, there have been number of research projects and commercialised applications in the area of smart home technology. In some cases such as healthy living, aged-care and energy-aware houses, smart homes aim to provide specialised services, while other smart home implementations are generic and focus on providing overall ‘intelligent’ services to the occupants similar to an ‘electronic butler’ [2].


Not Just Another IT System

A positive user experience of a system is vital for its adoption.
However, users tend to perceive and interact with smart home systems differently than a typical IT system.
This is primarily because a smart home is not a stand-alone product, unlike other IT applications. By its very nature, a smart home is pervasive. It combines hardware sensors, wireless computing, artificial intelligence and networking technologies, resulting in an ‘omnipresent’ system that surrounds users as they move about in their house.

For example, a smart home would have sensing devices to monitor occupant activity. This can help in identifying the context (eg: user is in the living room and watching a movie), and which services to offer (eg: dim the living room lights).

However, for some people, the act of being monitored in their home by technology can evoke a negative emotional reaction, since a home is a phenomenon with social, psychological and emotive connotations. For many, home is a refuge, removed from public scrutiny and surveillance [3].

In another example, a smart home may be designed to interact with the users by giving various audio notifications. It is possible that this may be irritating to some users depending on their mood/time of day etc.

Therefore a technical solution that aims to enhance one’s home also needs to embody its primary meaning, instead of as a list of surface functions in an IT system.


Case Studies On User Experience

There are a few lessons to be learnt from case studies on smart home deployments.

Among elderly users, a recurring theme is the fear of being too dependent on technology and stigma of been viewed as disabled/dependant [4, 5, 6].
Other key concerns regarding adoption include; cost [7, 8, 9], integration issues with existing home and services, obtrusiveness [10], loss of control and reliability [4].

Even if the technical solutions are accurate, they are often not the correct manifestations of the underlying user requirements. For example, some elderly users in one case study discussed in [5], were hesitant to use automated functions (such as opening blinds in the morning) because they feared that automating certain aspects of their daily routines would leave them with nothing to do, and make them feel useless. In this case, the system’s goal (convenience) was contradictory to the users’ goal (independence).

Results of these case studies suggest that current designers have no cohesive theoretical foundation from which to derive what smart home services are required by the potential users, how they perceive the technology and how the technology needs to be designed for their services to be accurately visible to and be actualised.

Consequently such solutions frequently fail to be utilised to their potential, thus deterring the successful adoption of smart homes.
Hence, there is a need for a thorough investigation into the many socio-technical concerns involved in mass-scale adoption of this technology.

To summarise, there are problems related to the adoption of smart homes. In my next post, I will discuss translating user goals to technical affordances of a smart home.


This post is based on a paper published at the 24th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS), titled Examining Digital Assisted Living: towards a Case Study of Smart Homes for the Elderly [11].


References

  1. Harper, R. (Ed.). (2006). Inside the smart home. Springer Science & Business Media.
  2. Cook, D. J., Augusto, J. C., & Jakkula, V. R. (2009). Ambient intelligence: Technologies, applications, and opportunities. Pervasive and Mobile Computing, 5(4), 277-298.
  3. Mallett, S. (2004). Understanding home: a critical review of the literature. The sociological review, 52(1), 62-89.
  4. Balta-Ozkan, N., Davidson, R., Bicket, M., & Whitmarsh, L. (2013). Social barriers to the adoption of smart homes. Energy Policy, 63, 363-374.
  5. Portet, F., Vacher, M., Golanski, C., Roux, C., & Meillon, B. (2013). Design and evaluation of a smart home voice interface for the elderly: acceptability and objection aspects. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 17(1), 127-144.
  6. Peek, S. T., Wouters, E. J., van Hoof, J., Luijkx, K. G., Boeije, H. R., & Vrijhoef, H. J. (2014). Factors influencing acceptance of technology for aging in place: a systematic review. International journal of medical informatics, 83(4), 235-248.
  7. Demiris, G., Rantz, M. J., Aud, M. A., Marek, K. D., Tyrer, H. W., Skubic, M., & Hussam, A. A. (2004). Older adults’ attitudes towards and perceptions of ‘smart home’ technologies: a pilot study. Medical informatics and the Internet in medicine, 29(2), 87-94.
  8. Steele, R., Lo, A., Secombe, C., & Wong, Y. K. (2009). Elderly persons’ perception and acceptance of using wireless sensor networks to assist healthcare. International journal of medical informatics, 78(12), 788-801.
  9. Peek, S. T., Wouters, E. J., van Hoof, J., Luijkx, K. G., Boeije, H. R., & Vrijhoef, H. J. (2014). Factors influencing acceptance of technology for aging in place: a systematic review. International journal of medical informatics, 83(4), 235-248.
  10. Van Hoof, J., Kort, H. S. M., Rutten, P. G. S., & Duijnstee, M. S. H. (2011). Ageing-in-place with the use of ambient intelligence technology: Perspectives of older users. International journal of medical informatics, 80(5), 310-331.
  11. Fernando, N., Tan, F., Vasa, R., Mouzakis, K., Aitken, I., & Australia, S. (2016). Examining Digital Assisted Living: towards a Case Study of Smart Homes for the Elderly.

Header image: courtesy of psaudio.


Thanks to Simon Vajda, Elodie Thilliez and Luis Torres for reviewing this post