One of the projects I currently work on is concerned with the consumption of smart home technology. And one question I have heard a million times from the consumers we have interviewed is this: why is my smart home so stupid?
On popular answer is that the Internet of Things is still in its infancy and that better technology and standards are within reach and will lead to greater integration, and thus, greater smartness in the not too distant future.
There is some value in this explanation. Everyone who has ever tried to get an IP camera to work on a cell phone will probably agree. But this answer is also entirely steeped in a technological mindset and the naive belief that better technology will automatically improve our lives.
An alternative explanation may be that popular tropes such as the “Internet of Things” not only inspire but also constrain our imagination as innovators and as consumers. Designing greater customer experiences and, thus, extracting greater economic value may be a matter of avoiding this trope altogether.
Consider the tech startup Plum (formerly Ube). Plum offers a series of intelligent light switches. And their slogan “We’re casting a new light on the connected home” reveals a classic Internet-of-Things mentality.
Interestingly, Plum envisions a very particular type of connected home: the nerd home. That’s the home where the human actor is reduced to a trigger of sorts. Remember that friend of yours who gets a kick out of switching on the lights with a hand clap? That’s Plum’s envisioned customer.
Nest is another tech startup in a very similar market. But Nest follows a very different philosophy. Let us focus on a notion that is very central to both businesses: control. For Plum, “control” is a technological concept, the ability to operate several light switches through one (and to impress oneself and others in the process). For Nest, “control” is also very important. But it has a sociological quality. Nest envisions better control over who we can be as a family.
In the Journal of Marketing, consumer researchers Amber Epp, Hope Schau, and Linda Price have recently analyzed the role of technology in allowing consumers to assemble family identity. These authors not only highlight the role of geographical distance in undermining cherished family rituals and traditions such as game night, family meals, or going shopping together. They also demonstrate the important role of networked technology in cultivating shared definitions of who we are as a family against a backdrop of challenging social and economic conditions.
One managerial implication we can derive from Epp, Schau, and Price is that different smart home definitions are possible. And Nest’s definition seems much more powerful than Plum’s. Plum adds yet another layer to the Internet of Things, and the result is often a home where everything is connected but nothing adds up. In sharp contrast, Nest succeeds by putting its technology in service of a much higher sociological goal: the age-old quest to create and sustain a happy family.
So why is my smart home so stupid? Among other things, because innovators easily forget that machine connectivity must serve social connectivity.