There’s a difference between “easy on the eyes” and “easy to use.” That’s a statement many readers are likely to intuitively agree with. But by the looks of many smart home user interfaces, the companies behind these designs don’t appear to be on that same page.
The other day on LinkedIn I came across something that represented what I think is the biggest problem with lighting systems and smart-home interfaces today: They’re being designed by technology geeks, not user experience designers. Or, maybe, whatever their area of expertise, they’re just not listening to their end users.
The picture (shown below) was of an overly complex lighting control, with small buttons, and instead of clear words for labels it had tiny images representing functionality. The focus was put on creating something aesthetically beautiful on the wall instead of using the space to create a user-friendly interface. What’s worse is that this is something lauded by the industry. The picture below was taken from LinkedIn, where multiple people had given it a thumbs up and a Crestron employee “liked” it. Sure, the keys are flush-mounted to the wall. And rather than words, the designers used icons (which are arguably universally understood, and that certainly has its merits). But in the residential setting, small buttons with small, difficult-to-read icons are sub-optimal.
When I speak with our clients about their impression of their lighting systems, we hear common issues over and over again:
The buttons are too small. In a home with normal light switches, you walk into a room and are able to flip the switch with a broad wave of your hand against the wall. But with a keypad on the wall, you need to press one of a few buttons on the keypad to turn the lights off. With poor keypad configuration, these buttons can be small and difficult to differentiate from one another. An example of a better configuration might be a two- or three-button keypad, which allows for larger buttons. Frequently we’ll design keypads to have commonly used functions represented by large buttons, and smaller buttons for the infrequently used functions.
The labels are too small and unreadable. Many keypads use small font sizes for the labels on their keys. Additionally, many are still installed today without backlights, so they’re hard to read at night… or worse, the backlight color chosen makes it impossible to clearly read labels at night. Some brands have better fonts and label sizes than others; we work with those brands when possible. When it comes to the backlight, we’ve found the best color to use is blue in daytime and purple for nighttime readability.
The Buttons perform inconsistent functions. In the world of light-system programming, there are two methodologies: room-based and scene-based programming. Room-based programming allows for a single key that says “Kitchen,” and pressing it simply toggles the entire Kitchen on and off. Scene-based programming requires two buttons for that same functionality: “Kitchen On” and “Kitchen Off.” A diligent, detail-oriented, and consistent approach is required when programming lighting systems to make sure that interfaces are consistent throughout your home and across multiple properties. Additionally, if the home is to be used by guests who are unlikely to be familiar with “lighting systems”, greater attention to keypad layout and design is required.
So given all of this information from our clients, I find it hard to imagine how the keypad layout above is user-friendly. It’s why I believe that every smart-home manufacturer should have, at its core, user-experience designers who are solely focused on the usability of the technology. Because ultimately, that’s what allows us to create better systems for our clients.