Keypad control: keep it simple

One of the most essential elements of a smart home is the keypad. Amy Stoneham investigates some of the latest developments in the world of keypads and why less is often more in terms of their control.

Some might think that a world with keypads and buttons in home automation is dying out with touchscreens and tablets that give deeper control of the home taking its place. Why have such limited control when you can have everything on a screen or smartphone? Better yet, use voice technology! Although innovation is propelling technology forward, this is a case where sticking to basics is best. Keypads, with simple controls, will always be required in any smart home.

“Using your smartphone to control your smart home is all well and good, but it’s not always the easiest and most convenient option,” says Ryan Ovens, founder and CEO at VIOLET. “Even with a desktop control point such as an Echo Show or Nest Hub, the fact that they are ‘desktop’ means they are normally located on a surface near where one might sit – hardly convenient as you arrive in a room.

“Voice control is certainly convenient, but it’s not a silver bullet. Whilst, as a society, we are gradually starting to accept voice control, there are scenarios it simply is not the solution. What about the middle of the night, for example, when you don’t want to wake others or simply don’t want to have to engage your vocal cords? What about guests or visitors? Do they know what commands to issue, or even that you have voice control?”

While there is certainly a place for both keypad and tablet controllers, keypads provide the quick sharp controls that are used frequently. Human instinct tells us to reach to the same place on the wall when we enter a room to turn the light on. This is not likely to change. People do not want to be searching through a menu screen to simply turn on the light. A keypad with a few buttons that trigger the most commonly used functions quickly and easily will never not be needed.

“We strongly believe that keypads will always be there because there is a desperate need for simplicity to control the most basic functions in a room: lights and screens,” explains Koen Dekyvere, export manager at Basalte. “When you simply enter or leave a room, you don’t want to browse on a screen. That’s where keypads such as the Basalte Sentido or Fibonacci keypads show their supremacy: most basic control of the room at your fingertips.”

“It is smarter to provide fewer, regularly used functions on a well thought out keypad than bamboozle every user with something that looks like the flight deck of a 747.”

“Keypads should be used in places where the same function is required repeatedly as the number of buttons should be kept low so that it is intuitive for everyone in the home to know the functions,” adds Amit Ravat, managing director of Retrotouch UK. “Have too many buttons and it becomes complex for the users, even if they have markings or symbols. A tablet is best used in central places where you want the ability to control the whole home.”

Justin Wells, director at Polar Bear Design says that keypads and touchscreen controllers are designed to work together. “Keypads and touchscreen controllers should not be viewed as mutually exclusive; they should be harmonised within a solution. A well-designed wall keypad such as the Zentium HVAC controller is a super intuitive and tactile interface designed to give instant access to a key aspect of the room control. But this doesn’t stop the user controlling the Polar Bear solution from a touchscreen or a smartphone.”

Image: Retrotouch

Less is more

It is important to realise that keypads and touchscreens have completely different uses: a touchscreen is designed for more in-depth control of the home from any room, while keypads are more of a direct replacement of the light switch, only with a few more functions.

Therefore, keypad functions should be kept to a minimum in order to maintain the simplicity of quick and easy control.

“The control limitations a keypad brings is more often than not a good thing,” admits Matt Emberson, sales and marketing manager at Faradite. “Good design isn’t about having everything on show all the time; good design is about providing the user with as much as they will need, in an easy to use, reliable way. Keypads tend to offer users between one and six buttons of control. There are keypads on the market that offer many more buttons on a switch plate but sometimes offering too many options adds too much complexity. It is smarter to provide fewer, regularly used functions on a well thought out keypad than bamboozle every user with something that looks like the flight deck of a 747.”

Jessica-Lee van der Walt, sales and marketing manager, Gira UK, agrees with keeping it simple, but she also thinks that if it’s a benefit to the end user then they should have as many functions as they want. “As a smart home pioneer, our approach is grounded in the world between off and on and we are firm believers in providing systems solutions which empower the end users wherever they are in their smart home journey. There is definitely beauty in simplicity when it comes to controlling a smart home and truly the only limits are in our mindsets. We think that the most important criteria is that a function makes intuitive sense to an end user so they can use it happily day in, day out with the scope to customise it further if required.”

Although keypads are designed to include the most common commands only, they are not so limiting that it offers only a small amount of control. Even with just a few buttons, they can be used to trigger scenes that will transform the entire room.

Image: Rako Controls

Steve Detmer, residential product manager at Lutron Electronics says: “A smart answer to light dimmers, keypads make it simple to create scenes by controlling one or multiple lights at the same time at a click of a button. Therefore, you can transform a room from ‘cooking’ brightness to ‘relax’ mood immediately with one click of a button. Then, when it’s bedtime, turn off all the lights in your home from a keypad positioned next to your bed.”

VIOLET’s SmartSwitch works in a similar way but combines the touchscreen experience with a small and simple keypad that adds more functionality depending on how the user interacts with the keypad. “By providing a touchscreen at the light location the size of a regular switch, a smart switch can offer both one-touch control and more granular options,” Ovens explains.

“With a favourite scene assigned to each time of day, a simple tap of the blank screen can activate it without waking the screen. If you need more control, a long press will wake the dark-mode style interface, which minimises the disturbance to the room and one’s eyes at night. With a quick standby-timeout, you’re not left with a lingering glow from one corner of the room.”

“We strongly believe that keypads will always be there because there is a desperate need for simplicity to control the most basic functions in a room: lights and screens.”

Aside from the control function, keypads can also be utilised in other ways. New innovations have seen sensors being built into keypads that will give information about the status of specific rooms to the control system. This in turn helps the system to automatically adjust temperature, blinds, and other things in specific rooms for it to reach optimum conditions. 

Olaf Stutzenberger, global marketing and communications manager at ABB says: “The ABB Tenton combines sensors for temperature, humidity and CO2 in addition to the room control. Different functions in a single device not only looks better but also saves on space, costs and time during commissioning.”

Similarly, Basalte also combines its keypads with temperature sensors, as Dekyvere explains: “The Basalte smart keypads all have a temperature sensor, so in a room it’s possible to calculate the average measured temperature instead of measuring on one single location. By using touch technology, we create a lot of extra, special, more ‘hidden’ functions.”

Image: Gira

Aesthetic design

We also need to consider the appearance of a keypad. Nowadays, it is common practice to have as much hidden as possible. However, it is a necessity to have keypads on show. Therefore, homeowners do not want big, bulky keypads all over the walls; they want subtle, aesthetically pleasing keypads that are a similar size to a normal light switch to blend in with interior designs.

It’s also good to have a range of faceplates, materials and colours to choose from so that it will blend in nicely with the interior design of a home. It is not uncommon for a homeowner to choose design over function, so even if your keypad is the best fit for their needs, if it doesn’t match the aesthetics of a home, they might go elsewhere.

“Less is more,” defines Peter Broome, a director at Rako Controls. “The key is to provide keypad solutions to suit the interior design of the property and the functionality required. To offer a choice of keypads and finishes for all scenarios is imperative. Sometimes, this involves less buttons with a classy, yet uncluttered look such as Rako’s EOS range. With carefully thought-out lighting design and scenes, this provides a simple, yet elegant solution.”

“If the keypad looks or functions badly, this massively influences the user experience of the smart home system.”

Ravat adds: “The style and design of the keypad is key to the overall finish of the interior design. Keypads are at eye-level and touched every day. Keypads are also one of the few items of a smart home system a client will see as most items of the smart home are hidden away and descend. If the keypad looks or functions badly, this massively influences the user experience of the smart home system.”

Combining design and function, the keypad plays a very important part in a high-end home, as Detmer points out: “Keypads complete the experience, delivering an aesthetic, inviting, and intuitive control to ensure the perfect light [and other functions] for everything you do. Now, keypads offer a wide variety of colours, styles, finishes and functions to help create an environment that reflects a homeowner’s unique sense of design, as well as adding function.”

Image: Lutron


Customisation is key in a smart home project, programming and installing solutions that directly fit the user’s needs. This is especially true when it comes to keypads as they will be used the most by all users throughout the home.

Van der Walt says: “Every customer and every project is different, so it seems to us that the key questions will be ‘is this the simplest and easiest solution? Is this fit for purpose? How well does this suit the customer’s needs – whether that be for safety, interior design or ease of navigation for example?’ It is worth bearing in mind that technology is always evolving so consider if the keypad is modular by design, offering scope for functions to be added or taken away in the future.”

She continues: “The more you discover about a customer’s requirements and the end users’ needs, the better placed you will be to advise with regards to bespoke projects. Having the ability to improve and customise configurations for a lefthanded end user or someone with dexterity problems will stand you in good stead as the user experience will always be much better when the keypad is tailored to precise needs.”

While customisation is important and valued by end users, consistency is also very useful, as Emberson highlights: “At Faradite, we always advise consistency across all switch plates in a project. For example, if the user wants shading control on the switch plates in every room, make sure the shades up/down function is consistently on the same two buttons on every switch. Asking a homeowner to remember the functionality on 25 differently commissioned switches is a long shot, and one that will almost certainly result in support calls when the user forgets what the switches should be doing.”

Users can also customise a keypad to make buttons larger or smaller, depending on their requirements. “Keypads should be simple, intuitive and clear to use with multiple button sizes available to the client,” says Broome. “It is vital that the keypad enhances the client’s experience of their lighting control or home automation system and makes their life easier. Customised button layouts are important and necessary too for some clients and environments. At Rako, we offer multiple standard button layouts for client’s to choose from as well as offering custom button engraving and layouts.”

Image: Polar Bear Design

Tactile feedback

To create a seamless experience, users should be able to interact with the keypad without a second thought, similar to how we do with a rocker light switch. Therefore, tactile responses on a keypad are advised to confirm to the user that their action has been received.  

“Tactile responses are not important, they’re essential,” says Wells. “It is needed to give users that feeling of quality and reassurance that they have pressed the button. Engraving also provides reassurance to the user as well as any guests as to what will occur when pressed.”

Responses to switching lighting on or off are immediate so tactile feedback isn’t as critical in that situation. But other scenarios might happen gradually, in which case tactile feedback is advised to reassure users.

“Tactile feedback gives the user a nicer interaction with the switch, whether that be a physical travel of a button, or, as in our Faradite TAP range of capacitive touch switches, a haptic motor that provides a short vibration when the switch is pressed,” expresses Emberson.

“Tactile feedback is important for the user experience to confirm a keypress on actions that may not necessarily offer immediate visible validation. For example, a user will know immediately if they press a switch to adjust the light scene as the lights will change, but if the switch is to give a heating boost, the tactile feedback confirms the interaction so the user knows they will soon be nice and toasty as their heating boost kicks in.”

Feedback doesn’t always have to be in the form of touch; Basalte uses lighting too. “There should be some form of feedback,” says Dekyvere. “Most of our tactile keypads have visual feedback, with a central LED blinking white when a button is touched, and some action is initiated.”

Image: Basalte


I think the most important thing to learn here is to keep it simple and don’t change too much. It has been engrained in us to automatically reach for a switch or button of some kind when walking into a room to turn on the lights, and again when we leave to turn them off. Having a few extra buttons to have fast control over other things in that room is also handy as long as it’s not made too complicated.

“The main consideration is about the placement,” emphasises Stutzenberger. “If it is a tactile keypad, the placement is obvious and normally next to the door where in the past the standard rockers have been placed. People are used to simple functions next to the door. When you enter a room, the first thing you do is switch on the light and this can be done via a single function or within a pre-programmed scene. At the end, it should be one direct click or touch.”

“It is worth bearing in mind that technology is always evolving so consider if the keypad is modular by design, offering scope for functions to be added or taken away in the future.”

Part of keeping it simple is adding engravings onto the buttons to remind users, and tell guests, what each button does. In the high-end, luxury home market, personalised engravings have risen in popularity.

“Retrotouch offers an engraving service for the switches,” says Ravat. “This service is growing year on year and has seen a 25% increase in the number of custom engraved smart switches in the last year for various residential and commercial projects.”

Custom engraving can also be useful to ensure functions stay the same and are not constantly having to be reprogrammed. “We find custom engraving is a great way for the integrator to force the homeowner to lock in their requirements during the design stage,” admits Emberson. “It’s not uncommon for a homeowner to want to change the switch functionality every three months, which can lead to some tricky conversations between the integrator and their client, but once the switches are engraved, it might encourage the client to stick with the functionality and remove the need for yet another switch reprogramming session.”

However, Dekyvere believes customers should have the freedom to modify functions and engraving doesn’t make this easy to do. “Engraving is certainly interesting on some types of projects, mainly where people do not live all of the time, i.e., hotels, holiday apartments, second home, etc,” he says. “There are some areas in the home where you have some special controls (music, towel heater, etc), you could opt for some discrete engraving. But in general, if you try to keep it simple and build an easy control concept that is more or less streamlined in every room for the complete project, you wouldn’t really need engraving. No engraving also leaves you the nice option to change the content of the scene’s buttons as the end customer can always modify them.”


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