Shifting mindsets

The smart home market is changing, and adoption is growing faster than ever. Amy Stoneham looks at how integrators need to shift their mindset and practices in order to keep up with change.

If anyone has watched ‘Man vs. Bee’ on Netflix, a short series featuring a man who is house-sitting in a smart home, they will know how important it is to have a simple to use, non-complex home automation system. The TV series shows the worst example of how a smart home should be, with the house-sitter unable to do simple tasks such as open kitchen cupboards or turn the lights on without using the 500-page manual which comes with the house.

While this is an extreme example of how not to programme a smart home, Keith Jones, managing director of designflow, points out that “there are people out there like that and we need to be able to design for everyone”. He continues: “When designing a system, we ask ourselves how can we make this system as intuitive as possible? Imagine staying in an AirBnB with smart home technology, the owner shouldn’t have to spend ages explaining how everything works every time someone comes to stay, it should be simple and intuitive so that they tell them as few things as possible.”

There are many different definitions for ‘smart home’ and ‘home automation’. Chase Rowe, design engineer from TSP Smart Spaces says: “Automation can exist in a non-smart home, for example, a floodlight with a built-in motion detector. Similarly, a home with smart home features can be non-automated.

“We define a smart home as having multiple systems that can be programmed to provide a function and feedback, for example, lighting control being able to turn on the foyer lights and dim them to 50%. In a non-automated home, the user interaction is the same as before – having to tap on a wall switch to activate that function.”

He continues: “Automation ties that function to a series of events, sometimes triggered by a particular action, such as motion from an occupancy sensor. Walk in your front door at night and your foyer lights automatically come on at 50%. You can tie other features into this as well, such as turning on music during the daytime.”

Michael Oh, president of TSP Smart Spaces adds: “Like with the scenario that Chase described above, automation provides intelligence to allow a smart home to work more naturally and with less user interaction. In some ways, when an automated home behaves correctly, it should feel a lot more like magic than like technology.”

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Brand-centric to human-centric

Interest and adoption of home technology is growing faster than ever. Possibly driven by the pandemic where everyone is spending more time at home and investing in their spaces, integrators have now got more opportunities than ever before to embrace this market and create user experiences like no other.

However, in order to capitalise on this growing market, integrators need to change their mindsets, coming away from focusing on brands and instead focusing more on the user experience to improve the human condition.

CEDIA has recently released a whitepaper, entitled ‘Integrator of 2027’, which details these developments in the market and emphasises how the role of the integrator needs to change to keep up with these advancements.

The whitepaper says: “Integrators now specify and install multiple interconnected subsystems, often woven into the fabric of a building and with unified control. For most integrators, the primary focus remains on the technical integrations of products, augmented with some architectural integration for presentation, and the management of data and media.

“Now as we look to 2027, the overarching trend will see a move away from product centricity and towards human centricity, or human integration. That is, the primary focus will be on the user and enabling ever more hyper-personalised experiences. As such, the role of the integrator becomes: ‘Integrating technology into the built environment to improve the human condition’.”

“In some ways, when an automated home behaves correctly, it should feel a lot more like magic than like technology.”

Jones agrees with dropping the brand focus. He says: “When we have free reign on how to present a quote, we don’t show any of the brands because they’re irrelevant. It’s about what a system does for the end user rather than what brand it is. But of course, the integrators always want to show the brands because they try to use it to differentiate themselves and that’s never going to work because there’s always another dealer with those same brands just around the corner.”

He continues: “I think when you get a customer who hasn’t had a home automation system before, or maybe they have experienced different systems in hotels or showrooms or something and they don’t have a preference, the integrator should be able to put themselves into a position where they can offer at least two different manufacturer solutions that are better suited to that project.”

Of course, there are issues with that, which Jones recognises. “The difficulty is that with so many brands out there offering home automation, technology systems and products, how are you supposed to know the nuances of every possible control platform? In order to offer multiple systems, you need to know them both inside out, upside down, back to front in your sleep! As an integrator, that is going to seem like twice the amount of work as if you have to learn about just one system. But, at the same time, you don’t want to be losing jobs because the customer wants a platform that you don’t offer.”

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Shared market

One reason the home technology market is growing is because the direct-to-consumer market is also developing faster than ever before. Big technology companies are entering the smart home sector building their own off-the-shelf devices for consumers to create their own smart homes. While it’s great that interest and adoption of smart homes is increasing, this could have a detrimental affect on integrators today.

According to CEDIA’s whitepaper: “Giant Tech companies rule the landscape, and the market is more fragmented and more direct-to-consumer than ever before. But with a broader scope of technologies to work with, and the ability to hyper-personalise them for the end users combine to create an abundance of opportunity for integrators. But it will take a change of mindset and business practice.

“A key part of this will be the need to shift away from the product-centric, ‘we sell brands X, Y, and Z’ or, ‘we are a brand X dealer’ mindset. Products will of course continue to be a core part of integrated systems, but the more brands and/or suppliers the integrator has access to, the bigger the pool of resources for system design and the greater the scope with which to hyper-personalise user experiences. But these brands and products should not define what an integrator does.”

Automated systems

Creating personalised experiences are very much a part of a current integrator’s job, creating scenes that are tailored towards different situations, for example. However, hyper-personalisation delves deeper into that, using data, analytics and AI to create unique experiences for individual users and use cases.

Rowe thinks that smart homes should use AI to automatically personalise the user interface and set scenes in the background without the user having to do anything if they don’t want to or can’t. He says: “We are starting to see AI pickup on speech patterns or services activated at certain times of the day. Why can’t a home accumulate your ‘favourites’? All of our streaming services do!”

Oh agrees with this idea but thinks AI has some way to go before it is fully possible. “The challenge for the industry is that until AI and intelligent automation systems are fully developed, all of the systems which are marketed as ‘AI’ and ‘automated’ will feel like they are doing things the user does not want them to. A great example of this is Alexa voice control, which demonstrates the potential of voice technology, but also requires an unnatural interaction with the device, i.e., having to know specific commands and phrases in order for it to work. Compare this to the American company, (not yet available outside of the US), which uses a combination of integrator-led programming and natural language processing to do the same functions as Alexa and more without having to learn a new way of talking.”

“When designing a system, we ask ourselves how can we make this system as intuitive as possible?"

In order to achieve this level of automation, Oh agrees that integrators need to shift more to the user experience and away from being brand-centric. “Integrators have to become experts in two new areas, which many have not yet mastered: curating new cutting-edge vendors, and programming for individual user experiences, not just function.

“The bulk of the current integration business is focused on a few primary vendors. These vendors are not the ones coming up with cutting-edge technology. Control4, Crestron and Savant all fell behind Apple, Google and Amazon’s voice control innovations. In the future, finding and automating more natural interactions in the home will come down to researching new companies and technologies and figuring out how to integrate that into your existing solutions reliably and efficiently.  This is not an easy task and requires a much more engineering or R&D focused integrator than many of them out there.”

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CEDIA suggests that the experiences created should achieve the user’s feeling of presence, comfort, health, safety and sustainability in the home. To do this, integrators need to ask the right questions. The whitepaper suggests that integrators are currently asking the wrong questions: “Asking the customer what they want is effectively having them design their own system, instead of the integrator designing it based on the customer’s discovered needs. The difference that is required is human-centric discovery. This takes empathy, being the essence of design thinking.”

When discovering a user’s hidden needs, questions need to be asked that will allow the user to open up about how they live, with insights into their daily routines, hobbies, interactions, etc. This will be a very personal thing and integrators need to be comfortable doing this in order to create the best hyper-personalised experience for that customer.

This is where integrators can differ themselves from what the big technology companies are offering. “The difference is the mindset and approach,” states the CEDIA whitepaper. “For example, a product-centric home cinema is created with a focus on which products to use for a given performance and budget outcome. A design-centric approach first considers the room and then the products within it, for even better outcomes. A user-centric mindset considers the users and their sense of comfort, presence, health, safety and sustainability. Crucially, it results in outcomes that cannot be rivalled by Giant Tech, big-box retail, or DIY.”

“Now as we look to 2027, the overarching trend will see a move away from product centricity and towards human centricity, or human integration.”

Oh agrees with this, adding: “Once the right vendors and solutions have been found, you’re now having to integrate and programme the solution not just based on what the technology is capable of, but what the user wants and prefers, even without them knowing what the systems can do.

“Ketra Lighting is a great example of this. Not yet available outside of the US, Ketra fixtures’ capabilities are almost infinite; we’re not just talking about high-resolution fade-to-black dimming, we’re talking about colour temperatures from 1,400K to 10,000K, full colour spectrum, and biophilic mimicry. How do you programme a fixture with infinite capability? Easy – you need to programme that fixture to do only what the user wants. This is much harder to do than just plugging in a few scenes. They need to understand how the user will live, work and experience their space.”


I would urge readers to download CEDIA’s free whitepaper, ‘Integrator of 2027’, to find out more about this topic and how mindsets need to change in order to deliver the unique, high-end and personalised experiences that consumers are now looking for.

This is an exciting opportunity for the smart home and home technology industry and when utilised properly can propel the market into new territories and possibilities.

Main image: Artashes / Shutterstock

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