Nest and the Apple-ification of the thermostat

Nest's Tony Fadell at GigaOM RoadMapThe Nest burst onto the tech scene in the last few weeks, making waves unheard of for a product you’d never guess anyone would care about: the home thermostat. But there’s a reason the device sold out in 72 hours: the creator, Tony Fadell, the father of the iPod, took a page from the design and usability gurus at Apple to create a good-looking, efficient and easy-to-use device. At GigaOM RoadMap on Thursday, Fadell talked about how he and his team are rethinking a 50-year-old industry with lessons from the king of consumer-friendly electronics.
Fadell looked at an industry that was badly in need of innovation. Not just in the technology under the covers, but in terms of usability and design. “Thermostats looked like PCs from the 90s: square,  beige, nothing innovative, and very expensive,” he said. So when he was contemplating home heating and cooling, he wasn’t inventing something new so much as rethinking and improving an established product — much like he did with the iPod in 2001.
Here’s how he consumerized an otherwise boring, staid product:

  • Make user interfaces as simple as possible. The Nest is styled like a dial. Fadell said this design was inspired by what you actually do with a thermostat. “Ninety-nine percent of the time you’re turning it up or down,” he said. Hence the dial and a single button.
  • Embrace proven technologies. The Nest is basically a smartphone on the inside, with the same computing power. It has two types of wireless connectivity, five sensors for temperature, humidity, light and two activity sensors to detect when people are in front of the device. And it has a removable — and therefore user-serviceable — battery.
  • Use technologies that will delight users. Fadell and team did something you wouldn’t be surprised to see from Apple with regard to how the device blends into its environment — something they call “chameleon design.” There’s a mirror inside with “a special edge that picks up incident light”, and through internal reflection it picks up the color of whatever’s around it. “So we didn’t have to make a specific color, we could just reflect back the color around it to make it blend in,” he said. It also uses sensors to passively learn about the owners of the home where Nest lives. It can learn about the heating and cooling patterns in your house, knows your activity, like how often you walk in front of it — and therefore how much time you spend at home — and can learn your patterns of how you like your temperatures. All of that means the thermostat can self-adjust its energy use to save money and resources.
  • Keep standards high. Of all of it, the most difficult thing was to handle this as a startup and not as a company with billions of dollars in the bank. And Fadell cautioned not to think cheaply or cut corners with the excuse that you’re just a startup. At Apple, he said, you have “a huge sandbox of technologies, capabilities and resources. You can’t go back [after that] to the startup way. You want to do it the best way possible.”

Photo by Pinar Ozger.