Ugh: Smart energy devices have a major problem with user experience

Whoever has experimented with some of the early energy dashboards and connected thermostats knows some of these companies have just not been thinking about usability (of course there are some exceptions). According to a new report out from the U.K.’s Department of Energy & Climate Change done by user experience consultant Amberlight, at least five smart heating devices tested out in the U.K. market were found to be consistently ineffective, and neither satisfying nor easy to use.

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The report doesn’t name the products but said they were available on the market in the summer of 2013, and it noted that some new devices that hadn’t quite made it to market in the U.K. weren’t included (the Nest still hasn’t officially launched in the U.K. yet). Smart heating devices are categorized as systems that include a thermostat, timer and control devices for heating units — some of these included smart phone apps that could remotely control the heating systems as well.

The report said the main drawbacks of the smart heating products were:

  • Complex schedule setup.
  • Easy to introduce errors into the system, like non-valid times and dates.
  • Weak iconography, labeling and information architecture.
  • Weak interaction design.
  • Hard to quickly identify the state the system was in.
  • Lack of feedback.

So yeah, these are all design issues. It’s like we repeated over and over again at our experience design conference Roadmap 2013 in November, now that computing and wireless networks are cheap and readily available, the value of consumer technology is moving into the design itself. Startups, entrepreneurs, big companies and venture firms are all starting to realize this and are beefing up their design teams and strategies.

Nest 2G_3-4_Dramatic_autoawayStrong usability is particularly important when it comes to devices that can be historically mundane and complex, but also potentially important for helping the U.K. meet its carbon emissions reduction goals. By reducing the energy used by heating units — making them more efficient and used only when needed — the U.K. could substantially reduce the country’s overall energy use.

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