Nest’s smoke alarm mistake shows the risks in creating a new user interface

Next-generation user interfaces will be one of the keys to the emerging wearables markets, to the increasingly connected smart home, and to moving technology and devices further into the mainstream. But launching new types of user interfaces can be tricky, particularly if they’re using new forms of inputs and senses, if they’re for brand new types of devices that don’t have a long history on the market, and if they come from a startup.
Case in point: last week Nest (s goog) decided to halt the sale of its new Protect smart smoke alarm because it found a flaw in the sensor and gesture-based UI. It turns out that the function that enabled users to pause an alarm by waving at it could also be unintentionally triggered by other types of movement. The fear was that if there was a fire and the alarm was going off, a nearby movement could falsely pause the alarm.
Nest Protect
Nest took the device off the market while it fixes the flaw, and has disabled the feature on Protects already out in the market. Nest sold to Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion, so the company has enough money to survive and fix such an event. If it were a little startup, though, and the Protect was its first product, the same might not be true.
New user interfaces like gesture recognition and voice control are only just emerging. At one point touch interfaces for screens were new, but now they’ve been largely embraced by most device makers and they rarely have issues. Kinect has pushed gesture and voice control forward considerably when it comes to mainstream users, but other big companies and startups are trying to take gesture and voice control UIs to the next level, like Google with Google Glass and Apple with Siri.

Moderated by: Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom Speaker: Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

But the issue with new markets and new technologies is that there’s not a long history from which to learn. Designers have to build the products with the new UIs and rigorously test them — sometimes it’s not until the customer has been using them for months before an issue emerges. Users can be particularly sensitive to new UIs when they’re on the body or in the home. It’s a different world than just building a slick UI on a cell phone or laptop.
Nest has been a pioneer in taking unloved devices and developing new ways for humans to communicate with them. And Nest will likely fix its smoke alarm gesture flaw and get the product back out onto the market soon enough. At the end of the day the industry will be better for it, because it will contribute to the body of knowledge for this emerging connected home and new UI market.
Enabling people to have a better connection and a better experience with devices is the future of gadget design, and new types of UI will be crucial to creating these beloved experiences. But getting these new UIs onto the market and widely embraced will likely take a few hiccups.
Gigaom throws an annual two-day experience design conference called Roadmap, which we’re hosting on November 18 and 19 in San Francisco this year. Check back in the coming weeks for when we’ll be announcing speakers and more details.