This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Technology Designer Magazine:
In our world, our word is supposed to be our bond. In our business lives, it is our promise that is our brand. We all say we know this, but in the course of life we also have all experienced the gap between what we think we have promised, and the perception of the customer that might not be an exact match. We also know that a happy customer is our best reference for the next opportunity, and so we all strive to make them satisfied. But if the perception of what they receive doesn’t match what we believe we delivered, then we may have a difficult path to happiness.
In the world of technology, which continues to embed itself into every facet of modern building and lifestyle experiences, there is an added layer of complexity; as well as multiple perceptions we have to deal with. Whatever you call it: home automation, the smart home, the connected home, the helpful home (as Google is now going for), we all see that consumers and clients are bringing more technology into their residences and businesses every single day. Like every other item in their space they expect it to perform flawlessly, and with ease, and to fit into their lifestyle seamlessly.
Whether your role is that of an architect, interior designer, builder, technology designer or systems integrator, you are also well aware (or should be) of the amount of work it takes to pull off the magic your client is expecting when they ask for things like motorized window treatments, or controllable lights, energy management, sound and video in all rooms and spaces, home security, etc., etc. It is a wonderful opportunity for all of the market participants, as consumers are clearly adopting these technologies at an accelerating rate. But it also comes with brand risks and costs for all of our businesses.
The markets for all of this look great. Purchase interest and intent for the components of residential technology are all in the high single digits or teens percentagewise. This is a very good indication of adoption. Items like smart speakers and other smart home gateway products are realizing an adoption penetration at 26 percent of U.S. households and growing.
We know that when adoption passes 10 percent of homes, products become much more familiar to the average consumer, and so this opens the market wider. At that same time, we see that overall penetration is still quite low. For example, Home Security is only at 10 percent penetration in the U.S., but with very high awareness and purchase intent this signals a big opportunity with lots of growth ahead. To varying levels this is also the case with other core items like smart locks, video doorbells, cameras, motorized shades, smart lighting, energy management and more; this is certainly something homeowners are interested in and want to talk about.
We can expect double-digit growth in these markets for some time to come and increasing overall adoption by consumers as they appreciate the functionality of these smart products. What could be better for design-build professionals?
At the same time, we also are hearing the reports of issues for people using these solutions. Hacking of video doorbells and cameras are alarming and highly newsworthy. Security breaches corrode trust in the technology and certainly dissuade adoption.
Confusion is also rising for consumers. With a wide and widening range of products on display it is getting harder for consumers to make choices. Do-It-Yourself (DIY) items have really democratized the category but have also brought the typical issues of many end users not being able to get them working properly; or at best they are getting mixed results.
This is not surprising. This issue of DIY’s reliability and ease-of-use has always been the case. But at its core, there is a risk of connecting multiple DIY products/apps and compounding the problem of reliability and ease of use. So issues with one app may cause issues with other apps, or at least impede further adoption because the consumer gets frustrated and talks about it on social media.
In terms of households as noted, we are early in the game. Here is one representation of the typical S-curve of adoption of new technology. We are nearing the first “innovation window” where the issues of product/brand promises come into play. Depending on how we deal with customer acceptance will determine if markets mature, plateau or decline.
While the opening in the market provided by DIY items is great, and while the promise of things like digital assistants such as Alexa or Google Assistant are wonderful, they are not total solutions for consumers. Of course, they are fun and introduce the public to the opportunity to run things with voice, automate functions and connect many devices.
Unfortunately, they do not always run seamlessly and can require skill and knowledge to properly connect them for operation. This is not something most consumers are familiar with and so they may be frustrated getting the item to work or find themselves with a proliferation of multiple applications for each item or service making using their system cumbersome. No one wants to use such systems because these items are not sold with combined and refined user interfaces. It’s death by a thousand apps!
As well, many consumers are unaware of the steps needed to secure the network and the products that sit on the network. It can be frighteningly easy to get into many home networks as their systems remain unsecured. Plus, many consumers retain old equipment and standards as they build out the technology and these legacy products themselves become weak links in the chain.
This alone can bring many performance and security issues. But how many of us really understand the difference in Wi-Fi systems for example? As professionals trying to bring technology into our clients’ homes and businesses, this is both a problem and an opportunity. These are issues we must solve to satisfy the customer. The chance to demonstrate our knowledge and create solutions that enhance lifestyles present multiple opportunities across the entire design-build community.
DIY vs. Integrated Solutions
This is not a one-versus-the other-issue. As noted, DIY has brought wide awareness to the market and is generally pleasing customers. However, we know that we must deliver on our promise to clients that their solutions will work reliably, simply and seamlessly. Many clients may think their DIY solutions can be brought along to do this, and in some cases this is true. We can certainly integrate voice interfaces into a whole-house control solution.
On the other hand, we also know that voice is not perfect or complete, and at times a touch screen is a better solution (and companies know this, as we see touch screen-with-voice products growing to a substantial portion of sales this year; such as Google Hub or Echo Show). The key is to have an open and honest discussion with the client about the implications of trying to integrate various DIY products in a seamless fashion.
This is even more important as some of the best solutions on the market can be designed to be nearly invisible, but require construction, remodeling or remediation that can be costly, or destructive to the overall design and feel of a project.
Without denigrating the fun and experience of these new products, as integrators or technology designers we can show our skills and knowledge by honestly discussing the facts about what these solutions can, and perhaps more importantly, cannot do.
We believe that every chance to sit and discuss how technology can enhance a family’s residence is an opportunity. The flaws in any existing system are also the chance to discuss the fixes. Problems are opportunities to show our ability to overcome them. Our sincere advice is to use the opening DIY products provide, and the widening consumer awareness and interest in technology, to clearly discuss the path forward for our clients.
While some customers may push back, the truth today is that integrated solutions that are designed by technology designers are the clear way to provide reliable, seamless, and easy functionality for homeowners. While efforts such as the newly announced CHIP consortium from Apple, Google, Amazon and others are promising, we know from experience that these take quite some time to mature.
Indeed, there are already more than 20 such standards for connected devices and technology, and yet these firms know much more is needed. Considering that these standards must also be adopted and properly integrated across a wide range of devices and solutions, you realize that for some time ahead it will take those on the ground with knowhow to secure and integrate solutions for the moment.
Like promising tech such as 5G that looks to offer a lot of improved function, we know it will take years for the infrastructure to appear and make it happen. However, with proper planning, a solution can be made today that will accept and maximize that upcoming technology for the client. This kind of service alone should prove very compelling to the homeowner.
Be forthright in presenting the promise, risk and reality of technology for residences and businesses. People are interested and growing in awareness. Adoption is growing strongly, but we are in the early innings of the game. How we handle our projects and how pleased the consumers are with your work will greatly affect the total level and type of adoption. We have the chance to greatly penetrate the home if we do not disappoint the end-user. The expertise is there, please discuss it, use it, and help build the future for you and all of us.