The real magic of home automation happens when it fails!

Q: How many engineers does it take to change a light bulb? A: No one knows, they’re still working on it.

Anyone who has visited a home improvement store intuits there are many approaches to home automation. The choices feel endless. Most show little differentiation, and we expect that most of them work most of the time. One thing is certain: no matter how much research you do, eventually you have to pick one and go with it, hoping it will be good enough.

However, as with all technology, there will come a point when it doesn’t work as expected. This is where frustration, stubbed toes, thrown items and colorful language often set in. It is also when good design works its magic. Talking from experience, I have seen the light, so to speak.

In my home office, I tried to implement one of the standard home automation use cases: manage the lights automatically. The idea was to have the lights come on when I enter the office at dark and then turn them off when I'm no longer there. So I bought a home hub, a motion sensor, a light sensor, and a controllable outlet. By the time I was done, I threw down about $250. I installed it all, downloaded the app on my phone, and made sure the home hub software was always up to date.

Problem #1: The hub didn't support all the features of the light and motion sensor. It was good enough for what I needed but experiencing the full function would have been nice. The user interface to control the lighting automation through the hub wasn't exactly intuitive, but I've had to deal with worse, and eventually got it done.

But once it was all working, things became frustrating. Problem #2 arose.

When I just needed to pick something up from the office, the light stayed on for another 15 minutes. This was less than desirable when I wanted to go to bed. There were times when it wasn't quite dark enough, and I still wanted the extra light. I had two options: I either had to pull out my phone and operate the light manually or flip the wall switch which disabled the automation. In that case, I had to remember to turn it back on again later.

I gave up.

Until, on a visit to the Home Depot, I saw a Lutron switch that claimed to have both a motion and a light sensor to manage lighting automation. Ordinarily, I would have been very skeptical that this would solve my problem for just $20. But looking at the switch, I was thinking back to many meetings I had with Lutron people, including a very memorable dinner with their CEO at IFA, a big trade show in Berlin. Mike Pessina would not try to sell me something that doesn’t work right. I bought the switch and installed it.

And that’s when the magic kicked in. The automation worked for about 90% of the uses, similar to the hub experience. But when I wanted to override it, it worked just like an ordinary switch!! I just flipped it! No fumbling with the phone, no turning off the hub function, and having to remember to turn it on again later. By combining the automation with the standard function, it all became easy, seamless, and intuitive. An added bonus is that the switch is not connected to the Internet: no hacking risk, no data exposure!

Home automation is very much still evolving. It’s not even close to perfection. My lighting experience shows that 90% of success is not good enough when the failing 10% are irritating. For a true smart home, the entire user experience has to be considered. Intuitive failure – creating smart faults - can make all the difference.


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