The Internet of things you inherit or leave behind

We need more thoughtful, resilient and sustainable products that truly consider the reality of choosing a home and making it your own—even if just for a week or a night.

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Collection of boxes on moving day

Photo credit: Moving Day by Nicolas Huk.

Between 2000 and 2010, Bryan and I lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. We moved more than fifteen times, including stays of varying lengths in three continents, six countries, three Canadian provinces, and four cities in the UK. After five wonderful years in Scotland, we’ve recently moved once again!

Moving to a new country while running a small business can be tricky, so we’ve also planned (or seriously investigated) moves that for one reason or another never actually happened. This has added another five countries to the list of places in which we are now familiar with the intricacies of finding and securing a place to live.

Although we always expected the size, look, and lifestyle of apartments to differ from place to place, we were often surprised by the degree of variability in norms and expectations around what an apartment could and should contain and who bore the responsibility for introducing and maintaining those objects.

Here are just a few notable differences:

This combination of factors suggests that going forward tenants may inherit a much wider range of things than they would have done in the past. Given IoT’s current trajectory, some of these things will not just be random objects but an ecology of smart(-ish) inhabitants that have (or can) be programmed to communicate, in some way collaborate, or learn and adapt to their owners habits and peculiarities.

Observing connected products through this lens leads to all sorts of questions around their resilience in an environment where discovery, on-boarding, first-use, day to day use and periodic maintenance may include an unexpected (and revolving) number of actors—each with different needs and potential levels of ownership.


Challenges and opportunities

I had hoped to group the examples below as either challenges or opportunities, but quickly realised that almost any user challenge becomes an opportunity for brands that develop connected devices or the ecosystems around them.

I also considered grouping topics by user need, or stage in the user journey, but struggled to do so given the number of actors, and the fact that each may be at a different stage in their specific journey, or have different needs and expectations.

The list below is therefore presented somewhat as-is, but with the odd journey-related grouping in the general hope that it will stimulate conversations around these topics!

Discovery

Viewing a potential home is always precarious. You often only have a short period of time and want to learn as much as possible about the property and what it might be like to live there. You flush toilets, run a few taps, peek in the fridge and oven, and make note of the number of radiators, thermostats, power sockets — anything that might break down or make your life hell if it turns out to be a dud.

Rarely does this process currently involve discussions about hardware versions, operating systems, apps, firmware, connection ports (barring cable/TV/phone) and who has the right or indeed responsibility and sufficient access privileges to install updates, pay monthly or annual subscriptions, or introduce new software into the system.

There’s also the simple practicality of understanding what “things” you will share the space with if you assume tenancy. The listing for an apartment we recently considered in Vancouver included a “smart mirror”. Deciphering what this meant was an interesting process and i’m not convinced that, going forward, parties (…people, algorithms, AIs) that show or promote such properties will be well versed on the opportunity space presented by these features (or indeed…whether their very presence should be considered a feature or a bug).

Bathroom with television embedded in the mirror

Photo credit: Bosa Properties.

After much Googling, we discovered this photo of the smart mirror which apparently includes a TV. The fact that the functionality was branded (even if possibly a white label) by the developer made it that much harder to know what functionality this would actually provide.

I suspect that in the not too distant future, tenants will start demanding a detailed list of what software is installed and where, whether it can be updated or reset to suit new occupants, how easy it is to do so, and who bears responsibility for any associated cloud subscriptions or service costs. Markets where rentals are primarily mediated through lettings agents or corporations (e.g. UK, Singapore) may fare better in this scenario as they’re already used to providing a detailed lists of furniture and fixtures as a matter of course.

Identification, on-boarding, maintenance

Once you’re all moved in, the real fun begins, and doesn’t necessary end until you’ve lived with appliances for some time — or seen them fail.

If some form of manifest hasn’t been provided during viewing, it will certainly be in demand once the tenant moves in. In almost every flat i’ve lived in we’ve experienced teething pains around startup and maintenance of heating and appliances. Smarter and more connected appliances provide a rich opportunity to lessen these pains — but also (paradoxically) increase themif each new dwelling requires you to learn a new interface and configure complex permissions (if you’re thinking “yeah…but you only do that once”, read on).

And if objects have been specifically designed to learn your habits, you may have to wait for them to unlearn someone else’s (…or maybe enlist someone to “teach” them). [A slightly different premise than in the video below, but then don’t we already spend our days teaching algorithms and devices—even if for the moment, we don’t get paid for it]

Also worth remembering that if trends continue, many “tenants” may simply be highly transient AirBnb-style residents. They won’t be invested in learning everything about the apartment, let along hang around enough for the object to “learn” much of anything about them, but will still need to understand how not to accidentally leave the front door unlocked or unknowingly set a daily recurring “recipe” that commands the oven to start at 3pm.


When something inevitably does go wrong, simply identifying an appliance can be a nightmare if there is no manual available (my washing machine comes to mind with an ID label located behind the unit which had been built into a cabinet).

Smarter and more connected objects may ironically be far more opaque as some (or all?) of the interface may be mediated through software. If on-boarding is presumed to occur directly after un-boxing, users who inherit a product may miss key steps or develop unusual conceptual models that will make using the product awkward to use (at best) or even dangerous.

A few thoughts on ways to improve ad-hoc on-boarding, today and in the future:

  1. Manufacturers shouldn’t presume (sorry!) that their product will be iconic enough for users to recognise it on sight. Ensure enough data (model number etc.) is visible for users to clearly identify the product, and where practical, include a QR code (or other just-in-time interaction trigger) that deep-links to online support and specifications.

    Tesla's Autopilot System is Creepy and Wonderful: What specifications consist of (and for whom, and in which context) is an interesting question when software updates can obscure a device’s behaviour or update it as significantly as Tesla’s new Autopilot.

  2. While it may be tempting to embed info and specifications within an object (especially if it includes a display), this should be weighed against the benefits of providing a simple URL whose content can be updated remotely and potentially customised to prioritise the after-sales context (vs. the often sales-driven materials that dominates product sites).

  3. For smaller objects, or those that can’t support a visible label, an embedded technology such as NFC or the Physical Web could be used to exchange that URL. In both cases, the opportunity to initiate this exchange using a browser seems key given that, even if the product requires an app, new residents may not yet know they need one, and more transient residents may justifiably not wish to download one. For resilience’s sake, the default experience should IMHO almost always point to the web.

  4. In cases where apartments are in some way formally managed (social and student housing etc.) an in-suite touchpoint could lead to a secure online manifest of all in-suite appliances, including model numbers, firmware status and links to set-up and maintenance instructions. Corporations that manage a large numbers of apartments could provide a standard, digital manifest for each property, retrievable through various means, and with access (and interaction) privileges aligned to each person’s role (tenant, caretaker, owner, random visitor etc.).

  5. As people aren’t yet used to spontaneously “interrogating” things in front of them (at least not in quite the breadth and depth of ways that physical web will enable), a visible logo/wordmark would help improve discovery, and possibly hint at the range of affordances available (e.g. information vs direct control or proxied interaction).

    Suica Penguin themed cafe in Japan

    Photo credit: Shibuya246, CC-BY-NC with lots more pictures here.

    The Japanese Suica smart card penguin has evolved into a widely recognisable brand complete with baked goods. Cultural norms about cute characters aside, the NFC wordmark is by comparison quite uninspiring. The Physical Web, and IoT in general, would IMO benefit from standardised signposts and affordances that inject a touch of playfulness into interactions that may otherwise be slightly sterile.

Privacy, security, control

Privacy concerns are bound to run through many of the scenarios we’ve discussed. A “home” (even a one-night bedroom at an AirBnb) is a place of privacy and sanctuary from the world. The presence in that space of objects that contain remote and/or ambiguously-owned and controlled interfaces is bound to generate questions about who can access then.

To a new user, these types of questions will be a potential source of stress until trust is established and the system’s boundaries and behaviours are confidently understood.

New tech may also introduce or exacerbate already common areas of social and legal tension. For example, a sublet or occasional spare-room AirBnb rental may increase the number of actors who hold a visible or programmatic stake in a connected object. You may not want the landlord to suddenly notice your lock is now programmed to open for Peter instead of Bryan (assuming you even have the right to invite new users to the system). The new resident might simply be a visiting friend whose presence would in the past have gone unnoticed yet now risks falling foul of a lease that stipulates the maximum number of residents.

One can also foresee scenarios where technology might be used to spontaneously restrict access to a property, or some aspect of its functionality (e.g. electricity) in cases of dispute, or pressure tenants into preferred behaviours through changes in software privileges. Dystopic as it may sound, there’s certainly scope for municipal/landlord/tenant disputes to take on a whole new set of “smart” characteristics.

This is terrible design. A thermostat shouldn’t *need* internet connectivity to function. It also probably shouldn’t be under the control of anyone other than the resident or the power company (in Canada you can die from the cold, so suppliers can’t legally shut power off in the winter for lack of payment). But what if another party sits in the middle of this relationship thanks to simple, off the shelf software?

Parting thoughts

I started writing this before our decision to move, and then put the article aside as some of these issues felt a bit premature. After all, in our current day, how many people actually have this problem?

Our move and apartment hunt however reminded me that the future is rarely equally distributed. Thousands of new properties are currently being built in cities such as Vancouver, and many of them will boast some manner of smarts. As a potential resident it’s not always clear these features even exist, what their boundaries are, or how useful or helpful they will be in day to day life.

A news item about this smart condo development in Toronto notes that although the condo has all sorts of smart things built in, it does not include *the Samsung branded phone* required to control them.

There’s a huge opportunity for brands to develop thoughtful, resilient and sustainable products and ecosystems that truly consider the diversity of contexts and needs related to choosing a home and making it your own—even if just for a week or a night.