What could make smart home tech adoption easier?
Two years ago, my mom was looking to join the estimated 20 million / 16% of US households protecting their homes with a video doorbell, so I decided to purchase one for her as a birthday gift. I wound up researching video doorbells for weeks, and more than once considered getting my mom a gift card to a spa instead and calling it a day.
To begin with, a quick Google search of “video doorbells” comes up with about 24,500,000 results. To narrow things down, I reviewed articles and guides by outlets such as PCMag, Wired, The Verge, and CNET. I was suspicious about these sites, considering that they could be paid by an affiliate company to recommend their product as ‘the best,’ but I also had few other ways to narrow down my choices.
Once I decided on a company I wanted to buy from, I was surprised to find more doorbells of various generations and specifications – again, marginally different-looking – from the same retailer.
After selecting one, I pieced together what I could of the technical jargon in the lengthy product description and table of technical specifications. Then I read through a handful of thousands of reviews, with titles ranging from “Great device” and “So much better than the original” to “Don’t buy if you don’t want a monthly bill” and “My door would be kicked in before getting a notification” and “So bad it made me cry 3 times and have an anxiety attack.”
At this point in the process, I had three choices: 1) decide on this option despite gaps in my understanding and uncertainty about whether the device would even work; 2) start from the beginning and repeat the process with one of many alternative options, or 3) give up entirely. I persisted and, after repeating the process a few times, finally purchased one.
My mom and I installed the doorbell together, which took a full afternoon and felt a little like going to an escape room or an obstacle course: it was challenging and occasionally tempestuous, but gratifying when we finally figured it out. At certain steps, we had to use YouTube videos turned down to 0.5 speed to figure out what we were doing wrong. Once we had installed it, all I could do was cross my fingers and toes that it would work correctly after I left.
It took a few weeks for my mom to become acquainted with her new doorbell, and to this day, I receive an occasional text from her with a question about a new feature or an adjustment to the interface. The beauty and the curse of the smart home is its customizability – endless opportunities (and labor) to tinker with settings to match your preferences (or just to make the device work correctly), connect devices to each other for an “integrated” technological environment, and attend to software updates and maintenance.
Despite the challenges associated with my gift, my mom loves her doorbell, and I think it has been more worthwhile for us than a spa gift card would have been. I’m grateful for the time (and laughs) that my mom and I shared while installing it together, and I love when she calls me to ask about it, because it always evolves into a 20-minute catch-up conversation.
But throughout my doorbell-buying process, I found myself wondering, how might all of this be made easier? I considered myself to be technologically proficient – I was three years into a computer science degree! – and yet the process ended up being significantly more time-consuming and labor-intensive than I would ever have anticipated.
Since I started work at the AgeLab last year, I’ve come across a few possible solutions.
I research smart home technology – and how consumers interact with it – for the AgeLab’s C3 Connected Home Consortium. One of my eternal duties as part of my work with C3 is to continuously familiarize myself with the smart-home devices and services that are in market. I’ve stumbled on a few things that have taken me back to my doorbell experience.
- Smart Home Technician Services
As I learned from my doorbell experience, the process of adopting new technologies can be overwhelming. Choosing and installing new technologies is not always as simple as companies make it out to be; even if you are well-versed in technology, it can be a challenging and time-consuming process. And, because people are required to learn and maintain over time, this process does not end after an individual has acquired a new device. These challenges help explain the emergence of services dedicated to implementing and supporting home automation technologies.
Some of these services are offered by small, local businesses. For example, MIT alum Michael Oh founded TSP Smart Spaces, a Cambridge-based company which convenes a team of designers and engineers that can design, implement, and support smart home automation solutions for individual residences and developers alike. Larger corporations are also catching on to this demand; the new (as of October 2021) Best Buy Total Tech Support Membership offers its subscribers access to support from Best Buy's subsidiary Geek Squad and another more exclusive team called "Totaltech Expert."
When I learned about these services, I thought about how much easier it would have been, or how much time I could have saved, if I had outsourced my process to a service like TSP or Total Tech Support. Realistically, as a junior in college, I was not about to shell out a few hundred dollars for someone to take over the task for me, and even now, I would likely still prefer to do it myself. But I think these services could offer a lot of value for people in certain situations: someone who would rather spend a Saturday on leisure rather than on setting up a new service, someone who is remotely providing care to a family member and wants to open up new channels to connect with them, or someone who simply doesn’t feel comfortable enough with technology to take on the process themselves.
While reviewing my options for doorbells to purchase for my mom, I noticed the label "IFTTT-compatible” on a few contenders. Frankly, I did not know what this label meant and was already overwhelmed by the technical tables and product descriptions, so I paid no attention to it. Fast forward to the early stages of my exploration of the smart home technology market for C3: After seeing many of the most high-tech products with this same “IFTTT-compatible” label, I decided to do some digging. As it turns out, IFTTT is a magical thing that really brings the “Connected Home” into play for anyone who wants it.
IFTTT (or, more simply, If This Then That) is a tool which allows users to integrate their devices, apps, and services using rules called applets. There are thousands of these applets, which are developed by companies and users alike, that any user can turn on to connect their IoT-enabled devices with one another. Here is a handpicked sampling of the many applets for the Ring doorbell:
Pause your music if Ring detects motion (developed by streaming service Spotify)
Flash lights when your Ring doorbell rings (developed by smart lightbulb retailer LIFX)
Log motion from Ring into Google Drive (developed by an independent user)
Get notified when the doorbell rings (developed by retailers of smart watches)
If doorbell rings between 21h and 6h, toggle Hue light(s) on (developed by an independent user)
Pause cleaning when your doorbell rings (developed by Home Connect Roxxter, a robotic vacuum)
Did you notice that some applets have been developed independent users? In my opinion, this is the most remarkable thing about IFTTT: it offers all users the power to create their own applets. Users don't need to know how to code (or, for that matter, be all that tech-savvy!) to integrate and automate the devices or services that they use every day. A user-friendly interface allows users to select a trigger ("if this…") and an action ("…then that"). A "Standard" user can create three of these applets of their own, while for $3.33/month, "Pro" users can create unlimited applets, including more complex, multi-step ones. Our devices and services become more powerful when they can be integrated with one another, and IFTTT gives the ordinary person the ability to take the lead on their personalizations and enhancements.
Learning about these integrations has mitigated my own doubt of the practicality of some technologies – hello, sleep tracking mat and IoT-integrated dog collar. You can turn on applets for the sleep tracking mat that track your bedtime in Google Spreadsheets, set the temperature and turn off your lights when you get into bed, and turn on your coffee machine when you get out of bed. As for the IoT-integrated pet collar, there are applets that will send you a text if your dog’s temperature is too high or prompt you to walk the dog if their activity goal has not been met.
When I learned about the Ring doorbell applets, I really wished that I had investigated the IFTTT label while I was shopping. My mom could have been easily connecting her doorbell to her other devices and services, like her Alexa voice assistant, her smartphone, and her Google account. But it’s great to know that, as she grows her collection of technologies, she will be able to explore how her devices work together and integrate them all on her own – although I hope she’ll still call me to tell me about it anyways.