We admire our smart home. It keeps us safe & happy. This has to do with feelings, right? But have you ever wondered why Psychology, Fashion and Feelings are never mentioned when it comes to Home Automation - is it merely about AC3, CAT5 and X-10 ?

Smart Homes The Human Aspect People Have Feelings Part 2 of 2

Guy Schory | controlgs

We admire our smart home. It keeps us safe & happy. This has to do with feelings, right? But have you ever wondered why Psychology, Fashion and Feelings are never mentioned when it comes to Home Automation - is it merely about AC3, CAT5 and X-10 ?

by Guy Schory

In the first part we went through some benefits of the smart home, but what about the drawbacks? Have you seen any of those listed in a colorful brochure lately? In this part I will review some of the problematic issues that may arise while designing, installing and living in a smart home (and as in the first part, I won't be talking about the cabling problems…)

Who is it for?

Being a visitor to the Home Toys website you are probably quite keen on technology and gadgets. But would you try to persuade your grandparents to install a 50" plasma screen, 400W speakers, and to learn a new event-driven programming language?

The smart home is not ideal for everyone. Also, if you live with other people, it is a good idea to consider them too before you start altering their home.

Here are some types of people who will hardly appreciate the smart home:

  • Technophobes - those intimidated by new technologies

  • Those who find it hard to adjust to changes or to learn new things

  • Those who don't care too much about their 'earthly' surroundings (the more spiritual people)

For others too, a new smart home will require certain adjustments.

A second issue is that the smart home can become a 'weapon' for existing conflicts in the house. For example, you may choose to install web cameras around the house so you can see what's going on when you are away. But think about the rest of your family - they are denied their privacy at home! And what's more, usually not everyone in the house has equal access to this information, be it intended (password protection) or unintended (lack of knowledge how to operate the system). Such information includes input from video cameras, door sensors (which when recorded can tell parents when their kids came back last night), TV-watching habits, phone usage etc.

Of course you may see all of the above as wonderful measures for looking after your kids, but I doubt if they will see eye to eye with you. Besides, the same information is collected for adults as well. This may easily lead to a certain amount of spying on others, while trying to protect your own privacy.

Don't blame the smart home for creating these problems. These issues and conflicts exist in most families to a certain extent, but in a house where there is much tension already, the smart home may be perceived or used as a 'weapon'.

Complexity vs. usability

When designing a smart home, an important decision regards the tradeoff between a feature-packed-yet-complex system, and a simple-yet-stable system. Wayne Caswell mentions Metcalfe's Law - "network benefit increases as a square of the # of connected devices". Unfortunately, technical problems increase at just the same ratio…

To deal with the tradeoff question, I suggest a few criteria to divide smart home projects into categories:

  • Scale - small vs. large systems, depending on the number of connected appliances

  • Logical complexity - depending on the amount of logical rules defined in software, and on the complexity level of the user interface

  • Criticalness - whether or not the system is designed to work flawlessly, being connected to crucial appliances (alarm, door bolt, etc.)

Another criterion is the ability of the residents to handle technical problems in the smart home by themselves, without having to wait for a technician. Let us consider the abilities of 'the best technician' in the house (the person in the family who is in charge of the system). This person can either be an expert or a non-expert:

A non-expert user can only operate the smart home. If all works well, everyone is happy. But if anything fails or works differently than before, or when a change in the program is required, the non-expert user is helpless.

Being helpless in your smart home is no fun. If for some reason the lights go out, a door locks, a phone is disconnected or the fire extinguishers go off, you may experience extreme difficulty and distress. Suddenly you find yourself a prisoner of technology, cursing the moment you (or someone else) came up with the idea of the smart home. Sometimes the problem can be solved only after the 'real' technician arrives.

The expert user, on the other hand, understands the software and hardware aspects of the system. He or she can isolate a problem and solve it, if necessary with assistance by phone. Psychologically, expert users treat technical problems merely as problems (not to say 'challenges'), not threats. In addition, users who are aware of their capabilities will only install hardware and write software which they can later fix, and so will avoid dangerous and dramatic situations in the first place.

My personal belief is that a smart home cannot be packed with features and still be easy to use and maintain. Thus, I recommend one of the following three models:

  1. A simple and reliable system which does not require any knowledge of programming and can only perform fixed actions. For example: setting timers for appliances, lighting control etc.

  2. A non-critical system. Features: it may be X-10 or wireless-based (not 100% reliable), web-enabled (not 100% secure), controlling lighting & A/V, and leaving out HVAC equipment, alarm system, fire extinguishers etc.

  3. A complex and critical system, but only if the residents of the house can handle technical issues by themselves. All features can then be implemented.

Residents who cannot alter the smart home's program by themselves may encounter another obstacle: It is highly inconvenient to live in a house which is not programmed exactly the way you want it. For example, if the alarm clock is set to wake you up automatically on weekdays at 7am, it will keep on doing so even on a holiday morning. So, with a complex set of rules, many problems will rise until everything works well. Having too many features tends to complicate everything - the user interface, the process of teaching the system to others, and problem solving. In addition, some features turn out to be a gimmick (example: voice recognition) and are quickly abandoned. To avoid this, start with the basic and most important features, and leave space for future enhancements.

The tradeoff between complexity and usability rises again when selecting a home automation controller. Always take a close look at the programming screen and at the manuals of the controller, and ask yourself if you and your family will be able to cope with it. When technology is too complex (such as in some cellular phones) it is avoided altogether, so don't be blinded by the list of features suggested by the smart home - the downside is complexity. Also, don't be misled by the words 'Easy to use!'. These words alone don't solve anything…

To conclude, the residents should either be able to take care of the smart home by themselves, or try to avoid maintenance altogether.

Virtual security

In the old days, to protect your house you needed Metal - doors, locks, bars on the windows. The smart home, like many computer-based systems, is prone to electronic intrusions as well. These intrusions may be wireless, via the power lines, via the internet, or by physically hooking into the network wires. Breaking into the system allows both access to information (CCTV video, phone numbers, passwords) and the ability to control everything connected to the smart home (disabling the alarm, turning appliances on/off, dialing the phone remotely). A wireless network may even be penetrated from a distance. One may knowingly accept these risks and avoid the critical elements mentioned earlier, yet in most smart homes a break into the system is unacceptable. Since the possible consequences of an intrusion may be severe, the subject is rarely brought up, but to avoid unnecessary worries, study the subject and make sure that your smart home is at least minimally secured.


Some have the privilege of living elsewhere while their home is turned into a smart one, or they simply buy a readymade smart home. Yet others have to experience the mess involved in the process: Walls chiseled, electric wires everywhere, craftsmen sharing the family's private space, and so on. And once everything is in place the process of testing merely begins. Although the smart home should start working the moment you plug in the cord, but being a complex system that it is, it rarely does. A more realistic approach would be to assume a curve of faults over time: At first, many faults are discovered and solved. Once the system appears to be steady, the installer leaves, but will probably be called in again later as more problems are discovered by the residents, and some fine-tuning and tailoring is needed. Only after some time will you be able to fully enjoy your smart home (or decide that you want it dismantled altogether - a story I once heard…)

Planning for the future

When you buy a house you usually consider the future - for example, if you plan to have kids you will buy a bigger house. The smart home, being a part of the house, should also be designed while taking the future into account. Changes in the family and ageing will affect the needs of the residents. A baby monitor will in time become an intrusion to a teenager's privacy, and as people grow older their needs change as well (memory loss, health problems). By then the smart home's components may become obsolete and spare parts will be hard to come by. Try to take these issues into account.

Fashion and standards of living change much more rapidly though. If you want to keep up with the latest technology, be prepared to spend a lot of time and money since innovations and fashion are leading forces in the home automation market.

Considering the whole family

The smart home is usually the idea of one member of the family, yet everyone is affected. If you want your family to share your enthusiasm and not get discouraged by the difficulties, think of their needs and try to find some features that will help them too. If this doesn't help you can try a different approach - keep the smart home in 'low profile':

  • Leave out 'intrusive' features: video cameras, loudspeakers around the house…

  • Leave out 'bonding' features: locking the door or disconnecting the phone may cause a feeling of confinement.

  • Leave out 'imposing' features: for example - an alarm system which requires residents to disable it in the morning.

You can also concentrate on one room, or connect only part of the house and leave some 'old fashioned' rooms.

I also suggest discussing the project beforehand. Share your own enthusiasm for a smart home but prepare your family for a little inconvenience (especially during installation).


The purpose of the smart home is to make its residents happier, but nevertheless it has its downsides. Understanding the pros and cons and their implications will help design and build a better smart home.

Guy lives in Israel and works as a freelance developer of electronic embedded systems. He has been in the field of home automation for 10 years. He studied programming, electronics, design of man-machine interface, marketing and human geography. guy_homeauto@yahoo.com

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