When Will Automation Get Easy?
By: Tony Stewart
Each year manufacturers of automation related systems and
components improve their products by offering more features at less cost than last year.
This is as it should be and is in the pursuit of progress. However, many times the
increase in horsepower brings with it an increase in complexity. This story is intended to
address whether or not increased horsepower is really helping sales and promoting the
growth of the automation industry and whether the industry should be driven by engineering
Throughout this story I will use the history of the personal computers penetration into the homes of America as a comparison due to the interesting analogies that can be made. In the last years of the seventies we saw the introduction of the small home computer to the marketplace by Steven Jobs and Steve Wozniak who later founded Apple Computer. We are at the same crossroads now that these two visionaries were at then. However we have been at that crossroads for far too long without advancing.
With the purchase of my first Apple computer came a few
surprises. The first was the price tag. I spent over $2,000 for a computer with 16K of
memory, a cassette tape drive for storage and a modulator to view the computer on a TV
set. With a career underway in electronics I knew I wanted to stay up on the latest
technology but I was unprepared for the fact that the costs would figure in to how many
children we could afford to raise. Today the costs of automation puts buyers in a similar
The biggest surprise was the stack of manuals that came with the Apple. There was at least a half dozen users guides and programming manuals. Sure it was in the early days of personal computers but I was blown away by how much I had to learn before I could use my computer system. Today automation is at the same phase of it's growth. Engineers are cranking out power and salesmen are trying to sell the features. The missing element in the early days of personal computers was human interfaces that offered ease of use and the same thing is missing in automation today.
Actually if it were not for the fact that I live in a rural farm community in upstate South Carolina then I probably would not even be in the home electronics business today. Sound strange? Let me explain. When I first purchased an Apple computer all the farmers in my neighborhood heard about it. It is hard to keep secrets when all the neighbors for several miles are family. One by one, they came to see what a computer was and what it could do. With my cassette tape based game called lemonade stand, I was able to show the local farmers the true extent of what could be done with a computer.
I thought I had made a strong point that I was an innovative pioneer and hoped that I would be seen a such. However I began to think otherwise when one tobacco spitting farmer commented that I had spent enough money to buy a damn good tractor! Immediately I went to work writing software so I could get a second chance to show these men more than just a game. From the day of my tractor experience until today I have been on a mission to deliver value to buyers and ease of use when promoting home electronics components. Still none of those farmers ever came back for a second showing. The point is that once we turn off the buyer, they may never come back again. Today I am sure that many of the local farmers have some stories to tell about me for sure. I live in a house where all the lights flash, the burglar alarm siren talks, the house reminds me of events and I have cameras all around the outside of the house. Possibly the best story they tell is when they all arrived one cold January night in 1980 to witness my house going up in flames, me stark naked (I was in the shower when the heating system blew up) with my Apple II computer under my arm.
The mindset of the farmer who is turned off at first impression is exactly where automation is today, trying to justify it's existence and prove value. Sure the first Apple computer was an engineering marvel but the buyers didn't know it nor did they care. Few people want to know of power, they just want to know what it can do for them and they don't want to read a half dozen books in order to operate the system.
In the manufacturing world I don't understand why the technical departments don't ask the marketing departments to take the lead and design the look and feel of the human interfaces so that the customer could easily operate the systems. The advantages recognized by the buyers would lead the creation of new systems. How many times have we seen a good automation system but the keypad is hard to use and just plain dirt ugly? Look at how many systems ask the buyer to use a computer as the main human interface. The human must turn it on and wait on it to boot up before they can use it! Try convincing my farmer type neighbors that this is progress.
If a computer is present it should be in the closet. Sure the automation system should be computer capable, but the average buyer resents having to be computer literate to operate their home. The computer can be a tremendous interface but not when it is also doing your accounting and used to do the children's homework. It must be dedicated and transparent. If used in this manner there may be no better user interface available. Well there could be one better interface. That would be the TV set's remote control. Give me a remote controlled TV interface with the power of a computer and I believe we would be on to something big.
The Techno-Nut may drive this market today but that must change if we are to survive. I question how turning on a computer can be as attractive as pressing one button on the wall or on a remote control. If manufacturers will allow buyers to access the value added features of automation as easily as pressing a few buttons then we will see a penetration of sales into the average buyer's home.
Market data should drive the design of automation systems so that they do things the customer will pay for. Instead the engineers go wild on power and capabilities (which increases cost) and then ask the marketing team to force the systems power down the throats of buyers. Take a bite, you'll like it!
Often it is easier to set the time on a VCR than it is to get a house mode up and running in an automated home. While we hear jokes about customers who can't set the time on a VCR, I would love to have a dollar for every VCR in America that has flashing on it's display right now.
The point is that if it takes even a little bit of time or thinking, Americans simply will not set the time on the VCR. They will still buy one because they wish to play tapes and with average costs around $300, they can still get some value out of the purchase. While they may buy a VCR, an automation system is a another issue. When we can offer one for low cost that gives value without knowing how to fully program or use it, we will be at a point where sales will boom. Don't hold your breath and wait on this to happen.
Today the personal computer and VCR has found it's way into many American households but look how many years it has taken to mature the market. The automation industry is often heard to compare it's growth to that of these products with hopes that automation will follow the same path. If this is what we can expect then I say we are doomed.
Let's discuss this further. There are a couple of major facts that cause automation to be different from any other home electronics products to date. First is it's complexity. Automation systems require integration. Computers can sit on a shelf and interface with little else than the telephone. Automation systems must interact with security, energy, lighting and more. It is true that with all the integration capabilities the sales possibilities are greater than computers. But it is also true that it will always take an installer of greater than average skills and that the more you integrate the more complicated it could become for the owner. If computer owners can't interact with their computer, they turn it off an never use it again. Try doing that with an automation system that interfaces with security, lighting and energy management.
The second difference is cost. How much people will pay for automation is certainly a big part of discussions these days. I personally don't agree with the thought that automation systems are only for a certain range of buyers. With all the subsystems available in an automated home I believe there is something that any homeowner would want. Whether it's security and stereo speakers or safety lighting with energy management, all buyers want part of the package. I believe that we are handicapped by the marketing campaigns conducted by some manufacturers where the total electronic home is seen as a sizzling electronic palace. Most buyers feel that they either can't afford it, service will be an issue or don't want that much control over the home. This "sell the sizzle" campaign is sending the wrong messages by making our products appear out of the price range of the average American.
When are we going to learn that this market must be driven by the average person and that the wealthy and famous buyers are only a very small percentage of sales? The industry continues to feature the mega house in news releases, advertising and brochures. The signals being sent to the average buyer is wrong. The high end and custom market will not drive this industry. We have even influenced our dealer base into thinking these products are sold to the custom market only. However this is not true and the image we are sending must change. For those that believe they can't sell automation to the average person I say that as long as we find $15,000 Bass fishing boats parked in the yards of $80,000 homes we can sell automation products to anybody as long as we let the marketing staffs direct the product development jointly with the engineers.
There is hope that sales of more than a few hundred dollars can be made to the average buyer, but we are not sending signals to the buyer that anyone can afford our products. Instead most buyers believe they can't afford our products and that they are only for the wealthy.
As for ease of use we must learn a lesson from the computer industry. Today, computers are everywhere and buyers need not learn to program to access the power of the computer. Still it has taken the computer industry 20 years to get to where they it is today in ease of use and there are those who still say that true plug and play is a myth (I am one of those)! Remember that the computer is only one subsystem in the home and that automation integrates with all subsystems making ease of use even more important. Unless our industry changes its approach we may be up against more than a 20 year penetration into the homes of America.
What can we do to speed up the process? I say we must use the keep it simple stupid approach to offer lifestyle enhancements to our buyers. Forget trying to sell the power of the system and sell the value. Quit showing mega houses in our advertising and promote simpler installations.
Today our industry has manufacturers of the right products but the louder voices with the wrong messages are being heard instead. It's kind of like being in elementary school playing on the playground. Most of the crowd follows the loudest voice. Whatever the loudest person says, wherever they lead, many others on the playground join in. Not because the lead is in the right direction but because loud often influences more than common sense in our childhood years.
Later in our maturing process we learn that following the loudest voice is often a mistake. Our industry can't wait until later because the first time a farmer kicks the tires of our tractor it often becomes the last time. We must show the advantages and value to the farmer in the beginning.
We have learned to attract attention with the sizzle but not that the sizzle is scaring away the average buyers. I am not aware of any bad products in our industry. All manufacturers are making excellent systems. Our main mistake is in allowing engineering to determine the sales strategy. We must learn not to attract buyers with loud voices and sell the sizzle campaigns. While this attracts a few buyers they are mainly from the wealthy or Techno-nut markets.
Most important of all we must design systems around the lifestyles of the buyers and quit trying to convince them to change their lifestyles around our products. We must make our systems easier to use than a computer and as desirable as a VCR. Our industry will survive but many of our dealers and customers will not. I personally am not excited about it taking 20 more years for the industry to mature. Unless we change our sales tact I may retire before our market comes of age. It is important for Engineers to build power into systems, but the Marketing team should tell them what will sell and what runs up the cost needlessly. As long as the dog and pony shows at our industry trade shows are conducted by the Engineers I believe my point will remain valid.
In closing I offer the date of this letter. It was written on 07/18/97. If the words of this letter are still applicable in 5 years, then our industry is not maturing adequately. However if these words are out of date, then I will gladly chew them up and swallow them!
Tony Stewart ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of Automation University ( http://www.concentric.net/~setnet/set.shtml ), author of automation topics, the inventor of the Virtual Real-Tour, consultant to the utility and security industry, winner of Parks and Associates training awards and is on Board of Directors of the Home Automation Association.