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by George McKechnie

Digital engineers who design consumer electronic devices and apps these days see their creations as things of beauty—products that advance mankind’s quest to expand experience while simplifying the complexities of modern life.  Yet many consumers who buy and use the gear—smart TVs, audio and video streaming devices, and tablets, for example—view them as necessary evils.  We may need and even enjoy the things that these smart home products can do, but are often frustrated, stymied, and even intimidated in our interactions with the actual equipment.  A recent study found that consumers, on average, use only about 20% of the features available on the consumer electronic products they buy in a retail transaction.  Could they have found many of the others too difficult or frustrating to figure out how to use?

The consumer electronics industry continues to work diligently to make their products more user-friendly.  In fact, the great driving forces behind smart home automation have been the continuing improvements in the user experience for home entertainment gear, plus the development of cost-effective features like lighting control, automated window coverings, and security systems.   An additional impetus has been the rapid growth of universal connectivity via the internet—allowing people to more easily stay in touch with family, friends, and home, from almost anywhere in the world, using their mobile devices.

But making home electronics simple and easy-to-use for all household members involves much complexity behind the scenes, both for the designer/manufacturer and for the specialists who install the equipment and program it to fit the needs of the users.  This ongoing tension between the technical complexity needed to deliver user simplicity permeates the world of digital consumer products.  Let’s look more closely at the problem.

Analog to Digital to Analog Conversion.

None of the dramatic technological advances in the last quarter century could have taken place without the development of the personal computer, plus the revolutionary shift from old school analog recording and playback devices (box TVs, LP records, VCRs, and other consumer products) to today’s blazingly fast, compact, and increasingly inter-compatible digital technologies.  On the home entertainment side, much of this transformation was driven by digital recording, transmission, and playback techniques.  This process involved:

  • Capturing continuously variable visual and auditory information—the two sensory modalities that humans rely on to understand and navigate the everyday (analog) world
  • Converting this analog information to digital data by breaking them up into extremely small bits of information (represented electronically by strings of 1s and 0s)
  • Transporting, transmitting, and/or transforming the data (in size, location, volume, brightness, speed, etc)
  • Converting the digital data back to analog form, to recreate the sounds and images that humans can perceive and enjoy. [Some digital devices, like flat-panel TVs, display the data digitally, using pixels so small that the human eye and brain see the image as analog.]

If the digital elements (the number of pixels for video, the sampling rate for audio) were made small enough to capture every nuance of information, and were handled with enough care (to prevent distortions from creeping in and corrupting the data), the net result would convincingly convey the immersive, compelling experience of the analog world.   Many would argue that today’s digital audio and video technologies actually perform better than the old analog recording and playback versions, as they achieve levels of resolution, brightness, color accuracy, and overall fidelity that pure analog technology could seldom achieve, regardless of cost.

Better or not, most consumers would agree that the digital revolution in audio and video has been a resounding success.  And of course modern computing (including smart phones and tablets) simply wouldn’t exist without digital technology.

The Analog Brain

So all is good in the digital world of smart home integration—or is it?  Buried beneath the successes of digital technology in providing powerful and compact computers,  reproducing convincing audio and visual experience, and automating homes, are significant concerns about the ability of humans to monitor and control these increasingly complex systems.  The more tasks a smart phone or security/surveillance system is capable of monitoring and controlling, the more complicated (even intimidating and frustrating) they are to operate—unless the systems are organized and displayed in ways that take into account the limitations and preferences of the analog human brain.

What human factors need to be taken into account?  Most of us (excluding the generation that grew up playing video games on smartphones) have learned, to our continuing chagrin, that most digital systems are relentlessly logical—some would say stupid—rather than psycho-logical.  They require us to use flawless data input when entering passwords, often arbitrary hierarchical (rather than linear or sequential) thinking when drilling down through menus, and perfect sequencing of commands to locate and use a feature that was easy to find in the analog world.  At their worst, digital devices are machines, and for the privilege of communicating with them, they require humans to think and act like they do.  Many of us on occasion find this more than a little frustrating.

Humans prefer to approach problems intuitively.  We prefer linear thinking, approximate information, and familiar commands. Fortunately, some of the latest generation of consumer-friendly digital devices employ fuzzy logic strategies that help to compensate for human imperfections—like word suggestions that appear as we peck away at a new text message on a smartphone.   Given the complexity of the machines that we seek to communicate with and control, we need all the help we can get—especially at the end of a long day, when tired, frustrated, or the slightest bit mind-altered from alcohol or medications.  At these times, dealing with the relentless and seemingly arbitrary logic of digital devices can be a struggle.

This problem is compounded when multiple digital platforms, perhaps from different manufacturers, are combined to address lifestyle patterns—as when exterior lighting control, security, and surveillance systems are integrated to protect the family from intruders, without using macro techniques to remember complex sequences of commands (see below).

Taming Digital Technology

Here are some design and programming strategies that will help the average smart home user interact more easily with digital devices, find what they want, and reduce intimidation, frustration, and errors.

Simplify the interface display.   Displays that are used to monitor and control smart home devices can get very cluttered with icons and labels, making it difficult for the user to find the control that they are looking for.  This is especially true for non-dedicated devices like smart phones and tablets, when they are used to run multiple apps in addition to smart home management.  See Adapt the Controller to Your Needs.

Research in the field of human learning has long shown that short-term memory can handle a maximum of about seven pieces of information at one time—the so-called “magic number seven.”  This is why, for example, local phone numbers have seven digits (excluding the area code, which is not used for a local call).  If you need to remember a number outside your area code (10 digits long), you’ll probably exceed the short-term capacity of your brain, so you’d better write it down.

The implications for the smart home interface are simple:

  • show the minimal number of icons on a page, consistent with the larger problem of page navigation, which is also subject to the limits of human memory: avoid more than seven navigation pages if feasible.
  • keep task sequences short—preferably with less than seven icons or commands.


Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  While the human factors engineers try to limit display icons and command sequences to a reasonable number, the industry at large keeps cranking out new widgets and apps that add clutter to our display devices, and lengthen command sequences.

They also continue to add features to existing product categories, compounding the problem.  Example: a current mid-level (under $1,000) surround receiver model from a respected manufacture offers dozens of controls and features that can be combined into many hundreds of configuration combinations.  As a consequence, the owner’s manual runs to over 300 pages!

The main industry strategy used for simplifying displays in the face of proliferating apps is to organize related commands into hierarchies.  This helps the designer cram in the increasing number of control options.  But it doesn’t help the average user.  Want to turn up the bass of your surround system?  Don’t bother looking for a bass control any more on the front panel your receiver or home page of your remote.  You‘ll need to look for it deep in the menu: first select the sound option, then drill down several levels in the hierarchy to find tone controls, then select bass and make your adjustment.  The problem is, you first you have to know where to find it.  It’s like looking up the spelling of a word in the dictionary—to find it easily, you first have to know how to spell it!

Make the interface intuitive.  System designs that respect—and even anticipate—common behavioral patterns can save users time and frustration.  For example, most DVR-enabled satellite and cable boxes have a previous or back key that allows the user to switch easily back and forth between two shows as they are being broadcast.  This is especially useful for sports fans who want to follow two games at (almost) the same time.  But if this key also allows you to include a previously-recorded show into the mix, so much the better.  This way you can hop back and forth between a game you are watching in real-time and a pre-recorded one.  Otherwise, you’d have to go back to DVR, then to your Playlist, each time you wanted to switch from a current broadcast to the pre-recorded game.

Eliminate conflicts among components.   Something as simple as adjusting the volume on a home theater can be a challenge, if the remotes for the TV, surround receiver, and cable box (each of which contain a volume key) are all being used.  Which one actually controls the volume in your set-up?  A universal remote control solves this problem by programming and presenting only the one correct volume control to the user (Hint: in a surround sound set-up, it’s the one built into the surround receiver).  Of course you can help avoid the confusion by hiding the remotes that came with the individual components.  See Very Smart Remote Control Systems

Create a custom user’s guide.  The technology integrator who designs and installs your smart home can provide additional help by making a custom user’s guide which documents how your system was installed and set up—the actual settings and pathways used. This is especially true for home theater and distributed audio systems, which can provide too many configuration options.  The collection of instruction manuals provided by the component manufacturers can confuse the owner by contradicting each other, and by offering only general information that does not reflect the actual configuration decisions that were made when installing your system.

Use macros to simplify tasks.  Many smart home control tasks require multiple commands from the user.  Firing up a home theater system, for example can easily involve seven steps or more.  Here’s a typical command sequence:

  1. Turn on the surround receiver
  2. Turn on the video projector
  3. Turn on the Blu-ray player
  4. Lower the motorized screen
  5. Set the surround receiver to DVD/Blu-Ray input
  6. Set the video projector to HDMI input 1
  7. Press Start on the Blu-ray player to begin the movie.

Here’s an easier way: program the smart remote control with a macro program labeled “Blu-Ray” that performs all seven steps with a single keystroke.  For more on macros, see Very Smart Remote Control Systems.

Make the system stable and reliable.   You want consistent, repeatable functioning of the components that make up your smart home system, such as a home theater, multi-room music, security/surveillance system, etc.  In other words, you want the system to be stable—to function the same way each time you use it.  The main causes of system instability (like picture but no sound, or the reverse) include: power outages, flicker outages (brown-outs), Wi-Fi interference or other remote control communication problems, and your visiting nephew messing with the system.  Careful component selection, system engineering, and installation can minimize the inconveniences of unstable systems.  But it’s up to you to rein in the nephew.

You also want a smart home where the components do not fail prematurely.  Common causes of early component failure include: power surges from power company problems or lightning strikes, heat build-up due to poor ventilation, wiring shorts, and poor engineering.  Smart home specialists know how to design and engineer systems that will minimize the likelihood of both unstable system operation and component failures.  See Safeguard Your Home Electronics; Pro-Active Heat Management; Is My Wiring Smart Home Ready? (coming soon)

Tailor to Specific Needs & Limitations.   Not everyone in the household may have the same ability to enjoy and control all the smart home features in your home.  Fortunately, smart home systems can be custom-tailored to accommodate the special needs of household members—by compensating for vision & hearing losses, cognitive and memory deficits, and mobility problems.  They can also be designed to help families manage some of the risks associated with these disabilities.  See Adapt the Controller to Your Needs; Aging-in-Place; and An Electronic Safety Net for Elders.

Final Thoughts

The very same proliferation of features and flexibility now built into modern consumer electronics devices, that overwhelm the analog brain of the typical user, can—in the hands of a skilled smart home expert—be used to advantage, to make life more convenient, enjoyable, and safe.  The keys to unlocking this potential include 1) identifying the specific needs and preferences of the users, and 2) custom-tailoring the devices (often simply by programming the user interface) to address any special needs and desires.

Most of the cost involved in creating a smart home system goes into the components themselves plus installation labor.  Configuration and programming the system for special needs typically represent a small part of the overall budget.  For this reason, it seems foolish not to custom-tailor smart home features to accommodate the specific needs, wishes, lifestyle patterns, and even intellectual quirks of household members.