When Smart Things Aren’t That Smart

hands washing under sink

True confession: I don’t like automated bathroom sinks very much. I know that sounds strange coming from someone who automates things for a living. But it’s the truth. Intellectually, I understand their utility. No water running all night. No touching taps that could be covered with all sorts of germs. But then I get into a public restroom, and I’m waving my hands around like an idiot because the sink won’t come on, and all I can think is, “oh man, this thing is the worst.”

We live in an era where everything from our thermostats to our washing machines wants to show us how smart it is. And, for the most part, this is a great thing. I love my smart house lock. I never have to bring my keys on long runs or business trips. I love my smart lights. I can turn all of them off by tapping a button on my night stand. I can yell at Alexa to turn them on when I walk into the house with my hands full. I’ve programmed my ceiling fans to turn on just before I get home on really hot days. The smart products in my house make everything easier.

But have you ever talked to someone who hates the idea of automating everything? They sound like me standing in front of a soap dispenser that won’t give up its contents. “I just don’t see the benefit. And that stuff never works right anyways.”

In order to get our clients to love our smarter systems, we need to do two things. First, we need to preserve the core functionality of whatever it is that we’re replacing. And second, we need to make it blatantly obvious what the advantages are in upgrading.

Preserving that core functionality might seem like a no-brainer, but it can be surprisingly difficult. Take the humble light switch. Its core functionality is making the lights go on and off when I want them to. No big deal, right? Read that again. “When I want them.” Physical control of a lighting load is fairly easy, but now your client has multiple keypads, a schedule, maybe a motion sensor or two (or fifty). With great power comes great responsibility (pun intended). Every additional point of control is a new opportunity for a light to go on or off when it’s not supposed to. You’ve got to be on top of your game.

Making the advantages of your newer, smarter system apparent can be tricky, but it’s also where you can have the most fun. Your client bought a fancy new system and now you get to make the cool stuff work. They should get what they paid for, after all. I’ve written about it here before, but it bears repeating. Sometimes it’s the smallest, simplest parts of a system that make a client the most happy. I’ve spent five minutes re-purposing a button on a touch panel to do something small but very customized. And that five minutes made the client happier than the 40 hours I’d previously spent programming up that job. The advantages don’t have to be big to be obvious. Although I sure do love programming up showcase LED timelines.

As for me, I just remind myself that not having to touch things in a room where other people poop is a good thing. A very good thing. And I sure do appreciate the automated sinks that always turn off and on when I want them to.