Designing a Family Internet of Things (FIoT)

I recently attended the O’Reilly Solid Conference in San Francisco, a fascinating few days examining hardware, software and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Among the 1,800 attendees, there was an invigorating mix of professionals, entrepreneurs, startups and the big dogs in technology like Microsoft and Cisco.

The developments in biological engineering were fascinating, if more than a little above the head of a solid B-student in high school chemistry. Not surprisingly, it was the user and sociological challenges of the IoT that resonated the most profoundly with me.

As I have been learning and writing about the IoT, there’s been a nagging issue on my mind that rarely gets discussed. Fact is, the IoT is too focused on individuals. Having an environment that responds to my preferences and mood sounds fantastic. However, I don’t live alone. So if I prefer the house to be 70 degrees and my husband is a bit of a polar bear, who does the Nest listen to?

Consultants Anna Shaw and Morgan Freelan’s talk at Solid, “Connecting home: Designing for the systems of the whole family,” was a thought-provoking discussion of this issue. To me, this seems like the elephant in the “smart” room. More than 63 percent of U.S. households are comprised of two or more people while many connected products/services largely work through a “master operator” framework. That means one person has ultimate control of the smart features of the house.

Sounds great, but for most of us it’s not reality.

When you add kids into the mix, things can get even more complicated. The speakers shared a letter a mother had written to SmartThings about her frustration with her “smart” lighting system. Her son had discovered the joys of remotely turning out the lights on his sister, causing a fair amount of drama. While she loved many features of the SmartThings system, there was no way for her to set limits on certain activities in the house without completely taking control away from the kids. As she noted, the developers hadn’t designed with “knuckleheads like my son” in mind.

Shaw and Freelan encouraged designers to emulate women as they design connected devices. In addition to their own needs, mothers consider the needs of the whole household. This is a wicked problem to solve. The dynamics of a household that contains adults, teens and younger children (along with the dog and/or a cat), with multiple schedules, preferences and interests, makes it a bit more complicated to have the Sonos system play your favorite music as you walk in the door. What if your teenager is already there and he likes rap? Does Sonos play a schizophrenia-inducing mashup?

Practicality, solving real problems and considering the family environments that many of us occupy will do a lot to help move the IoT forward. Perhaps the IoT needs to evolve into the FIoT, with less emphasis on the I and more emphasis on the family (in its many diverse shapes and sizes). In the meantime, those of us with connected devices will need to practice a bit of “smart” diplomacy with our loved ones.

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