Why You Should Stop Working on Smart Homes and Focus on What Matters

We did it again: A new wave of technology washed ashore, we turned our heads to it, and lost sight of what is important.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

“McFly!!”, Mr. Fujitsu yells on the screen.

Old Marty, with a submissive posture, responds: “Mr. Fujitsu, sir! Good evening, sir!”

“McFly, I was monitoring that scan you just interfaced. You are terminated.”

“Terminated? But sir! It wasn’t my idea! Needles was behind it!”

“And you cooperated. It was illegal and you knew it. You’re fired, McFly. Goodbye.”

“But sir — ”

“McFly, read my fax!

Simultaneously, copies come out of the fax units in each and every room of the house, including the bathroom; which says in big block letters, “YOU’RE FIRED!”

Just a second… Fax machines in 2015? Who would need them in every room of the house, even in 1988?

That’s the question I ask every time I watch the movie “Back to the Future II”. Video calls prediction is on target, robo-drones that walk the dogs are likely to happen, hover-boards are awesome, self-drying coat with a ventilation system is funny. However, fax-machines look so odd. So useless.

Then why couldn’t scenarists Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale see this coming?

Actually, Robert and Bob made the same mistake with today’s smart-home solution providers. They couldn’t free themselves from product-oriented thinking. They made a non-relevant modification on some gadget that already existed back then, without looking at the customer need. They kept themselves in the boundaries of a product available in 1988 and found it enough to make an incremental change on it.

Therefore, apart from their visionary predictions, their smart-home design hosted a non-relevant and useless gadget in it.

What about actual smart-homes of today?

Nevertheless Robert Zemeckis and Bob Galewere were scenarists and they were paid to come up with a good story, which they did, not with product ideas that would sell millions. But what excuse do these guys (4:14) have while they are proudly saying, “In a world full of technology, have you ever wondered why are we still opening and closing our blinds by hand?”?

These solutions are designed by the people whose job are to design successful solutions that actually solve problems. Yet they still fall into the trap of product-orientation.

Here is another example: the iron with bluetooth and an app:

As the manufacturer puts it; this is not an iron. This is an ironing system and a connected solution for smart ironing. They say, “It uses Bluetooth technology to connect to the mobile application and acts as your coach to beautify your clothes”. Yes, you heard it right. It doesn’t iron your clothes. It beautifies them. In marketing terms, its value proposition is “beautifying the clothes”. After almost 150 years of its invention, they used all their creativity to come up with a value proposition statement, which drained their brains just before they actually decided to make the product.

It somehow reminds me of AT&T putting a fake 5GE logo on a 4G communication.

OK. Let me leave sarcasm aside and get to the point.

Stop torturing the irons already! Who told you that we like ironing? We don’t. We hate it. We hang our t-shirts decently, desperately hoping that they won’t require ironing. Why are you so obsessed with the iron, instead of coming up with a revolutionary solution that makes it obsolete? Our need is shirts without wrinkles, not smarter irons with sensors that adjusts the steam or can be switched on/off via our mobile phones.

Never-ending story of product-orientation and why it still exists

You can easily imagine other commercials where smart-home manufacturers try to convince you that it is very critical that you turn off/on your lights / TV / music without using your hands or remotely turn on/off your oven and hope for the best. Product-orientation is everywhere.

The ironic part is that there is an extensive literature on how awesome customer-orientation and how boring product-orientation is. It is a very old story. People still write books and articles about them, saying almost the same things over and over again.

Then why do these articles cling to emphasizing customer orientation for all these years? The answer is simple: We forget. We get distracted every time there is a technology shift; we turn our backs to customers and start playing with the technology. We can’t do both because we can focus on one thing at a time. It is our survival strength inherited from our early ancestors. And with great strength comes a great weakness.

The technological toys we’re playing with now has come with the digitalization appeared behind the clouds of the perfect storm created by the simultaneous emergence of a number of technologies such as cloud, IoT, mobile, powerful processors, machine learning (ML), etc. We’ve got hypnotized with sensors, apps, ML algorithms, and neglected our customers. But now we’ve played enough. It’s time to use our learnings to address the needs of our customers.

Focusing on what matters: Connected Living

Firstly, I’d like to hand the microphone to Yuval Noah Harari; the author of the book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”:

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, …most people worked in the family business — the family farm or the family workshop, …or they worked in their neighbors’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.

Briefly, the family in one physical house was the welfare system of an individual in the good old days. Harari also reveals that most of this welfare system is currently delegated to public & private sectors, which fostered individualism:

The state and the market approached people with an offer, …‘Become individuals,’ ...‘Marry whomever you desire, …take up whatever job suits you, …live wherever you wish… You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.

Despite the individualism wave that weakened family bonds, humans still need the proximity maintenance to avoid distress, or simply, “be happy”.

Please check Jonathan Haidt explaining Bowlby’s four defining features of attachment relationships in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom”: 1. proximity maintenance 2. separation distress 3. safe haven 4. secure base. He briefly emphasizes that we all need proximity to people we are close with and a safe place, in degrees that change with our age.

That is to say; people don’t care about smart homes (the product), they care about being close to their family & community and get rid of modern life complexities (customer need), which brings us back to the concept we tend to forget too often to focus on: “the customer (the individual) experience”. Focusing on the “individual’s experience”; the markets and the state can strengthen the traditional bonds back again, helping each individual live in the same virtual house / community with their families and friends.

By doing so, it is possible to get back to the old days of participatory living, reducing the excessive load of services such as healthcare, justice, safety, insurance, pension, education, sheltering, etc. on governments’ shoulders and distribute it back to citizens and the markets.

Long story short: If we help individuals connect digitally with their friends / family in meaningful ways, we will come up with relevant products.

Some tangible use-case examples

Best way to understand what people need is to actually observe them and identify their jobs to be done and corresponding pains and gains, incorporating design thinking. But even an empathy session will give you great insights. For example; as a representative of 40+ single professionals, here is a bunch of pains I assume my live-alikes would like to resolve:

  • I need to know when my one of my parents fall or have an heart-attack, and help them instantly. I can’t / don’t want to be with them all the time, but I want to know the critical incidents and help them instantly.
  • I am tired of managing the apartment & utilities. Lots of different bills, taxes, maintenance, it’s like running a company!
  • I take care of myself and barely get sick, but I pay the same insurance with other people. And when I get sick, I need instant help. It’s not always easy to spot an available close friend.
  • My cat is alone when I go on a vacation and I get worried about how he is.

Actually, people have already created their Minimum Viable Products (MVP) to address similar needs, using Whatsapp. I assume most of you are added to family Whatsapp groups where you share your good moments or “we have arrived, mom” information.

These texting groups show us that families are already digitally connecting themselves using Whatsapp groups. It is an MVP that proved successful as a connected living solution, indicating that people are very likely to embrace the real product once it is out.

What are your family whats-app group use-cases? Take your time to make a list. Next big thing can be in it.

So what now?

Just like Steve Jobs got “insanely simple” using his “simple stick”, get yourself a “customer-orientation” stick and get insanely customer-oriented. Whenever you get off the wagon, that stick will get you right on.

Be brutally honest with yourself. Otherwise the seduction and the comfort zone of the product-orientation will take over soon.

Get customers’ approval instead of the management board or the investors. An investor can bet a million dollar on your product, or the CEO can give you a go; but they are far from being indicators of success. There are tons of stories out there where start-ups get the investment, feel like rock stars, and go bankrupt.

Don’t fall in love with your product. Or be prepared to share the same finale with Kodak, which at least had a very good run. Did you?

Don’t start with the ideas, start with the needs. Ideas are like rainbows. They are visible but they move away as you try to approach them. They have no ground. But needs are solid like a rock. They provide the ground for your products. They are real.

Lastly: Have confidence in yourself. Be authentic. Be bold. Don’t imitate or make incremental changes on an existing product. Create a brand-new product that meets a need 10 times better than the current paradigm.

For years; I've helped companies solve their problems, transform themselves, and innovate new business models.