How the pandemic will lead to smarter homes

The Covid-19 pandemic will lead to the mass digitalisation of our homes say Sweepr’s Jim Hannon and ADAPT researcher Brendan Spillane.

Throughout history, major events have led to major societal changes. The infrastructure and supports that bind our society together – water schemes, welfare supports, public hospitals, town planning – have had their trajectory accelerated by disruptive events.

Today is no different. With Covid-19, we are on the cusp of a structural change, driven by the need of a large bulk of the population to work, learn and entertain from home. Yet while many of the conditions conducive to mass adoption of technology in the home are there, including price, availability, utility, technological breakthroughs, and even fashion, the in-home technology support experience remains immature.

There is a need to create effective and intuitive consumer support, as this is one of the missing capabilities in the creation and adoption of a fully effective and seamless Home Operating System (OS). As the new normal plays out in the wake of the Covid-19 disruption, the demand for technological enablers that allow us to connect and manage the increasing amounts of technology in our homes will be driven both by the desire for the best experience, and social necessity.

Smart homes

Alexa smart home speaker beside books and a cup of tea.

Up until a few months ago, for many, ‘smart home’ was an all-encompassing if loosely understood term. A catch-all for a diverse range of connectivity-based home technologies including routers, workstations, smart lighting/heating, alarm systems, and connected home appliances.

Fast forward a few months, and the term has gained new meaning. Covid-19 has accelerated a largely unplanned mass experiment in the digitalisation of our homes, removing friction and improving the daily routines for many. Now, the term connected home has become relevant to daily routines, facilitating our human needs to communicate, engage in work, be safe, and to belong.

Caveat emptor

Yet, for the most part, consumers have been left on their own to manage and find support for the growing range of smart tech in their homes. They have had to learn how to deal with cybersecurity, usage controls, device settings, privacy settings and support. Often, consumers find themselves lost and in need of expert help while wrestling with complex issues in an environment that is neither intuitive nor streamlined.

Consumers are being forced to manage the technology in their homes. What if it was the other way around?

An overarching vision for technical support in the smart home

As the number of smart devices and online services in our homes grows, the ability of everyone to use, manage, and support them becomes important to building an inclusive connected society. What are the capabilities that need to be put in place to make that jump in support happen for the Home OS?

Nascent industry initiatives such as the Connected Home over IP, whose members include Amazon, Apple, Google, and the Zigbee Alliance, will ultimately foster smart home devices that are more secure, reliable, and easy to use. However, based on previous form they are unlikely to properly consider the broader consumer experience when the web of technologies required to make their products work fails to operate as expected.

Being comfortable and confident in managing the technologies in our homes requires an overarching approach that puts the customer at the centre of the experience.

Putting the Human at the centre of technology design

Today, many support experiences lead to frustration. They require a high level of customer effort, to phone support, to search through (online) documentation, to navigate websites, and to scan customer forums. As expectations are increasingly shaped by digital-first experiences, consumers increasingly expect new technologies to understand them, and to provide them with clear and relevant information.

Research has consistently shown the importance of relevance and empathy in the successful provision of automated technical support. Early applications of technology solutions were criticised as being robotic, script-driven, and not relevant. But what if your Home OS is learning how best to support you, to gauge your technical ability and usage patterns to deliver a personalised experience?

Personalisation is key to relevance and empathy

At the heart of this, is the application of Personalisation, which can be defined as the ability to adapt to individual users based on their user models and context. The application of new digital technologies, pioneered by the ADAPT Centre, are advancing personalisation techniques such as, temporal, stereotype, context, and intent models which can reduce customer effort to get help and improve the overall experience.

Cutting-edge AI research is ongoing into personalised conversational user interfaces which are likely to play a major role in many parts of our daily lives. It’s therefore crucial that these solutions are designed to be inclusive across all consumer cohorts, so people feel they can work with these agents.

Research and Industry collaboration is leading to a new generation of technology companies, who are applying digital enablers for a more personalised, conversational, and always-on approach to deploy smart home tech support.

Companies, such as Sweepr, are taking a persona-led approach built on research that uses psychographics, conversational interfaces, and machine learning to provide personalised caring interactions for consumers in the connected home. These cater directly to the behavioural needs of consumers for support by intelligently adjusting language, tone, number of resolution steps, motivational cues, and multimedia for successful outcomes.

They utilise user models to store information such as previous customer interactions, telemetry from the home, and previously attempted resolutions, to adapt to the individual. These types of advanced solutions apply intelligence, including context about a user’s technical abilities, to adjust to an individual’s skills and preferences to deliver better outcomes.

These companies provide the technical support individual consumers need for the smart home in the form they want.

Talk to me at my level

Alexa smart speaker in kitchen.

In the 1990s and 2000s, those in need of technical support for home appliances had to make a phone call, consult a manual, or compose semi-formal search queries on a stationary PC in the hope of finding the information they needed. The advent of smartphones lowered barriers to access online information further, making it easier for consumers to search for information in real time and on location to attempt to troubleshoot their problems.

Today, voice stands at a similar inflection point. It has grown rapidly as a way to search and find information on the web. As people become more comfortable interacting with services through voice, more complex tasks will become the norm. Consumers will also expect to be able to interact and avail of services in a more natural or conversational manner, rather than the more formal query or limited menu-based interaction of the past.

Typical technologies found in dialogue agents are now finding their way into commercial solutions. These include natural language processing and generation, dialogue management, domain ontologies, automatic speech recognition, text to speech synthesis, and state tracking, etc.

Companies, such as Sweepr, are making it possible for consumers to explain technical issues in their own words and have their problems understood. Sweepr’s technology uses consumer utterances to interact and refine the tech support answers provided. Commercial applications such as these, makes meaningful automated support more accessible and useful for everyone.

The digital concierge

What we are observing is the early formation of a ‘Smart Home OS’ to deliver a more intuitive, inclusive, and accessible support experience – cue the creation of the digital concierge.

The Covid-19 global pandemic has propelled us into a digitally mediated world and has reshaped our day-to-day reality increasing our demands for a seamless intuitive experience.

Our homes now serve as our primary offices, leisure, and entertainment spaces, with much of their new functionality being facilitated by smart home technologies. To date, consumers have mostly been left on their own to manage and support the growing range of interrelated smart technologies in their homes. Forward-looking telecommunication and technology companies are personalising in-home support, to adapt to the technical competency of the smart home-user.

Trusted, cutting edge speech dialogue agents, conversational technologies and personalisation techniques that have the human at the core will play a critical role in the continued adoption and acceptance of smart home technologies.   

ADAPT is the world leading SFI Research Centre for Digital Media Technology hosted by Trinity College Dublin. Sweepr was founded in Dublin in 2017 and provides a contextually adaptive technical support platform for connected homes. Sweepr’s strategic investors include the Amazon Alexa Fund, Draper Esprit, and Frontline.