Home Truths

Home Truths: Why ‘smart’ tech needs emotional intelligence

This is the first in our ‘Home Truths’ series. Over the coming weeks and months we will be sharing stories drawn from our myriad experiences in homes across the world. We’ll be looking at subjects as diverse as the role of the fridge today, the tension between image and identity in the home, and the battle between clutter and waste.
It’s an opportunity for us to share some of our thinking and for you to get some fresh perspectives…

Much of the media noise about the home right now is around concerns regarding smart technology and consumer control (or lack thereof). Security experts have hacked a range of appliances and home devices - routers, washing machines, baby monitors, even smart light bulbs – nothing involving data is exempt. The ‘Internet of Things’ is a “security disaster waiting to happen”, suggested the BBC following a hacking experiment in August 2014.Philips Hue

A breakdown in trust

Your data can be obtained with ease and may even already be accessible to (and currently being accessed by) the manufacturer. There is a risk of consumer trust breaking down, with questions of ownership of and access to personal data becoming an issue across sectors and categories.

The dystopian view is that we are being taken over by our appliances. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas put this most bluntly in March 2014, saying: “[The growth of smart technology] is a very alarming situation. Very soon your house will betray you."

This anxiety is clearly pervading the consumer mindset. In a recent debate on the Internet of Things, Izabella Kaminska wrote in FT Weekend that the crowd appeared opposed to smart technology, shouting “in what seemed like perfect unison” that “you’re messing with free will and what it means to be human”.

Enabling or removing control?

What does free will really mean here? Mindful of consumers with busy lives but demanding and specific requirements of their products, many brands appear caught between positioning their solutions as enabling total control (easily, at your fingertips) and removing control from you, so you don’t need to think or do. We are clearly disturbed by notions of losing control in the home, yet we want our chores to take the minimum time and require the littlest effort, so our devices and appliances need to be as intuitive as humanly possible.

Brands are as confused as we are. There is little clarity around what control people want to have along their user experience journeys, what form of control they might wish to concede and what control fundamentally means.

Supportive technology

Yet in our anxiety about data security and control, we are losing sight of what technology can deliver. The deep needs it should seek to meet in the home environment. We tend to conceive of home technology as functional. We speak of benefits, but these are often superficial notions of time-saving - ‘better results’, or ‘ease of use’. When we think of downsides, we tend to go big. We wring our hands about the impact of technology in our sleeping environments, about the exposure of children to excessive amounts of TV, we get concerned about seemingly radical advances such as self-restocking fridges.

We forget how we want to feel at home, how we do feel. What home is all about, or should be. The role of technology is to support us in our efforts to fulfil these need-states, however they manifest themselves across moods, occasions and against categories.

Some of these need-states bear closer examination….


More than 10 years ago Bill Gates wrote of the speakers he had embedded in his wallpaper, which enabled music to follow him around his home, as giving him a sense of ‘belonging’. This technology is advanced even today and his sentiment feels equally fresh. Music has a powerful ability to achieve this sense of connection to time and place and modern devices that enable you to pipe music around your home wirelessly have the scope to play to this. Instead, of course, the manufacturers talk about perfect control, ease of use and sound quality.


This is the most fraught area for smart technology as the very solutions designed to make us feel more secure can instead be breaching our bond of trust. But, in theory, smart technology offers great potential to provide genuine protection and a sense of safety through control and reassurance. The challenge is to do so in a way that builds confidence rather than raises anxiety levels.


As we will share in a future blog post, from our research we can see the fridge today as the centre of the kitchen. A shining beacon that replaces the hearth, drawing people to gaze into its depths, offering inspiration on meal and snack ideas. We look to the fridge to guide us and give us brainwaves. It is there to inspire us, even if neither we nor the manufacturers may fully realise this.


The social media elements of ‘multiscreen’ TV events such as The Apprentice and The X Factor, where we’re encouraged to join the debate on social, foster a sense of connection both within and outside of the home. We can now make different sorts of connections in the moment through the media we engage with. Instead, of course, smart television communications bury us in feature-based jargon.


This is an area of some tension. We want to see our identities reflected back to us in our homes, thereby fostering a sense of belonging, but we also want our homes to affirm our progress and status, reflecting our achievements back to us and to others. This has a role in our choice of TV screen size (it’s not all about the viewing experience), for example, as we want to look around our homes and feel that the efforts we go through at work each day have some pay-off, providing us with not just a with safe haven but affirmation that our efforts outside the home are worthwhile.

Some of these need-states are too big and too emotional to play to overtly in brand communications within certain product categories. But in digging down to this level we can engage with people in a more meaningful way, and better meet those needs.

For inspiration, we might look to Philips’ ‘hue’. This is a lovely example of technology that recognises the deeper needs it can deliver against. Its smart lighting technology enables you to control your lights via an app, even away from home, setting them to your mood and practical requirements (do you need to read or do you wish to be energised?) and program them to come on/off as and when you wish. The brand describes how the product can help you relive memories, protect your home or even improve your mood.

After all, smartness is not only the skill to do things and solve problems, but also the ability to understand social rules and behaviours. Smartness recognises the importance of responding to context. Increasingly, the modern interpretation of ‘smart’ encompasses not just IQ but understands the significant contribution of softer skills, of EQ. We need to start thinking about smart technology as needing not just to be technically ingenious but founded upon emotional intelligence as well.