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The Nest Thermostat and Interface Design

Why Innovations in Interfaces are a Huge Opportunity in New Tech


Image © Nest Press Room

The Nest Learning Thermostat (Image © Nest Press Room)

Image © Nest Press Room

What is Nest?

Chances are, you haven't paid much attention to your home thermostat. But, if you would approach them critically as a developer or designer, you would probably notice that most home thermostats typically have a horrible user interface (UI). This was the problem that a new company, Nest, has sought to fix.

Nest is a company started by Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who oversaw the design of both the iPod and the iPhone. The Nest learning thermostat addresses many of the interface issues of traditional thermostats, by offering an easy to use dial adjuster and clear display, WiFi connectivity for remote control, and a learning feature designed to make energy saving decisions on your behalf.

The release of the Nest thermostat sent ripples through tech media an gained a lot of attention, including unwanted attention from Honeywell, a large incumbent producer of thermostats, who filed a patent lawsuit, obviously feeling threatened by Nest's release. Despite the legal issues, the Nest has been selling extremely well, and has overwhelmingly positive customer feedback.

Why Is it Important?

The Nest thermostat is important because it shows that technology innovation is starting to emerge in increasingly non-traditional places. By thinking critically about the interfaces that people interact with day-to-day, one can unleash a new wave of potential innovation. The Nest story also shows that small startup companies can take on large incumbents like Honeywell in traditional industries where interfaces have long been defined by the incumbents. It shows that challenging the old ways we interface with things can have big results.

Thinking About Interfaces

As designers and developers, we should think critically about how we interact with ALL parts of the world. While many of us may work primarily in software, it's important to use these design skills to think about all interfaces, especially the ones that we may take for granted. Many developers and designers tend to adopt a sheltered viewpoint, focusing on specific software solutions, and designing insularly for other technologists. But, by thinking critically about the interface agony that everyday consumers and businesspeople face daily, perhaps while being unaware of it, there is the potential to unlock huge opportunities for innovation and profit. What are some areas where you or someone you know have experienced frustration at an interface? A household appliance? A car dashboard? In line at a grocery store? There are opportunities to solve interface problems everywhere.

Device Technology is Democratic

We now have access to tools and software to build interactions in everyday objects and experiences that have major impact. Prototyping platforms like Arduino allow designers to experiment with devices and technology and push the boundaries of how we use technology to interact with the physical world. Through critical thinking and experimentation, people can create new models for interaction that will be part of the lifestyle of the future, and all with minimal startup costs. With a great idea and a working proof of concept, one can turn to crowd-funding to help raise the money need to produce a physical product in quantity. It's never been a better time for small startups to challenge the large incumbents on how we interact with the world.

Interface Innovation

Some of the biggest tech innovations of the last 10 years were driven by innovations in interfaces. The success of a company like Apple can largely be attributed to the changes they introduced in the way we interact with computers, music players and phones. A good looking device can generate a lot of interest, but a device that's a pleasure to interact with will create a lasting impact. The Nest thermostat is a great example of a product that has created major waves in interface innovation, and should serve as a valuable case for thinking critically about interfaces everywhere.

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