Good design, bad design and thermostats
We tend to know good design when we see it, but we seem to be less astute when it comes to rejecting bad design. How else can we explain the almost universally atrocious usability of the domestic thermostat? How many hours have been lost fiddling with teeny dials and clicking inscrutable switches? And how much energy has been wasted due to incorrect settings? It might seem like a mundane piece of the average household scenery, but if, say, bath taps were as badly designed, we would only have a vague idea how much water was going to come out, never mind how hot it would be.
Resolving these critical design flaws was the unlikely project taken on by Tony Fadell, one of the originators of the iPod and the former senior vice president of Apple’s iPod division. Fadell explained that “Thermostats looked like PCs from the 90s: square, beige, nothing innovative, and very expensive.” In other words, ripe for reinvention.
In an interview with Steven Levy in Wired, he admitted to the scepticism people expressed when he told them his next project was going to be the reinvention of the humble thermostat. I doubt they were as sceptical when the result was finally unveiled a few weeks ago – the Nest thermostat instantly generated huge amounts of attention and, indeed, lust from bloggers and tech writers. As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler put it, “It makes me want to buy a home just so I use it.” Its first production run sold out within 72 hours.
The Nest is certainly the product of excellent design, and not just because it is so aesthetically pleasing, especially in comparison to its rivals, though the futuristic dial-design and pleasing typography and graphics certainly contribute to the appeal. It might look good, but Fadell also knew it needed to be intuitive and easy to use. The Nest’s good design extends to its five sensors, measuring temperature, humidity, light and activity, detecting when people are home and altering the temperature accordingly. Its good design can be seen in the way it learns from previous adjustments, predicting when to raise and lower the temperature, self-adjusting when necessary. Its good design includes the inbuilt Wifi that allows it to be controlled by smartphone apps, so users can adjust their homes’ temperatures remotely, or remind it that the house will be empty for a few days. The prospect of a “smart” domestic appliance, doing the thinking for you, learning and remembering and applying its knowledge, has just become real.
Above all, Fadell was inspired by the goal of reducing our energy waste – the real cost of bad design wasn’t just an unsightly gadget on the wall, it was all the oil and electricity that was frittered away because people couldn’t or wouldn’t properly engage with the ugly gadget on the wall. As a piece of greentech, it demonstrates that not all the innovation needs to be on the energy-production side – users need to play a part too. And as an example of how well-designed technology can improve our lives, Nest is a small but telling pointer to the future.