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Industrial Design: Has Nest Taught us Nothing?

It seems most consumers buy Nest thermostats because they look cool, not because they're so smart. So, then, why do we keep making ugly CE products?


Take your pick.
Julie Jacobson · March 17, 2014

Last month I attended Integrated Systems Europe in Amsterdam, the most important expo for home and commercial integration in the area.

Sure, I was struck by the technological marvels, but more than that I could not keep my eyes off the elegant industrial designs of everything from speakers to switches.

True, I’ve always been a fan of the simple, sleek European aesthetic—especially of the Scandinavian variety – but it seems we in the U.S. market deliver some of the worst industrial designs in the consumer electronics business.

For the most part, we have ugly thermostats, cheap-looking security keypads, unstylish touchpad controllers, bulky sensors and uninspired accessories like smoke detectors.

Consumers do not understand much of the stuff you sell, but they do understand style and they will pay for it.

Consider the success of the Nest smart thermostat, whose learning feature is confusing and probably technologically unexciting to most of the people who buy them. Most people I know, especially integrators, turn the learning feature off.

They confess, “The thermostat just looks cool.”

Nest, acquired by Google in January of this year for $3.2 billion, has sold more than 1 million thermostats – not bad for one of the most unglamorous categories in the home technology business.

Has this success inspired our industry to up its industrial-design game? I think not.

True, many of our drab designs – think thermostats—don’t matter because they are often hidden in a closet, while more interesting user interfaces grace walls and countertops.

Still, it’s hard to find an attractive user interface stateside that is not a $1,000 touchscreen. In Europe, on the other hand, you can find a huge variety of cool, minimalist, multipurpose touchpads for a couple hundred bucks.

Years ago, I did a feature story on wireless lighting controls, asking several dealers why they selected certain product lines. Virtually all of them said their product choices had less to do with a specific technology and more to do with the look of the devices.

One dealer said he showed sample dimmers to clients and had them make decisions based on the design.

Think of iconic CE brands like Bang & Olufsen. Are consumers drawn to the technology or reliability of the products? Not a chance.



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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at julie.jacobson@emeraldexpo.com

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