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Winning the App Acceptance Game With Cross-Platform Consistency

By Jeremy J. Glowacki April 2,2013




 
AMX’s Modero X Series touchpanels use the same gesture-based technology as Google and Apple.
App integration has become a fundamental requirement for any home integration client with a smartphone and/or tablet. In the past few years, all control systems manufacturers have learned to meld their custom-programmed interfaces with app designs, even applying once uniquely iOS capabilities, like pinch, zoom, and swipe gesture controls, into custom-programmed touchpanels. The results are control system user interfaces that have virtually identical appearances and capabilities, whether via mobile app or on a dedicated custom in-wall touchpanel.

Although the ubiquity of apps has led to a loss in touchpanel hardware sales, newer designs are enabling more streamlined designs, fewer programming headaches for integrators, and a shorter learning curve for clients using integrated systems for the first time. None of this has happened overnight, however, as control system manufacturers have worked hard to bring their system performance to the level perfected by massmarket suppliers, like Apple and Google.

ELAN got its head start in the mobile device game when it developed its first app for Windows Mobile devices back in 2005. Then, in 2009, the g!Mobile Apple iOS app launched in conjunction with the company’s g! System. The company added its first Android app in 2012.

 
ClareHome users, unchained from room-driven UI metaphors, are free to create and manage personal interfaces based on the things they love to do, and not just the rooms they happen to be in.
Joe Lautner, control category director for Core Brands, said that ELAN’s Windows Mobile app experience was challenging because there were many manufacturers using that OS at the time, with different devices and different screen resolutions, screen sizes, and even input mechanisms to accommodate. In comparison, coding for Apple and Android has been much more straightforward.

“Apple’s iOS made it very easy to develop an app and test it because it was only available on a single device,” Lautner said. “Android has been much easier to develop for than the early Windows Mobile phones [as well].”

Like most of its competitors, ELAN cites consistency across platforms (touchpanels and tablets for iOS and Android) as the key to a successful app design. “Every feature that is available on our in-wall touchscreens is available on our mobile apps, and the user performs the exact same button presses and gestures to do them, no matter the device,” Lautner explained. “We worked hard to make the interface intuitive, so there are no double taps or triple taps to perform special functions.”

The first smartphone app for HAI by Leviton was developed for Windows phones in 2008, and the company’s series of app designs have run the gamut from the old Philips Pronto remote to the latest e-readers. Director of marketing Greg Rhoades said that adapting to a variety of interfaces has been a huge challenge.

   
Crestron enables a consistent look and feel on user interfaces across all platforms, so homeowners receive the same experience when using their Android phone, iPad, or Crestron touchscreen.
“Before, we would create one interface design, and we knew exactly where it would go–our 3.9-inch touchscreen,” he explained. “We knew the exact constraints for resolutions and the physical capabilities of the hardware. Now, everything has to be adaptive, whether you’re using the app on the iPad mini, a full iPad, or an iPod touch, it should have a similar, yet scaled, appearance.”

Not Locked Down, Rock Solid

In 2008, Savant became one of the first control companies to offer an app for the iPhone. Then, in 2010, the company developed an iPad app supporting all iOS gesturing functions. Today, Savant’s TrueControl app leverages the versatility of iOS devices, including recent advances such as high-resolution Retina displays, the iPad mini, and AirPlay.

“Ongoing development at Apple has been an overwhelming benefit for Savant and our customers as we continue to leverage increased utility to add features and capabilities to the Savant user experience,” stated Jim Carroll, Savant’s executive VP of corporate strategy and business development.

But Savant’s TrueControl app is also highly customizable. For instance, its TrueImage feature enables users to turn on/off/dim a light or other appliance by touching that device in an image on an iPad. Another feature, called TrueCommand, gives users on-screen control for their TV.

Eric Neilson, AMX’s senior product manager for user interfaces, said that when writing control software for mobile devices, his company’s primary consideration is handling a consumer’s change of focus when using the app via a mobile device. For example, an iPad user could press the home button on her device, which suspends a running control application, to bring another application, such as a web browser, into focus.

“Gracefully handling these sudden transitions is something we’ve spent a lot of time perfecting with our TPControl software,” Neilson said.

So having to apply standard features, like pinch and swipe on apps has helped manufacturers improve the performance of their proprietary controllers as well. For instance, AMX’s Modero X Series touchpanels use the same gesture-based technology as Google and Apple.

Crestron’s Core 3UI advanced touchscreen GUI framework also offers gestures and many animated effects, for a richer user experience across a wide range of the company’s touchscreens.

“Our app does not have to differ from our typical user interfaces,” said Kor Baydurcan, Crestron’s director of software products and enterprise solutions. “In fact, with the power of Crestron, we enable a consistent look and feel on user interfaces across all platforms, so homeowners receive the same experience when using their Android phone, iPad, or Crestron touchscreen.”

 
RTI allows integrators to provide their customers with a matching interface across all control devices.

Baydurcan added that iOS and Android apps have made it imperative that Crestron delivers a “rock solid” product to app stores. “Previously, homeowners relied on their integrators to conduct updates to their systems,” he said. “Today, with the prevalence and ease of use of mobile apps, the homeowner can update their own app automatically, without dealer involvement. This makes the reliability of our app that much more paramount.”

According to URC’s director of marketing, Cat Toomey, her company approaches its designs with the idea that all interfaces should complement each other and work harmoniously, while taking advantage of available space. “For example, the space afforded on a remote control is quite different from that of an iPad, yet they should also work well together for the sake of user familiarity and ease of use,” she said. “These various interfaces must all integrate effectively and in ways that consumers can most easily pick up and use them without a major learning curve. This is what users have grown accustomed to with most apps, and we must meet and exceed this paradigm.”

URC has released two separate iDevice apps, one for its Total Control IP-based, whole-house systems and one for its Complete Control line. The company is in pre-launch mode of a new touchscreen interface that is based on the Android platform.

What the Consumer Wants

Even though the RTiPanel app is one of the most successful products that RTI has ever released, director of marketing Pete Baker still believes that a control app is not a complete replacement for a professional control device. “While the RTiPanel app offers a great interface for consumers to conveniently access their systems locally or remotely from their smartphone or tablet, for the best possible user experience, tactile control and a dedicated interface are required as well,” he said.

 
URC has released two separate iDevice apps, one for its Total Control IP-based, whole-house systems and one for its Complete Control line.

RTI also allows integrators to provide their customers with a matching interface across all control devices, including dedicated controllers, the RTiPanel app on a mobile device, or its Virtual Panel app on a PC. “The only difference is that the RTiPanel and Virtual Panel apps don’t provide the tactile control offered by a dedicated device,” Baker added.

Vantage has been offering an Apple iOS app for more than two years, and an Android app for nearly that long. According to VP of marketing Andrew Wale, his company has learned a great deal during its app development process. To get to the bottom of the app/interface challenge, Vantage engaged a variety of consumers/system users in its research and design. The resulting UI and system requirements were 1) Keep it simple–a simple UI that works and acts the same whether it is on a smartphone, tablet, keypad, or touchscreen; 2) Grow with me–a UI and system that will adapt to the user’s changing needs (i.e. new uses for the space, new integrated products, etc.); 3) Let me play–allow me to edit and update my interface locally; 4) Talk to me–keep me informed of new technologies and developments at Vantage (“I have made a lifetime commitment to the technology.”); 5) Empower my integrator to deliver on my expectations.

Vantage’s embrace of app culture fundamentally changed the way the company handles its other programmed interfaces, as well. The company moved from a fully custom touchscreen design to a prescribed UI and is now following suit on its LCD keypads and touchscreens. “While some integrators were slow to concede the custom touchscreen programming, others appreciate the improved UI and significant reductions in UI programming time,” Wale said. “We believe users require a consistent experience across interfaces; so, we are pursuing a consistent evolution of app designs and other control interfaces.”

ClareHome has been exclusively app-driven since its inception in 2011. The current version of its interface, the Clare Controls App, debuted in September 2012 at CEDIA EXPO, and was made generally available in the App Store the following month. An Android version of the Clare Controls App is scheduled for delivery in 2013.

Built using established Apple gestures, the Clare Controls App immediately “feels” familiar to most users, said Brett Price, CEO of Clare Controls. The goal is to give users unprecedented levels of control over their own interfaces.

“Users populate personal interface pages, called Control Spaces, with the individual system controls that they choose, adding, deleting, and rearranging application icons to suit their own preferences and lifestyles,” Price said. “It’s as easy as managing an iPhone: accomplished completely on demand and without outside assistance.”

     
For HAI, everything has to be “adaptive,” whether you’re using the app on the iPad mini, a full iPad, or an iPod touch.

And while nearly universal everywhere else, Clare has altered course from the traditional room navigation methodology on its app. “Our interface departs significantly from the typical interface structure in that it values people over places,” Price said. “ClareHome users, unchained from counterintuitive room-driven UI metaphors, are free to create and manage personal interfaces based on the things they love to do, and not just the rooms they happen to be in.”

Honeywell has offered both Apple iOS and Android apps for its security systems since 2007. Director of marketing communications Ralph Maniscalco said that even in the security channel, the key is to design an app that mimics the actual on-wall control panel. “We think we’ve hit the mark with our Total Connect Remote Services platform along with our LYNX Touch and Tuxedo solutions,” he said. “The intuitive icons help streamline functionality and usability whether you’re using the control panel itself or the mobile app.”

Honeywell matches the icons on a mobile device to those on the security control panel, so users can easily understand the basic functionality on both platforms. “When a mobile session is started, the instant or nearly instant response on the mobile device mimics that of the actual control because of our end-to-end real time connection,” Maniscalco said.

Outside Influences

AMX’s Neilson acknowledged that it’s a challenge for any app developer to stay current in a constantly evolving market, with so many software development houses pushing the envelope to grab consumer attention for that invaluable two-minute play of their app. So, he said, enticing users and making an app stand out motivates companies to create new ways to interact via on-screen objects and menus, ultimately making everyday device interactions simpler and more intuitive.

 Savant iOS6 iPad

Savant’s TrueControl app is also highly customizable. For instance, its TrueImage feature enables users to turn on/off/dim a light or other appliance by touching that device in an image on an iPad.

“These unique designs and approaches influence change in our industry, forever moving away from traditionally static, clunky user interfaces designs, to far more slick and free-flowing designs,” Neilson said. “TPControl, coupled with the power of TPDesign4 and the integrators imagination, is well capable of exploiting far-reaching and immersive user interface design and functionality.”

Savant’s Carroll said that his company’s engineers are always searching out innovation and sources of inspiration in the world of app development, noting that there are “wonderful, sleek app designs out there in a nearly limitless scope” of industries.

“We have found it beneficial to keep an open mind and try to experience as much of what is out there as we can,” he said. “We are also mindful that general-purpose tablets are typically not dedicated control panels–these devices impact people’s lives in many ways, and Savant’s control and automation solutions need to be a positive complement to their lifestyles.”

At Savant, the evolution of the user experience is based upon Apple’s continued investment in its platform. As an example, the functionality Apple’s iOS 6 has enabled Savant users to lock an iOS device, so it becomes a dedicated control panel. This is ideal for in-wall installations and commercial applications, as well as for the Savant Select remote.

Vantage’s Wale noted that his company has been influenced by developments in rich media use and creative navigational concepts from apps outside the home automation space. But, the company’s top priority remains providing 90 percent of its system functionality in a single layer, for more simplicity in the UI.

Rhoades, from HAI by Leviton, said that the biggest outside influence is the mere ubiquity of apps in the world. “Now, everyone has a touchscreen in their car dashboard, in their pocket, in their purse, on their TV remote,” he said. “Consumers now expect a dynamic design with complete functionality and have plenty of comparisons around them 24/7.”

URC’s Toomey said that while URC is constantly watching and learning from outside apps and the latest technology, the company is careful to only apply cool features and functionality in a way that makes the most sense for its products and the homeowner’s daily use.

“A control solution that has multiple interfaces and integrates with other hardware is quite different from a video game or a software-only app that lives on a phone or iPad,” she said. “Therefore, functionality must balance the remarkable assets of apps with homeowner convenience and reliability and the expert customization of our dealers.”

URC coordinates its app changes with major new product or feature changes. For instance, the company recently leveraged the optimization that an iPad offers, such as keyboard search functions. But, Toomey noted that putting out a new app in the store is not as fast and easy as it is for many game or music apps. “We must consider all equipment a new app can impact and control,” she said, “and we believe that demands quality time and testing before delivery.”

 

Jeremy Glowacki is editorial director of Residential Systems.