Water rolling downhill tends to follow the path of least resistance. So, too, do homeowners when trying to control their technology. It’s been shown time after time that people will happily trade away quality for convenience any day of the week. For our industry to continue thriving, we must continuously strike a balance between these two poles. If we over-emphasize quality, convenience suffers and frustration sets in. When we flip the equation, technology becomes easy to use, but products suffer from high failure rates or lousy user experiences.
Control choices for the home are almost too numerous to name. From voice assistants to handheld remotes to thousands of apps, our industry is awash in choice. Too much choice.
How do we make sense of it all? As the old adage goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If we break down control into three main categories — voice, handheld remotes, and apps — and analyze from there, it becomes easier to design simple solutions for all types of customers.
Apple’s Siri came along in 2011, with Amazon launching its Echo appliance in 2014. Google’s been playing catch up with its Google Nest appliances since 2016. One thing’s for certain: voice control is fast becoming a necessity in most home control environments, and figuring out how best recommend solutions to our clients is paramount.
Key Players, Features & Integrations:
- Amazon Echo: Far and away the 800-pound gorilla with over 60 percent of the market, chances are your customers have at least one of these at home. Smart home skills number into the thousands and all the major control system manufacturers (Control4, Crestron, ELAN, etc.) advertise varying levels of compatibility.
- Google Nest: Its market share grew this year to 23 percent. While Google Nest may be playing catchup, it is aggressively pushing its smart speaker products and doesn’t show any signs of letting up. Control system manufacturers have been slow to embrace Google Nest, and the next year will see many more integrations announced similar to the recent Sonos news touting compatibility with both major voice assistant platforms (Alexa and Google Nest).
- Josh.ai: The only solution designed specifically for the CI channel, the Josh Micro looks like an Echo Dot and simplifies complex home control functions by integrating with platforms like Crestron and Control4. In addition, deep integration with products like the Roku deliver as seamless a voice control experience in the connected home as is possible today. Josh.ai touts privacy as a key selling feature, pledging never to share customer data with third parties.
- Siri: Apple’s only path into the smart speaker world has been the HomePod, which appears to be a dud. It’s only capable of interacting with Apple Music and HomeKit devices, and doesn’t appear to be a factor for the CI channel. Siri is still a factor on the iPhone/iPad, but meaningful home voice control is the domain of smart speakers.
No matter how good apps or voice get, handheld remotes still hold sway in the family room. Whether it’s generational or preferential, it doesn’t really matter. Tactile buttons and being able to control AV in the dark while watching a movie are still really important to a majority of homeowners. Understanding what’s out in the market and learning their features to make an expert recommendation is an ongoing process, and vital for any home technology professional.
Key Players, Features & Integrations:
- Control4: The SR-260 still uses Control4’s basic list interface from their early days. Nevertheless it’s proven a stable remote with easy-to-use buttons and features like a programmable remote finder and quick shortcuts to lighting scenes or music presets. Time will tell what they do with its acquisition of smart remote company NEEO.
- Crestron: Crestron has a number of handheld remote offerings, including the newer HR-310 and TSR-310, which provide both tactile control for customers who like dedicated buttons and also a multi-layered touchscreen UI for deeper control. The TSR-310 includes the new Crestron Performance UI, which adds smooth transitions, animations, and icons to the interface. They are also customizable — up to nine buttons can be custom engraved to display the functions used most frequently.
- Universal Remote Control: URC manufactures a good portion of remote controls, and they’ve been a stalwart supplier to the CI industry since inception. Products such as the TRC-1080 showcase an intuitive user experience with a 2-inch color display. URC remotes can also easily interact with its Total Control technology platform, which offers integrations into lighting control, multiroom audio, and more.
- Logitech: Products like the Harmony Elite and Pro feature low price points, reliability, and easy app-based setup. Integrations include tight partnerships with Alexa, Sonos, Lutron, and many others.
- Savant: The Savant Pro remote offers Apple’s Siri voice assistant built into the remote, as well as a clean user experience. This may be the most elegant handheld remote on the market today.
- ELAN: Award winning remotes like HR10 and HR30 offer seamless integration with ELAN g! systems, including the ability to view video cameras from the 2.8-inch touchscreen.
- RTI: The company’s T4x handheld remote control includes a high-resolution 4-inch capacitive touchscreen, and fully programmable soft-touch buttons. The device also includes WiFi and dual RF, as well as grip sensors that keep the device awake during use and an accelerometer provides instant-on activation.
Apple’s 2008 app store launch forever changed the way we control technology in the home. Today’s apps offer control of most anything in the home (including tea kettles and litter boxes). Which cocktail of apps make sense for your customer is completely subjective. Some opt for “one app to rule them all” while others prefer a grab bag of apps to play with. By showing your customers both options during your sales consultation, they’ll be able to make up their own mind and your approach can follow suit.
Key Players, Features & Integrations:
- Lutron: Lutron Connect supports not only Lutron lighting but also integrations with Sonos and Amazon Alexa. Scheduling lighting events and creating scenes is a snap with the easy-to-use interface.
- Sonos: Updates frequently move around key features on the screen to the dismay of frustrated users. All of that aside, Sonos is still far and away the most popular multiroom music app on the planet, featuring integrations with most major music services and voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Nest.
- Control4: OS3 launched earlier this year and features the ability to easily pull forward shortcuts and favorites to de-clutter the screen. The end result is an incredibly clean user experience that can be tweaked per user.
- Alarm.com: The app is incredibly easy to use with special focus paid to the differences between phone and tablet user experiences. Alarm.com seems to understand there are elements that customers care about while away from their homes, and does a great job delivering peace of mind by organizing information in clean tiles by subsystem.
- ELAN: If you want customization, ELAN allows the integrator to create a user experience to suit individual preferences and truly offers everything on a single app. Even better, its app, touchscreen, and on-screen experiences are all exactly the same, keeping things simple.
- Savant: Often seen as the “cleanest” user experience, Savant has always positioned its app as the mainstay of its control platform. While it’s priced at premium, customers appreciate its ease of use and reliability.
- Crestron: While they’ve stopped actively pushing their products at CEDIA Expo, Crestron is still seen as the premier product line for today’s ultra high-end homes. Its app is completely customizable and readily supports multiple residences and integrations with companies such as Josh.ai, Google Nest, and Amazon Alexa.
- RTI: The RTiPanel runs on an Apple or Android smart phone or tablet device as well as on a Windows PC. It provides secure local or remote access to an RTI control processor from any internet connection, and allows for control via LAN, WiFi, and WAN control off-site.
Bringing It All Together
As with most things in life, delivering simplicity requires paying close attention to the age-old Occam’s Razor proclamation that the simplest solution is often the best choice. As home technology professionals we can easily get caught overthinking recommendations for our clients. By carefully listening to their needs and finding friction, easy suggestions begin to emerge. Instead of fretting over which systems to use, here are some common scenarios along with recommended control applications:
Listening to Multiroom Audio:
- Handheld Remote: Shortcut buttons on the remote to music presets mean no hunting and pecking on small screens.
- Voice: Linking the smart speaker (Echo, etc.) directly to a multiroom music system such as Sonos will cut down on the need for awkward language commands. Amazon Echo will now automatically play music over architectural speakers by making a one-time configuration between Sonos and Amazon (without having to append a room name to a command). This makes accessing music incredibly easy.
- App: Music systems like HEOS and Sonos all offer their own apps that will vary in their level of appeal across your customer base, particularly across generational lines. If your customer has a whole home control system, show them both the standalone music app and the whole home app and ask them which they’d prefer to use.
- Handheld Remote: Shortcut buttons on any major name-brand universal remote make turning on the TV very easy and picking up the remote is memorized behavior for a majority of consumers.
- Voice: This might be the most frustrating scenario for technology integrators. Cable companies have launched their own handheld voice remotes that are locked down and not able to integrate with other home technology components. While there are solutions such as Josh.ai and proprietary search options available from cable companies, there still isn’t a truly global voice control solution across all electronics. Customers who express an interest in using the cable company voice remote should be shown how to use it and expectations set that they’ll be using multiple remotes. Whenever possible, using a hands-free smart speaker as the voice endpoint in a room is much more preferable to a multiple handheld remote scenario. Any of the control system company remotes (Savant, etc.) with voice control built in may produce more frustration for the customer than satisfaction. Just as picking up the remote to turn on the TV is hardwired behavior, consumers have now gotten used to using an attention phrase such as “Alexa” or “OK, Google” to interact with a voice assistant. By separating voice control from the handheld remote, you’re lessening confusion and doing your best to preserve simplicity. Voice assistants do a great job controlling pockets of technology. Josh.ai has deep integration with Roku, while Alexa does a great job with Fire TV. Setting expectations with clients around TV voice control is imperative in these early days. It doesn’t always work, and what can and can’t be done is often confusing. These control scenarios should be reserved for clients who ask for them by name.
- App: Home technology customers tend to be very polarized around whether they prefer a handheld remote or an app to watch TV. As always, listening to the client and delivering what they asked for tends to earn referrals and repeat business. Companies such as Control4 and Savant have come a long way in recent years delivering TV apps that are easy to use and often serve as the customer’s only means of family room AV control.
- Handheld Remote: Quick shortcuts, including a favorite scene, all on/off, or easy dimming of a group of lights, go a long way to making life easy — especially while watching a movie.
- Voice: Huge advances in reliability between companies like Lutron and Alexa deliver very consistent results and hugely satisfying experiences for customers. Using natural language commands such as “Alexa, turn off the kitchen lights” truly deliver on the promise of home technology making life easier by saving customers a ton of time. Try to avoid any integrations that force awkward speech commands. If your voice skill won’t support the way your customer already speaks, don’t use it. It’s not the customer’s job to learn how to speak to the voice assistant. A good voice user experience will interpret what the user is trying to do and deliver meaningful results.
- App: While not as useful inside the home, apps from all the major control companies offer great visibility into lights left on and occupancy while away at work or on vacation. Making use of scheduling agents, geo-fencing, and automation means your customers won’t need to use their apps as much.
- Handheld Remote: While it’s possible to control thermostats through a handheld remote, this generally boils down to a question of “why?” A properly designed HVAC automation schedule should require minimal tweaking. There’s nothing wrong with showing a customer how to do this, but the emphasis should be on getting the automation dialed in so using the remote becomes unnecessary.
- Voice: If a client asks for this by name, by all means show them how to do it, but adding this to a training session can produce more confusion than anything else. There are a few independent living and assistive technology scenarios where voice thermostat control is necessary, but unless you have to, it might be best to steer clear.
- App: HVAC has so many different options around heat and cool setpoints, humidity, scheduling, etc. that using a decent control app is the preferred method. A well-programmed system should require minimal interaction from the customer and ideally they’re shown the app as their only means of remotely controlling their heating and cooling schedules, which are especially helpful when traveling.
We still have a long way to go until our handheld remotes, voice assistants, and apps all work together seamlessly. Until then, it’s up to all of us in the CI channel to listen for friction from our customers and design solutions for them that cater to their needs while setting reasonable expectations about what our solutions can and cannot do. Keep it simple, and your clients will thank you.
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