How thinking about user experience creates better Smart buildings

Earlier this year, James McHale of (the brilliant) Smart building research company Memoori wrote a LinkedIn post entitled ‘The Need for Real Human Experiences in our Smart Cities and Buildings’. It really struck a chord with us, as it raises some interesting points about whether the technological advancements that are often at the core of Smart technology are actually of benefit to the individuals using the spaces.  

In the article, James discusses the idea that new technologies do not always replace old, quoting Andrew Coyne of Canada’s National Post: “They can sometimes co-exist, as the limitations of the old technology are rediscovered as its virtues”. The essence of the post is that we have previously been so consumed with technological advancement and the quest for perfection that we have failed to think about how things make us feel.

Technology is a bit like a runaway train. Look how many advancements have been made in the past decade alone – from contactless payment to AI devices, we really are living in the future. When we perceive that something is moving too fast, it’s instinctive to cling to things for comfort, even if that means reverting to less advanced relics of the past. People understand the old ways of doing things, they know their limitations, and they’re not afraid that they’ll turn on them come the AI revolution. Every day, many of us rely on tech we don’t fully understand, and this can sometimes be to our detriment – look at how many security breaches have occurred because people haven’t appreciated the need to be cautious with data online.

It’s easy for those involved in technology to get carried away, especially when it comes to Smart cities and buildings. However, the people actually using these spaces want substance, reliability and confidence in technology, not the latest gadgets installed for the sake of it. It’s understandable why critics are cautious of this happening with Smart – after all, it’s a sector still in its infancy and there are few case studies to refer to. As James points out, people often prefer the touch and feel of physical things: “Will we one day crave the cold feel of a key for access control? Is there a deeper need to get up and change the temperature dial or open a window yourself sometimes? Will the children of the 2020s all one day be flocking to the realness of the last dumb city?”

The Smart sector needs to strive to create a middle ground between the tech of the future and the hands-on methodologies of the past, something James believes is already visible in certain technologies: “One rapidly evolving interface technology may be the key to giving “smart” a sense of “real” – voice control. AI enabled smart assistants like Siri and Alexa are at the cutting edge of technological development; yet they create a sense of “real,” a kind of analogue that may just give us the best of both worlds”. It’s this feeling of something tangible that people appreciate as it keeps us feeling comfortable and grounded.  

At Vanti, we’re very focused on creating solutions that improve efficiency and productivity, but because we start and end our process by examining how users will experience a space, we know that perfection should not come at the expense of well-being, comfort, and happiness. We have a responsibility working on Smart projects as a Master Systems Integrator to keep user experience (UX) at the core of building projects, and a really big part of this is considering what’s best for the users, not what’s best for the technology companies working on the project.

When we optimise existing workplaces and create new Smart ones, the first thing we do is map out the journey of the different types of people who’ll be using the space, going so far as to create personas and visualising every task they’ll complete as they go about their time in the building. Whether they’re just popping in for a meeting or it’s their full-time place of work, we strive to understand everything about what they’re trying to achieve and what would make the experience as good as possible for them. These personas are based on evidence and conversations with real people, rather than assumptions; although it’s still early days for our process, we believe we’re heading in the right direction and learning what questions to ask to get the information we need. Once we’ve reached this level of understanding, we can then leverage tech to build functionality into the building so each and every user benefits.

James also raised the issue of what Smart buildings are trying to achieve: ““The ‘smart building’ knows exactly what you want,” we say now; “the real building gives you back control,” we may say in the future.” Whilst it is true that machine learning is a big part of Smart (or Intelligent) building, and can aid efficiency and productivity, we believe that users should retain autonomy where it really matters. This is why giving people control is something we already do at Vanti.

Our goal is to create Smart spaces that serve a genuine purpose and meet the needs of their occupants, even if that means our solution isn’t quite as futuristic as we may have originally imagined it would be. We’d urge other individuals and companies involved in the Smart sector to take a step back and reflect on whether their proposed use of technology genuinely contributes to user experience or is more a case of ‘tech for the sake of it’. After all, just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.