While nearly half (45.8%) of UK households are already smart homes, the technology can do a lot more than using a smart speaker to turn on the lights, change a tv channel or control the central heating. Smart cities, notably in Asia, are piloting connectivity uses that are designed to improve not only convenience but also sustainability. Streetlights dim when roads are empty, smart traffic management systems reduce congestion, sensors report flood levels – all useful solutions in our energy-starved, climate-endangered world. From smarter transportation to connected healthcare, smart technology offers an enticing future.
But not everyone is comfortable with the idea that they might, one day, hand over control of many elements of their daily lives to machines – and, more importantly, to the companies that build them. To do so demands a great deal of consumer trust. Trust that the consumer may not be quite feeling just yet.
“We’re still very much in the early adopter phase,” says Mark Evans, managing director of marketing and digital at Direct Line Group. “Trust is specific and given sparingly. People trust brands to do specific things. But some of it is just about practicality. How is this tech relevant? Is it useful, too easy or too hard? Do I care about it?”
Then there’s the consumer paradox to consider. Research shows that consumers value data privacy highly. Yet they also show a willingness to compromise on those values. One such report from the Data & Marketing Association found that, while 82% of global consumers want more control over the personal information they give companies, the same number show “no fundamental objection to engaging with the data economy”.
“There’s no doubt that if you make something really easy for customers, they will go for it and at times even make compromises on what they think is their position on privacy,” Evans reveals.
Making things easy in the complex world of connected technologies is, ironically, more easily said than done. Valentina Contini is an innovation strategist at digital agency Diconium and a former senior engineer at Porsche Engineering, where she focused on smart mobility. “I don’t think I will see this real utopia, where everything can be done by simple voice commands, in my lifetime. I don’t think my kids will see it either because there’s a huge amount at play here.”
Part of the issue seems to be that we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Many of the solutions we can anticipate, even as consumers, are not yet viable. “Take augmented reality glasses. The technology works on smartphones but we can’t add it into eyewear because it would just weigh too much right now. Current technological limitations mean [development] will happen gradually.”
It also needs to happen gradually for humans to physiologically adapt. “The younger the consumer, the easier it is for them to pick up new technologies and new behaviours. Older people aren’t less intelligent, it’s just the way our brains work,” Contini says.
And yet companies continue to innovate, hoping to bring the consumer along with them on the journey. Evans shares hockey player Wayne Gretzky’s aphorism that you skate where the puck is going, not where it has been. So, it comes down to getting comfortable with the imperfect and taking different approaches to building trust.
Emma Lattimer is head of marketing at Wi-Fi networking company TP-Link. The company sells a range of smart devices on top of core router technologies, all designed to create a ‘smarter’ home. “As consumers we love convenience. Smart speakers are the gateway to an evolving smart home ecosystem, bringing convenience and usefulness. Smart plugs are popular right now because they inform consumers about their energy use, so it’s an easy way to be aware of vampire devices.”
This incrementality in building the smart home is important because, Lattimer observes, consumers are happy to invest a small amount of money for peace of mind. It’s why smart doorbells and water sensors are also gaining popularity, although the latter raise the issue once again of people’s ability to ‘manage’ their smart ecosystems.
Direct Line Group offers customers sensors that detect water leaks, but Evans explains that customers “often don’t know where the stopcock or inlet pipe is or they can’t get to it, or it’s too stiff to turn. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of fitting some of these devices, we’re still in an embryonic phase.” No matter how ‘virtual’ connected devices might be, there is still a need for practical, in-person support for it to be successful.
Peer-to-peer endorsements, largely through user-generated content, help to bring less confident consumers along the journey, Lattimer says. They allow potential customers to see the real-world applications, not just the (sometimes baffling) technology. For instance, being able to keep an eye on newborn puppies in the home while the owner pops to the shops is more compelling than “tech for the sake of it”.
To further the connectivity cause, though, there is a need to find a balance between expectation and reality. Contini thinks that the real problem with trusting the technology is our conditioning to believe that “with robots and AI, we’ll solve every problem”. The machines are fine but it’s human failings that cause the problems. As a result, it’s incumbent on the innovators to provide a faultless user experience and the highest possible reliability, plus a direct line to tech support and preferably with voice command capability in the device.
But Contini insists the acceptance of fallibility on the customer’s part must be there too, as creators can’t envision every possible scenario. “Just this morning, a leaf got stuck in my robot vacuum and it was spinning around like an idiot,” she says.
When it comes to taking the leap and entrusting more and increasingly critical parts of consumers’ lives to smart technology, understanding that we are all on a journey is key. There has to be a recognition that, in many cases, the technology is far from perfect – but that every step forward is a refinement.
“Rachel Botsman is the leading authority on trust, which she defines as ‘a comfortable relationship with the unknown’,” Evans concludes. “As an insurer, the consumer trusts that we’ll do the right thing. So, it’s not necessarily about the technology, it’s about conveying that to the customer.”