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Nest’s smoke alarm mistake shows the risks in creating a new user interface

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Next-generation user interfaces will be one of the keys to the emerging wearables markets, to the increasingly connected smart home, and to moving technology and devices further into the mainstream. But launching new types of user interfaces can be tricky, particularly if they’re using new forms of inputs and senses, if they’re for brand new types of devices that don’t have a long history on the market, and if they come from a startup.

Case in point: last week Nest (s goog) decided to halt the sale of its new Protect smart smoke alarm because it found a flaw in the sensor and gesture-based UI. It turns out that the function that enabled users to pause an alarm by waving at it could also be unintentionally triggered by other types of movement. The fear was that if there was a fire and the alarm was going off, a nearby movement could falsely pause the alarm.

Nest Protect

Nest took the device off the market while it fixes the flaw, and has disabled the feature on Protects already out in the market. Nest sold to Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion, so the company has enough money to survive and fix such an event. If it were a little startup, though, and the Protect was its first product, the same might not be true.

New user interfaces like gesture recognition and voice control are only just emerging. At one point touch interfaces for screens were new, but now they’ve been largely embraced by most device makers and they rarely have issues. Kinect has pushed gesture and voice control forward considerably when it comes to mainstream users, but other big companies and startups are trying to take gesture and voice control UIs to the next level, like Google with Google Glass and Apple with Siri.

Moderated by: Om Malik — Founder, Gigaom Speaker: Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs
Tony Fadell — Founder and CEO, Nest Labs

But the issue with new markets and new technologies is that there’s not a long history from which to learn. Designers have to build the products with the new UIs and rigorously test them — sometimes it’s not until the customer has been using them for months before an issue emerges. Users can be particularly sensitive to new UIs when they’re on the body or in the home. It’s a different world than just building a slick UI on a cell phone or laptop.

Nest has been a pioneer in taking unloved devices and developing new ways for humans to communicate with them. And Nest will likely fix its smoke alarm gesture flaw and get the product back out onto the market soon enough. At the end of the day the industry will be better for it, because it will contribute to the body of knowledge for this emerging connected home and new UI market.

Enabling people to have a better connection and a better experience with devices is the future of gadget design, and new types of UI will be crucial to creating these beloved experiences. But getting these new UIs onto the market and widely embraced will likely take a few hiccups.

Gigaom throws an annual two-day experience design conference called Roadmap, which we’re hosting on November 18 and 19 in San Francisco this year. Check back in the coming weeks for when we’ll be announcing speakers and more details.

5 Responses to “Nest’s smoke alarm mistake shows the risks in creating a new user interface”

  1. Eric Whitney

    I have been fascinated by these devices as well as the nest thermostat. I have oogled them at the box stores but have not purchased either of them so far.
    I would not call this a failure for protect, but rather a good thing that the management is acting proactively to correct a flaw.

    This young smart home system control system has some communication issues at this time. I’m sure it can grow out of it.

  2. cawgijoe

    What I find interesting about this is that you can’t silence a Protect alarm once it goes into full blown emergency alarm status. The Wave feature only works for a very short period of time when it’s telling you, for example, “there is smoke in the kitchen”. This is by design.

    You can also tap the big center button to silence a false alarm. Even if the alarm does silence, just like with all other alarms, you still need to clear the smoke or it will go off again.

    I would really like to know what the exact circumstances were that made them decide to re-work the Protect.

    I think they are being extra cautious and that is a good thing. You don’t want a GM thing happening here.

  3. AaronR86

    What is wrong with the First Alert interconnected smoke detectors, with battery back-up that are in my house? When one goes off, they all go off. If it’s a false alarm, tap the silence button and they all stop sounding. What exactly is the point of these high tech fancy yet buggy smoke detectors??

  4. karanperi

    NEST’s failure is one that comes with walking the fine line of innovation and doing work that propels the society forward. It shouldn’t be confused with one that accompanies incompetence or bad strategy. This is true while evaluating companies, product or people.