Controls & Sensors
Learn more about the changing face of appliances.
June 3, 2013
When designing an interface for a household appliance, the main idea is to consider how it will be used. A consumer is less interested in how exactly the dishwasher buttons work—they just want it to clean their pots and pans once they press a button.
And today, consumers are able to just touch a screen to operate their appliances. The rise of connected appliances has brought changes in the appliance interface. Appliance controls have been affected by the changing technology available today, from increasing interest in touch screens, web-enabled devices and expanded functions.
“By getting away from conventional analog controls, there’s a whole possibility of providing things that are more useful,” says Michael Levin, senior business manager at Synaptics. He points out that until recently thermostats hadn’t really changed in thirty or forty years. But now he has the flexibility to program his thermostat from his phone. When going on vacation, he can turn the heat down to 55, and after getting on the plane to come home, he can turn it up to 68. A device with basic controls would not have offered this extremely specific capability.
A host of web-enabled thermostats allow remote web access via your smart phone or tablet with a touch screen interface that works just like a tablet device. For example, the Nest thermostat has an interface powered by a smart phone app—a popular option, as the company was expected to ship its millionth device this summer. Obviously consumers wanted the ability to maximize the efficiency of heating and cooling systems, and like the ability to control a thermostat from anywhere. The web-connected device picks up on usage patterns and weather forecasts and adjusts from there.
And thermostats aren’t the only web-connected devices.
“In terms of design, more appliance manufacturers are going for screens,” says Melissa Duchin, a research analyst at Parks Associates. This varies by market, as luxury products might have a small tablet screen while the lower end will have touch screens that will look similar to interfaces on a smart phone.
Levin says this type of touch screen is part of a growing tide. “We’re starting to see more household products with touch screens,” Levin says, “though depending on the product there may not be real value in it. Some areas could benefit from touch controls rather than touch screens.”
Adaptive controls are not for every appliance though, as Levin says that single function appliances may not benefit as much. But with other products, designers have the ability to clean up the interface. This could mean that different functions that are available light up, so as you make one selection the next set of functions become available.
For example, he says in a washing machine, a consumer could choose the cycle, then temperature, then speed, and view the options available. Stovetops are also moving away from control knobs to touch sensitive controls. No matter what options are available, Levin says there is a key question to keep in mind when designing an interface: “If you think about looking at it from a user perspective, how can you make things easier?”
And in making things easier, new interfaces are closely tied to the connectivity trend. The idea of controlling everything from your phone continues to attract consumers. People are able to start their car, find their kids, and check on the house. Controlling appliances from your phone is a logical fit. “It would be nice to check the status with the proverbial ‘Did I leave the oven on when I left the house?’” Levin says.
The controls on the oven itself—or the thermostat or dishwasher or a host of other devices—could be a simple interface, with a more complex web interface on the phone app. Then, Levin explains, “It’s software vs. hardware. You could keep the hardware costs low and invest more in the software controllability.”
In addition, “hardware is also more expensive when it breaks,” Duchin points out. So the design decision comes down to a choice between hardware and software controls.
More appliances rely on interfaces with some sort of screen, which updates the look of the appliance, and encourages consumers to be more interactive. Instead of opening and closing the refrigerator door, manufacturers want consumers to use the appliance to help them basically manage inventory, Duchin says. The technology also allows for web-connected thermostats that could adjust to vacation schedules, and on and on. “I definitely think it opens a world of new applications and we’re just on the beginning,” Duchin says. “I think it’s very exciting that internet connectivity is coming to more devices.”
Easy Does It
No matter what the new features are, they should be straightforward enough for consumers to understand. “It’s more about making it easy for users,” says Levin, who cautions that changes should not be so dramatic that they are difficult to use. “People are used to doing things a certain way,” he says. “It’s important to provide a seamless transition for them.”
He cites the example of a project he did about ten years ago for a tractor company that switched from levers to a more automated control system. But rather than re-teaching farmers how to operate the new controls, they also provided levers that linked to a computer that controlled the valves. Some of the farmers were able to adjust to the new control panel quickly, while others relied on the levers that mimicked the old method of doing things.
As seen with the tractors—and countless other machines—the user experience doesn’t always need to change just because better technology is available. Despite all the advances, Levin points out that people still drive cars the same way. Just as new vehicle technology doesn’t mean that people need to learn to drive all over again, updated appliance controls won’t require consumers to re-learn how to operate a dishwasher or thermostat. Instead, it may just change where they operate it from.