Designing smart homes and devices: can too much data cause stress?

An interesting study about the effect of “knowing too much” was published in the New Yorker last week. It described a study where data from a hypothetical “smart” electricity meter, one that could track usage by the outlet and appliance, had on a group of virtual roommates that had agreed to split electricity costs equally. The study found that, in general, additional information garnered from smart meters caused more emotional distress. How?

At the root of the experiment, several groups were told that their monthly electricity bill was much higher for the month of July when compared to June. Different groups were then shown different meter reports.

Different smart meters display used in the study.  Source: New Yorker / University of Nottingham

Different smart meters display used in the study. Source: New Yorker / University of Nottingham

The first group was shown only that usage for July was much higher than June’s, the meter on the left. This group showed the least anger.

The second group was shown that anonymous roommate “A” was using more electricity than the other roommates, the meter in the middle. As expected, participants in this group were angrier than those in the first group, where it wasn’t clear that only one person was responsible for the increase.

The third group showed that a specific person, “Ashley,” was responsible for the increase and it caused the predictable response: with the data pointing to the specific person responsible caused more angry feelings.

Gauging anger wasn’t the only goal of the study: the participants were asked to rank other feelings. It turned out that members in the first group, who were shown only an increase in usage, felt more fear and guilt that they had been the one causing the extra use. Yet, their response to the increase in use was more collaborative, trying to get everyone to use less electricity in the future.

It’s interesting that the more information the roommates had, the angrier they became and less cooperative. Could this information be used to design better “smart” home products and wearables?

Last week’s CES showcased many new smart home products. Looking at their interfaces, some seem destined to cause more strife than their current, “dumb” counterparts. Imagine the smart refridgerator, that knows who has taken the last beer or finished the milk without replenishing? Door and window sensors can tell who left them open; smart locks can report what smartphone opened them; ovens, washers and dryers can report who turned them on remotely and for what task; water use monitors that could end up either saving water or causing more strife like in the case of the smart meters. In fact, any app-controlled smart device that can be controlled by more than one user can be a source of strife.

Yet, as some smart devices seem to be destined to cause strife, others might do the opposite: the smart thermostat that will turn itself off when no one is at home, saving energy for all; water use devices that watch for excessive use at the main shutoff valve, detecting leaks or bursts and preventing waste; lights that turn off when no one is at home to save energy; and many more.

Wearables also seem to walk a fine line between motivation and stress. If a user is shown that they haven’t met their point/step/fuel goal by 8pm, does that motivate them to go out for a run or stress about missed activity? If a heart rate is too high, sleep time too little, calories burned too low — what will that motivate a user to do, day after day?

In the end, smart home and wearables should be more than the technology driving them. Those that will be adopted and used daily will be those that get this balance between data and personal stress right. Those that will be dismantled or left unworn will be those that get it wrong.



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