by Ryan Shanks, Francis Hintermann

In the late 1950s, RCA Whirlpool introduced the world to the “Miracle Kitchen,” a bold vision of the future in which every device in the home was automated, networked, and tasked with making life easier and safer. Part futuristic proof of concept, part propaganda, the Miracle Kitchen excited consumers and sparked the famous “Kitchen Debate”between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev. There was just one problem: The technology wasn’t ready.

More than 60 years later, the technology is finally ready, but many consumers still aren’t.

Despite the growing ecosystem of devices, software, and services for homes, we have yet to see explosive growth in the smart-home market. Aside from some technophiles, consumers still struggle to see how smart-home products or services will be relevant to them in their daily lives, let alone understand all the technology upgrade cycles and platform and integration options. Our research bears this out. According to an Accenture survey of more than 6,000 people across 13 geographic areas, 25% of consumers of smart-home products and services consider themselves “Explorers” (meaning lead adopters) while 63% say they are “Navigators” (followers). Because of this, the smart home is stuck in the chasm of the technology adoption curve — caught in the early-adopter phase and struggling to move to mass-market adoption.

We used this survey as a starting point to better understand what’s happening with smart-home technology. We also directly observed 40 individuals in their homes, allowing us to dig into their behaviors, routines, and communication and to explore how technology impacts their identities and motivations. We then tested our findings with more than 25 global clients during strategic innovation sessions at our R&D center, and used their feedback to refine our thinking.

Through the lens of this work, we see a rare opportunity for companies to rethink two areas of their business: product design and marketing. In our view, product design is still too removed from the end user, and marketing strategies are still too focused on selling products based on outmoded personas and traditional market segments.

We categorized smart-home customers into a new set of eight personas, and we suggest that companies consider their different characteristics before designing and marketing smart-home products.

The Eight Customer Types

Most companies create buyer personas — semi-fictional renderings of ideal customers, based on the demographics and behavior patterns of existing customers. The idea, originated by software designer and programmer Alan Cooper, is that if you want to design a winning product, then design for a specific person. The problem for the smart-home industry is that most personas are based on knowledge of existingusers, who are mostly die-hard technophiles and tell companies little about everyone else.

The truth is, everyone has a different conception of what “home” should mean and communicate to the outside world. Needs vary depending on personal affinity, outlook, interest, taste, time, context, age, and geography. Taking all of this into account, we found that people tend to adopt one of eight mindsets and behave a certain way in the home.

1. Creative Homebody. This buyer uses tech to heighten sensory experiences and create a personal oasis in their home. As one user told us, “I designed everything the way I want in my home. I painted the ceiling black and I put studs on the ceiling to be like stars. And then the light bulb is acting as the moon.”

2. Active Urbanite. This buyer uses tech to help manage their busy city life while at home. “Living in the city where everything is hectic, I treasure a place that I can come home to and feel safe and relaxed.”

3. Personal Organizer. This buyer uses tech to be more efficient and productive while at home. “I always try to stay clean and organized at home. I schedule my bike trainer rides so I don’t disturb my neighbors. And I have two sound machines to sleep and block traffic noise from outside.”

4. Reluctant Tech Adopters. This buyer uses tech for convenience but is more hesitant to invest than early adopters. “My home is my private time. I want to switch off from the outside and embrace my own hobbies at home.”

5. Drone Parent. This buyer uses tech to keep their family safe as well as manage the household schedule and make day-to-day tasks more efficient. “I feel in control in home because I have full visibility. I used a pan camera as a baby monitor. Now I can watch my family through it to see if they are at home.”

6. Fun-loving Parent. This buyer uses tech to bring the family together for fun time. “I feel happy, creative, and loved at home. Sunday funday is my favorite.”

7. Luxury Spenders. This buyer embraces technology in the home to convey a sense of status and tech-savviness. “Home is your personal headquarters that further identifies your location and place of personal growth.”

8. Family Connectors. This buyer uses tech for social connections. “I have a gallery wall full of my family photos. My family means my whole world to me. I post to Facebook every day to stay connected to friends and relatives.”

Applying these eight mindsets, companies can better answer two critical questions:

Who is the product or service for? Consider a product aimed at “parents.” Drone Parents want a home that’s clean, organized, private, and secure, while Fun-loving Parents see their home as a space to rest, relax, and recharge. Is your product relevant to one category? Both? Or might it fall somewhere in between the two and fail to interest either?

What task is the product or service helping the customer perform?Even Luxury Spenders, who may at first see smart-home products as status objects, want new tech to perform particular tasks. And this desire is even more important to the other customer categories. So if your product isn’t relevant to an important task, you run the risk of its being used only a handful of times and then abandoned.

By understanding peoples’ tasks, companies will understand their customers. For example, the top three reasons people use smart speakers, we found, is for entertainment, information, and productivity. One task in the entertainment category could be choosing a restaurant, while a task in the productivity category could be restocking paper towels and toilet paper.

Make People More Comfortable About Tech in the Home

Many consumers are caught between two competing desires. At one end is the desire for connection, efficiency, and entertainment; at the other, the desire to prevent technology from becoming too pervasive. Some people we studied said that while social media makes them feel connected, it can also make them feel disconnected from the physical world and real human interaction. Half of all survey respondents aged 18 to 34 worried they’re too dependent on technology, while 43% in the same age group feared smart devices knew too much about them. Half of the people we surveyed, of all ages, said technology in the home can make them lazy.

The design and marketing of smart-home products must account for these tensions. At a minimum, companies should consider these best practices:

Focus on comfort. Smart-home products and services make life safer and easier, and consumers welcome this. But there is another need to consider: comfort. When we asked people what makes them feel safe at home, many pointed to items that signal comfort, such as candles and blankets. This presents an opportunity for companies to enhance their product design by understanding the connections between security and comfort in the home.

For example, many smart-lighting products can be changed to throw off different hues of light. What if lighting could be adjusted based on how people are feeling at different times of the day or what they’re doing in their home? Want a Spring Blossom–themed scene? Shades of pink, red, and white. Need to finish a work project at home? Cool blues for concentration.

Clearly explain the benefits — and whom they’re for. In many cases, a smart-home product might fail because the company did not make a clear connection between the technology and the benefit to the consumer. Clearly explaining the benefits will help overcome cost concerns — 55% of our respondents said cost is a primary consideration when purchasing smart devices.

Consider two examples where the benefit is made clear. Nest thermostats can tell homeowners how much energy their home is using, remind them to change filters, and automatically switch between heating systems (a heat pump versus an oil furnace, for example). For older people with chronic health issues, Amazon Echo can remind them to take medication at a set time every day.

Provide easy-to-use tools. One of the reasons home-automation systems have struggled to find a mainstream audience is that they require a degree of tech savvy. Balancing the complexity and usability of smart-home systems can be overwhelming for users. If a system is too onerous, people will opt out. So when designing, consider a few questions:

  • How intuitive is the system to use for non-techies? If the lights in the house are programmed to turn on at 5 PM during the winter, how easy is it to change the time when the seasons change?
  • How much responsibility does the user bear to maintain the system? And how responsive is your customer service? If the system requires frequent hands-on maintenance from customers, that could be a deterrent.
  • What job is the product or service performing? The task that homeowners are carrying out should inform the user interface.

Be smart with data. Giving users a tangible benefit for collecting their data will help ease concerns about privacy. With a smart mattress, for example, users may be more inclined to share their data if the mattress gives them something in return (for example, automatically adjusting the temperature and firmness based on their sleep cycle).

But companies must be transparent about how they are using data to deliver a tangible, relevant, and immediate benefit. If they want to be invited into people’s homes, they must understand how sacred and personal the home is.