If you installed some form of home automation (lighting control for example), how did you keep the complexity manageable for your family members?

In many cases where friends have installed some form of home automation, I see that the person who wanted it and decided on the individual settings is the only one comfortable with it. The others? Not so much.

They think there are too many buttons ("We used to have a single button and light everywhere, now there are eight, and I always have to try them all to get the right one"), too many options (pressing once vs. holding, on-off vs dimming - "Why doesn't that light turn on?" "It is, it's just dimmed all the way down"), and they see it as just one of the new toys of their husband or father. The same thing with home theater setups ("Why do I need three remotes to watch TV?" [TV screen, set-top box, audio installation] "We had a simple TV, and I liked it!")

Do you recognize this situation? What can be done to prevent it? I understand the difference Don Norman makes between a "complex world" and a "complicated user interface", but are we maybe making the world/our house too complex ourselves?

(Of course, since this is a site for DIY'ers, and an offspring of Stack Overflow, most of us will be the enthusiastic husbands and fathers. Bonus points for answers written together with your wives and children!)

  • I think home automation would be more popular if it was voice controlled. No buttons at all.
    – Zepplock
    Jul 26 '10 at 19:44
  • 1
    @Zepplock It would have to have very good voice recognition or would drive people up the wall. Imagine, You: "Lights On" House: "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you said" You: "Lights On" House: "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you said" You: "Turn the #*#(*# Lights On!" Lights Turn On
    – ManiacZX
    Jul 26 '10 at 22:01
  • For three-way light switches it's always hit-or-miss if I need to go "up" or "down" to get the light on in the middle of the night... Even something as simple as a light switch can have design flaws! Jul 27 '10 at 5:09
  • 4
    I've noticed, Maniac, that voice menus on phones work best when they're insulted. Jul 27 '10 at 23:27
  • As someone who does IT for a day job: Home Automation - I just say no. A non-WiFi timed setback thermostat is about as complex as it gets. Don't come crying to me when your house is hacked, the freezer is set to 120F and the A/C is on in winter...my things don't need the internet and I sure don't want the internet connected to my things.
    – Ecnerwal
    Feb 16 '17 at 14:50

It sounds like you're using keypads to control sets of lights. Two important things:

Label the buttons well and Keep it simple and consistent.

For example, if you're using scenes, have the buttons say the name of a scene that makes sense, depending on the location. If there's a keypad in the hallway outside the kitchen in the living room, make sure it's clear which scenes control the kitchen, and which control the living room. Also, if you're using scenes, avoid mixing button types; eg, having "dim" and "bright" buttons in addition to scenes is confusing.

I'd also echo @Rob Napier's point that reliability is a huge factor. If you press a button and it "sometimes" works, it will just lead to frustration (in effect: don't use X10).

Also along the lines of being consistent, pick one or two different types of switches, and stick to those. If you have a mix of toggle switches, rocker dimmers, 6-button and 8-button keypads, it's just going to be confusing. Standardize on a manufacturer and style, and stick to it.

The other obvious thing is really talk to your users. Make sure you know what they typically do, and adjust the system appropriately. Maybe they always go into a room and want a certain light on at a certain level, but you never do .. make sure you talk to that person so you know to set it up so it works they way they expect.

  • 1
    +1 for labels and reliability. I found the WAF went way up when I added clear labels to buttons ("Kitchen off", not "Scene 3"). Making the system predictable is also key, which incorporates not only reliability, but design (pressing button X always has the same effect is easier to understand than changes based on time of day, etc.)
    – TomG
    Jul 24 '11 at 20:55
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    Along with "talk to your users", go slowly. More is not always better; the system should almost be invisible. I found that as my wife got used to functions (favorite: a "good night" button that turns most lights out, but leaves a few on dim for night lights), she began making suggestions for further changes (can you make this light come on at sunset?, etc.)
    – TomG
    Jul 24 '11 at 20:59

In my experience with X10, the number 1 problem is the reliability of signal. Yes, there's the complexity of setup, etc. But most of these don't impact people very much. You set it up once; it's fine for a very long time. But it's the randomness of behavior that causes the real frustration with home automation. Sometimes things just don't work, or they work with a strange delay, or lights magically turn themselves off.

The solution to this, IMO, is to transmit data on a data line rather than trying to transmit over power (flakey) or RF (range problems). If power cables included a twisted pair for data, that would make a huge difference in my opinion. It would also get rid of the need for X10 devices to draw small amounts of power even when off, which screws up CF bulbs which hate being fed small amounts of choppy power and flicker terribly on X10 circuits if there isn't an incandescent in the loop. The trick to this is that you'd need a very good way to continue the twisted pairs at junctions that didn't use them. In practice, I think the solution for this would be a new style of electrical gang box.

The non-technical members of my household actually love the home automation. I've been able to tie light switches together that were a pain to use, put wireless light switches across the room where they're useful, and let you turn out all the downstairs lights with a single button in the bedroom. When it works, they love it. But they'd love it a lot more if the house were wired for it from the start, and it were just configured well as part of building the house.

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    Did you increase the number of lights, or did it stay the same, just easier to manipulate? Because that's something that I noticed many people do "because it's possible": they install many small lights, all individually controlled, and it becomes very hard to turn on the light where you need it.
    – Jan Fabry
    Jul 27 '10 at 19:36
  • Just easier to manipulate. For instance, I virtually tied a couple of switches together so that turning on the stair lights also turns on the hall lights and vice versa. And I put a third switch at the other end of the hall so you can switch them from there. In my basement, the light switch is across the room from the door, so I put a wireless controller on the wall so I can turn on the lights without stumbling through the dark room. That kind of stuff. Some of these are because my house is wired weird, but new construction still can benefit from a "turn off all the lights" in the master, etc.
    – Rob Napier
    Jul 27 '10 at 22:12

Don't assign any complex function to IRL buttons. They sould just turn on and off the device, set the temperature higher or lower, max. select mode. Just as if there were no home aut. at all.

The complex functions should be reach only from computer interface. There are room for "online" help, more complex widgets (e.g. time adjust) etc.


I think it mostly comes down to people's expectations. Everyone expects to be able to flip a switch and the lights come on.

Home automation systems use something that looks like a switch, but doesn't act like one. That of course confuses people. If the systems they used looked nothing like switches, people would have different expectations and would treat them differently.


In my opinion one of the critical flaws of most home automation systems is that they break the user interface which we've all grown up with. The person who puts the system in has, implicitly, chosen to break the UI but others have not made this choice: thus the stress.

The best way to avoid this is to not break the user interface. Take lights, for example. The most common UI for lights is a switch on the wall. We're comfortable with that being abstracted to two+ switches in halls and rooms with multiple doors. For automation to be used yet the UI not be broken the automation must use a switch + electronic control. An example of this is a wall switch like this X10 one. alt text

The "wall wart" automation controls which fit between a lamp or appliance and the wall socket almost always break the expectations of users. These guys should be avoided: alt text

An exception is any use where there is not a natural switch, such as Christmas lights, a pump, humidifier, etc.

For home theater I've had pretty good luck with universal remotes, but, in my experience, it takes a fairly expensive ($150+) to get a UI that is simple enough yet full featured enough. The Logitech Harmony remotes do a pretty good job at this:

alt text

The bottom line seems to be "make user interface a priority and a key feature" when doing anything DIY, and especially home automation. And something that is a priority is something worth spending time and money on to get it right.


One thing that would help would be standardization of interfaces. Either through collaboration of the companies in the industry or by one dominating market share and others going copy cat.

A common structure and location of menus, meaning of icons, etc.

It is great to have competition for reasons of pricing, innovation, etc but a familiar interface is what will make it more usable for the average person that just wants it to work.

Look at computers, is Windows the "best" system available? No, but it is the best known, most familiar, and so wins out 9/10 times unless you are dealing with someone with specific needs or a higher interest in computers.

A light switch has a few variations sure, but it is still an extremely simple device, and for the most part you know Up is on and Down is off.

A good example of disparate interfaces are cell phones. I'm a tech guy, you hand me a phone, I can figure it out, but I'm constantly asked by other people when they get a new phone how to do the operations they used to do on the old phone, add contacts, change ringtones, etc. Apple, Android, Nokia, Samsung, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Motorola are all different user experiences. For ringtones, one is under Alerts, another Audio, Sound, Notifications, etc. Menu, Settings, Options, Preferences. It's like when a manufacturer goes to make a new interface, they pull out another companies phone and a Thesaurus and just pick different words. People will deal with cracked screens, poor reception, short battery life, etc just to avoid having to learn a new phone.

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