IOTAS: Creating a Smart Home with Meaning

June 2, 2015 | Citizen Inc.

Citizen Inc.

Smart Home hype has hit the peak of inflated expectations: standards are sorely lacking, retrofitting a home is a huge pain, and not a single one of us truly needs a smart home. So, why then, would we start a smart home company as a side project?

Because, despite all of the signs, we had a hunch that there was something here. We believed that if we were able to insert some meaning into the smart home experience there was an opportunity to create something worth using. We set out to do what most people say a company focused on services can’t do: create a product company. And IOTAS was born.

We’d been following IoT and smart home hype for months and conducting our own experiments with products available in the market. As strategists, designers, and creative technologists, we were well aware of this peak, and well aware of its potential path down the trough of disillusionment.

IOTAS Smart Apartment | Citizen, Inc. | Portland, Oregon

The IOTAS design team reviewing an inventory of competitive experiences.

The Problem

The biggest issue that we were able to quickly identify was the technology-first approach that much of the smart home industry was taking. We talked about it at the time, but the market was pushing hardware and simply wasn’t doing a good job of communicating benefit or selling consumers on compelling smart home use cases. The fact that we can turn a light on or off with our smart phone without getting up from the couch isn’t something we need.

The problem here is that we’re being sold solutions for non-existent needs. In other words, these products added no meaning to our daily lives and therefore didn’t have the ability to integrate with our existing patterns and behaviors.

As UX professionals, we’d prefer to approach a project like this by identifying a problem that we’re solving for. We wondered if there was a need buried in there somewhere, so we dug in and started asking questions, talking to renters and homeowners, and understanding their relationships with their homes. After several weeks of research, it was clear that people were quite satisfied with their dumb homes.

IOTAS Smart Apartment | Citizen, Inc. | Portland, Oregon

The IOTAS product team sifting through user research.

While we may have an emotional attachment to our homes, we don’t really have a relationship with them, not in the literal sense of the word. We can’t have a relationship with our homes because they have no regard for us and they exhibit no intentional behaviors.

Our homes are dumb because they don’t have objectives. They don’t have objectives because we’ve never had the opportunity to tell them what’s important to us. And that was our angle in.

Quinn Simpson, IOTAS VP of Product Experience, said it best when he said:

"Users don’t necessarily care about their home being smart. Users don’t necessarily care about the ability to turn off a light switch. We just have basic goals as human beings."

If we were going to create a smart home experience we’d actually want to use, we needed to find a way for people to have meaningful relationships with their homes — one in which they were able to communicate their objectives and priorities to their home, one in which their home was able to learn about them, understand intent, adapt to patterns, and begin to act on their behalf.

The Solution

Our goal was simple: create an experience that enabled a user to tell their home what’s most important to them, be it convenience, comfort, energy efficiency, security, or some combination thereof.

Beyond the missing need, our research (and our own experiments) made it clear that DIY retrofits were not the path of least resistance. We had a hunch, but our research validated the fact that millennials would be the most likely demographic to adopt a smart home platform. Millennials, by and large, do not own their own homes. To be precise, only 36 percent of people under the age of 35 are homeowners,  according to the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. And renters typically cannot retrofit their homes.

Combine those findings with the fact that Portland’s population is growing rapidly (millennials in particular) and that new apartment starts are moving at their fastest pace in almost a decade — and they’re making up a larger share of overall housing construction. It was tough to miss the opportunity. Actually, all we had to do was look around. Like it or not, apartments are popping up everywhere you look in Portland.

We were fortunate enough to find a real estate partner early in our process. By the spring of 2014 IOTAS had an agreement in place for a pilot with Capstone Partners who were planning a mixed use building in Northeast Portland with 210 units and retailers.

IOTAS Smart Apartment - Grant Park Village | Citizen, Inc. | Portland, Oregon

Grant Park Village - The location of the initial IOTAS pilot with Capstone Partners in Portland, OR

The Process

We wanted to start simple, but definitely subscribed to the idea that a minimum lovable product is a better goal than a minimum viable product. That meant delivering an experience with a thoughtful feature set that was functional, reliable, usable, and still had elements or moments of delight. For us, that delight was going to come to life in that big initial insight: we wanted users to be able to tell their homes what’s important to them.

That IOTAS experience comes together through a combination of sensors, smart light switches, smart outlets, a hub, and a mobile application. The mobile application offers users three levels of intelligence:

  • Controls allow users to turn switches or outlets on or off from anywhere. While we never saw these as a differentiator, they were something that residents certainly expected and are currently some of the most used features.
  • Rules allow users to create simple if/then scenarios. We provided residents with a starter set of rules to introduce them to the idea of automation and conditional triggers.
  • Smart Stories give users the opportunity to tell their home what’s important to them — then through pattern analysis IOTAS looks for opportunities to make your life more convenient, comfortable, economical, or provide you with a stronger sense of security.
IOTAS Smart Apartment | Citizen, Inc. | Portland, Oregon

Perhaps the aspect of Smart Stories that we’re most excited about is the ability for the experience to learn about a user’s priorities and then adapt to real world variables. This is something we’re calling the Living Profile — and it’s perfect for renters because, as most of us have experienced first-hand, they have a tendency to move every now and again. As IOTAS grows, our vision is that users will be able to take their profile with them to their next IOTAS-enabled apartment.

And we’re looking even further — thinking about a world where your car, hotel room, or your next Airbnb rental are all powered by IOTAS and able to adapt to your preferences and priorities. Or, how smart home experiences like IOTAS will influence the construction and architecture of our homes in the future. We’ve even spoke with potential partners who are interested in using our technology to gauge the health of both buildings and inhabitants alike.

The Results

Beyond the obvious hurdles of spinning a product company out of a service-based organization we’re continually amazed and inspired by the challenges we’re facing. There are head-scratching issues every day. We found out quickly that humans are incredibly unpredictable (surprise!). Our schedules change, our needs change over time and simple automation doesn’t suffice. It’s easy enough to connect a home, the hard part is creating an experience that understands intent, interprets variables, and does the right thing at the right time.

That’s why we consider ourselves fortunate to have the research opportunity we have with our pilot. We’re in 100 units and working directly with residents in a 6-month program to uncover how they live and how IOTAS can support their lives. In the end, we hope we’re aiming to get a few steps closer to an experience that people need.

Learn more about IOTAS at

Creating the IOTAS Platform from IOTAS on Vimeo.

Citizen Inc.