HomeSeer: Time for a Redesign

HomeSeer is a home control system that’s been around for about a decade. It’s one of the most flexible and extensible systems available for DIY home automation, and it’s very inexpensive at just $220. It can monitor and control devices over X10, Z-Wave, PLC, IP, and a host of other protocols, and it has a significant support community building plug-ins.

All that said, HomeSeer has suffered in usability for as long as I can remember. And with little UI improvement as the product has evolved, it seems quite stale now. Some add-ons and third-party plug-ins have helped in this area, but I’m fundamentally opposed to the idea of having to “buy up” to a better user experience. The good news is that an update is in the works. The bad news is that it may be a while before we see it.

Been a Long Time

HomeSeer screen shot

As a do-it-yourself home automation hobbyist, I’ve been using HomeSeer home control software for almost ten years, and in that time the user interface has changed very little. In fact, with the decided elimination of support for a desktop client in the 2.0 product, HomeSeer took a step backward in usability, forcing all users to move to a largely-unchanged web client. Roughly five years later, it still sports the same, stale interface—now looking very Web 0.9. It’s bad—bad enough that I’ve been flirting with switching to other systems like Embedded Automation’s mControl or Perceptive Automation’s Indigo.

Designed by Developers?

With all of its power and flexibility, HomeSeer’s UI has been rough around the edges from the start, sporting a (lack of) design sense that suggested the team simply didn’t include a trained user interface designer. I’d guess that the graphic design work was done by developers repurposing freely available web images and playing around in Photoshop (or an open-source alternative).

HomeSeer's old desktop toolbar

The original desktop client mimicked Outlook’s tab bar interface effectively, but the different views were a jumbled mess of mis-aligned form elements, and there was little consistency to the application’s toolbar icons. The surviving web interface is a hodgepodge of inconsistent fonts, graphics, and colors, with nested tabs, rudimentary form elements, and dozens of objects thrown on pages using complex table “layouts”. The overall look and behavior varies slightly by platform and browser, and most pages require a refresh to show updates.

Original HomeSeer 2.0 Touchpad Interface

Over the years, many of HomeSeer’s paid add-ons have further reinforced my UI design concerns, including a (now years old) plug-in for touch screens that made me cringe, thinking, “are you kidding? HIRE A TRAINED GRAPHIC DESIGNER!”

Data-driven Workflow

User experience is about more than design, though. Workflow is a key element, and that’s another area where HomeSeer’s web interface suffers. Device and event configuration seems focused more around data collection than user workflow. And if the INSTEON add-on is any indication, that weakness plagues the application extensions, too.

There’s a Light…

HomeSeer (the company) was one of the vendors at the Z-Wave Alliance booth this year at CES, so I had an opportunity to speak with them about their product roadmap. There’s good news: HomeSeer 3.0 is in the works. It adopts a new technology platform (again), and it will offer a new AJAX UI and a robust API. HomeSeer claims the new UI will be similar in concept to iGoogle’s configurable portal pages to allow for more user customization. That doesn’t engender significant confidence, but I’ll reserve judgement until I see it.

HomeSeer HomeTroller-Mini

We should see an embedded version of 3.0 in a standalone module by this Summer. The device is similar in concept to Universal Devices’ ISY boxes, but it will use a bring-your-own-control-interface approach, so it can support any protocol. It will require no additional server hardware, it will include HomeSeer 3.0 on-board, and you can connect your third-party control interface via a serial connection. The device will also support mobile touch clients (which, today, requires the paid HSTouch add-on), and it should carry a price of just $299.

If you want HomeSeer 3.0 running on your own server, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer. The upgrade for the installed version of HomeSeer isn’t expected to be available until the end of the year.

My Advice for HomeSeer

HomeSeer is obviously making strides in usability, but there’s still room for improvement. HomeSeer’s HSTouch interfaces for iPhone and iPad seem to be HomeSeer’s premier offerings now, and while they’re more visually engaging than the legacy product, they’re still a bit clunky: the design is heavy, and they seemingly ignore many iOS UI design standards and best practices.

HomeSeer, I’M BEGGING YOU to focus on improving the user experience in this next release, employing the skills necessary to design and build your new web and mobile user interfaces. One of the strengths of HomeSeer has been its install-and-go functionality. That was great ten years ago, but users expect more now. Design your system around real-life use cases and workflows, and tailor the UX to the specific devices you’re targeting.

Admittedly, the home automation market is a bit of a user experience mess right now with only a few notable exceptions (e.g., Control 4). You have an opportunity to fill a gap in the more affordable market by offering a highly-usable out-of-the-box solution with your next release. Please, please, PLEASE step up to that challenge.

    • Rudi
    • March 20th, 2011

    Fully agree with your observations. The functionality and flexibility of Homeseer is enormous. I’m running it for a few years now. Indeed only since the hstouch software, also the family started using the system. The webdesign diid not attract them.

    Hope to see HS3 soon!

  1. Great article.

    I think HomeSeer’s biggest problem is product quality. They don’t spend the time to get things right. They have many integrations that they wrote the code for and then they just let them break over time without even bothering to take them out of their marketing material. They need to spend time making their products robust and easy to use.

    I think HomeSeer needs to get its act together soon or some clever new company is going to come along and eat their lunch.

  2. Great article! Couldn’t agree more that Homeseer is due for a refresh. I’ve used it since its introduction, suffering the labor-intensive transition from the original version to 2.x and enduring the horrifically problematic refinement of Z-wave in recent years. It’s all stable now, and remains quite versatile. I have no regrets for the 10-year ride, but only because there were very few alternatives for most of that period.
    Part of my acceptance of Homeseer is because I only use their UI for configuration and test and their control engine for evant-action processing.
    AMX devices –touchpanels, Zigbee remotes, and a slew of interface devices–do the human/device interaction. AMX makes it relatively easy to create good UI graphics and workflow. I created a command/control/data interchange between AMX and Homeseer– AMX handles UI, some automation logic, and various AMX devices; Homeseer manages lighting, Z-wave motion sensing, Z-wave remotes, and some X10 and some Insteon devices.
    Homeseer’s HSTouch and Iridium’s AMX-on-iPad software share iDevice duty. While still a bit kludgy in the Design environment, HSTouch has evolved sufficiently to let you create useable UI designs. Iridium can use AMX touchpanel design tools to make iPad graphics; works very well and no new learning curve.
    So…anxious to see what Homeseer does with 3.0!

  3. I wrote this post nearly two years ago, and still nothing’s changed—except that they’ve seemingly abandoned INSTEON in house in favor of aligning the product to help sell Z-wave products from their own site. For any support of newer INSTEON devices, you have to buy a $60 third-party plug-in, which just seems like throwing good money after bad.

    • Just found this while searching for info on HomeSeer alternatives, because of all the reasons in your post here. You hit the nail on the head. It’s software “designed” by engineers. Old school Windows engineers at that. They need to get with the times- create a robust API then hire a UI designer and a UX specialist (as product manager, ideally) and give them the authority to do things.

      I worked for a company whose engineers also didn’t think they needed a UX or UI person. After countless complaints regarding usability and losing lots of market share, they eventually did hire both a UX and UI person. Problem is the engineers never took them seriously, and after a year both specialists left with pretty much none of their recommendations being put in to play. Engineers don’t think the same way most people do and they just couldn’t see the value in what the UX & UI guys were talking about. It was a very frustrating experience for everyone, save for the developers.

      HomeSeer would have to do some serious changes to 3.0 to stay afloat in the home-controller war that’s about to start. I don’t think they can do it. They may make enough changes to remain relevant to a certain niche market, but not with the masses.

      Microsoft has their own research project going AND just purchased R2 Studios, assigning them to the Xbox team. Sony is working with Control4. Apple & Google were also vying for R2 Studios but they’ve been working on their own projects for years now. Just last summer, Apple filed for patents covering home automation using both Apple TV and an unreleased iPhone with an NFC chip. Google has been quietly working on their Android@Home & Tungston projects since at least 2011.

      Apple, Microsoft, Sony, and Google… and in just a couple more months, SmartThings, a much-hyped Kickstarter project, will also be released. HomeSeer’s days appear to be numbered, and since they’ve dug their own grave, it’s hard to feel sorry for them.

    • Well, I’ve seen enough of the future of HomeSeer. Unfortunately I can’t get into details for now. Let’s just say I will be upgrading from HS2… but not to HS3.

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