Posts Tagged ‘ user experience ’

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.

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Feedback for www.mycokerewards.com


Prologue: I attempted to send the following feedback to Coca-Cola regarding their newly redesigned mycokerewards.com.


The new mycokerewards.com site is a disappointing step backward in usability. Sadly, your new, Flash-based interface sacrifices ease-of-use for coolness. Five years ago, I might understand and tolerate that, but it’s 2007–we now know how to make engaging and usable Internet applications with Flash. The many problems with your new site include: time-consuming and unnecessary animations that don’t add even the slightest value; the white-on-white message that appears after entering a code is practically unreadable; it’s harder to navigate between reward categories; unnecessary (click thru) pages appear when you select each category; text in the reward detail and redemption windows sometimes overwrites other text; and it’s slow, slow, slow (or at least, that’s the perception from waiting through all the animation). I have found many more problems in just the 15 minutes I have spent on the site today, suggesting that you should put this thing through a vigorous QA review. Even finding this feedback form was an unnecessary challenge because the feedback link from your FAQ popup didn’t work properly–I had to copy and extract the URL embedded in the popup link on the FAQ popup window to get here. I seriously hope you take the time to test and remedy the numerous problems with this new site. As it stands now, this is…embarrassing.


Epilogue: Adding insult, my first attempt to send this message resulted in an error that read: Unable to Send Contact Us. Submitting the form again resulted in the same message, but with no way to close the error box. Ultimately, I succeeded in sending a very brief comment, with a link to read my comments here. This is one (or more) for the BUI Gallery.


Follow-up: A customer service representative responded, saying, “Thank you for contacting MyCokeRewards.com. We appreciate you taking the time to contact us regarding this issue. Our Technical Support team is aware of the problem and we are working in cooperation with the appropriate management…”

Management?

“…with the appropriate management to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. We thank you for your patience.”

I guess they get just how bad this is.

The BUI* Gallery

One of my technology passions is the analysis and improvement of user interface design. It’s truly amazing, with all of the tools, standards, and examples out there how many developers manage to produce software that delivers truly horrible user experiences. Finally, I’ve created a gallery to display the various examples of bad user interfaces I’ve encountered and collected over time. This is a collaborative effort with a close friend and colleague who shares my passion and appreciation for these abominations. We hope you enjoy and learn from our efforts.

* bad user interface