Nest, the iPod of Thermostats

Interesting post about Nest, the thermostat from the co-creator of the iPod, and more broadly about the so-called Apple-fication of other areas outside computing.

Nest is a very handsome device that has an impressive list of features that any household could use, mine included. I actually may buy one of these after the initial kinks are resolved. I’m assuming there are kinks, as with any new product. The iPod was that way; I recall the headphone jack on the original iPod Mini I bought my wife was bum on not one, but two separate blue models. The gray one we finally got as a replacement was fine.

So yeah, kinks exist.

The first thing you’ll notice from the comparison of Nest to other high-end thermostats on the market is its minimalism. Nothing but the temperature, a color to indicate heating/cooling and a dial. There’s a leaf too, which reminds me of what’s missing, namely all the glyphs you get on a thermostat display. Ever look at those closely especially in comparison to another brand of thermostat? Absolutely no consistency, meaning you have to wing it or break out the manual.

Anyway, generally speaking, this type of Apple-fication trends design toward minimalism and simplicity, which is good.

Contrast this to the discussion about the skeuomorphism and vaguely patronizing nature of Apple’s software design trends I posted yesterday. John (@empoprises) pointed out a much more detailed and insightful post on skeuomorphism that is worth a read.

Jony Ive’s industrial design chops create beautiful, minimalist hardware, and generally, the software is complimentary. At some point, the delight turns cloying.

Anyway, loosely coupled items. Discuss.




  1. I have two hvac systems in my house.  They’ve been replaced at different times, so one side has a Honeywell touch (cheaper version of one in article), and the other side has a cheaper one like the others, except with 6 buttons.  The one with buttons is much, much, much easier to use, as the common situation is “oh, it is going to be a nice day today, shut the thing off and open all the windows.”  Which means, touch a button zero, one or two times (depending on existing state) on the one, and a complicated bunch of taps-you-hope-its-in-the-right-place-dammit-missed on the other.  They’re both programmable, but that is never used because the programs available don’t match the reality.  I’d love to have all remote-programmable windows, hvac and alarms, but that is beyond ridiculous price-wise.

    I can’t imagine how the controls on the shiny new thing could be better.  The other variable is other people who don’t understand heat transfer through floors, walls, ceilings and air spaces, not to mention the concept of thermostat.  They do all sorts of strange things, especially with a minimalist thermostat with just a number on it.  They see “71” and go “I’m cold, so I’ll make it warmer – turn it way up – then leave.  What will that teach a “learning thermostat?”  How environmentally conscious would it be to remotely turn on the A/C when the windows are open?

    Simplify can still be silly.

    I’ve had several cars with adaptive transmissions – they adopt shift patterns based on your driving style.  What’s the first thing any mechanic does with any transmission complaint?  Yes, reset it to newborn baby mode.

    Oracle’s adaptive database tuning has had some real doozies. 

  2. I agree simplification can go wrong, but I’m not sure how an adaptive transmission simplifies anything for the end user. I’m talking about interfaces here, not processes or algorithms or tuning.

    Plus, I think the target user here is the same one who left the VCR clock flashing 12:00 forever. Your description of the Honeywell thermostat matches what I’ve seen; it’s too complex. The vast majority of people want to turn the heat on/up/off and the cold on/up/off; all the other stuff is extra.

  3. There are probably a couple of use cases here.

    The initial use case is for someone who has little or no experience with the device (or software) in question. Can this person figure out how to do simple things?

    The second use case is for someone who has experience with the device/software and wants to get his/her job done as quickly as possible. For my company’s software, latent fingerprint examiners are sitting in front of computer screens all day. They want to complete their work with as few mouseclicks as possible. Perhaps our software sometimes does this in ways that don’t meet commonly-accepted interface guidelines, and perhaps it’s not initially obvious that you need to click the mouse wheel to get something done, but once you learn it, it’s invaluable to you.

    My favorite example is Google’s search engine (although Randall Stross argues that Google’s design by committee is inferior to having one talented person dictate the design). The initial page is simple, allowing you to easily search for something. If you want to get more fancy, you can click on additional options and put qualifiers in the search box and modify URLs to your heart’s content. Both user categories are served.

  4. It depends on what you’re designing and for whom. 

    Thermostats don’t really fit this discussion, especially since the vast majority are installed by those other than their end users. I suspect very few end users make a decision (or even care) about thermostats.

    The bigger picture is valid though, and it boils down to understanding your users. Failing that, I suppose it boils down to understanding your installers or those would proxy for the end users.

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