Smart Home Technology: Independence Off the Shelf?

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At SimplyHome, we love smart home technology. It’s exciting to watch new developments in smart tech unfold – from smart light bulbs to smart vacuums and smart ovens! With so many smart home options available, we’re not surprised by the question that we sometimes get: Can’t I just buy something off the shelf?

This is a great question. When should you simply buy Grandma an Amazon Echo? Do you have to be tech-savvy to set up and use smart home devices? When do you need the level of customization that SimplyHome offers in its systems?

Answering these questions gives us a chance to talk about the one topic we love even more than smart technology: people! Every day we get to see people with disabilities using technology to become more independent, make new choices, meet their goals, and live self-determined lives.

To answer these questions, we first want to highlight the clear advantages of off-the-shelf technology. Ready-to-use smart home technology is usually oriented towards achieving simple objectives. So when your primary goal for smart tech is very straightforward, such as ‘manage thermostat remotely’ or ‘increase residential security,’ that is a great time to use off-the-shelf technology.

Here are some examples of ready-to-use tech:

  • If your goal is to keep energy costs down or to manage your home’s temperature remotely, the Nest smart thermostat is a great option.  

  • If your primary concern is convenience (for instance, re-ordering household supplies) or entertainment, Amazon’s Alexa (Echo, Dot, etc.) is a great option. Many providers of senior services are also using Alexa to help combat isolation and loneliness. You can connect Alexa to many of your smart home devices – here is Amazon’s ongoing list of compatible tech.

  • If your concern is task management or prompting and it would be helpful to connect to services like the Google calendar, Google Home Assistant is a great choice. Google Home Assistant will help connect you to convenience and entertainment. Home Assistant has its own list of compatible smart home tech.

  • If your goal is to increase safety, products such as the Ring Video Doorbell can add a layer of security to your home by allowing you to answer your door from anywhere, via smartphone or tablet. Ring has been expanding their offerings with the spotlight and floodlight cameras, and recently added an alarm system and sensors.

At SimplyHome we include and recommend many of these devices with our custom-designed systems. When your goals for smart home tech are simple and can be met by the pre-programmed skills (Alexa has over 70,000) or setups already available, off-the-shelf devices are a great solution.

So when are these devices not enough? Here are eight situations when off-the-shelf devices come up short as a support solution:


1. When you want to be truly person-centered.

Brad’s vision was to live on his own. Enabling Technology helped make it possible.

Brad’s vision was to live on his own. Enabling Technology helped make it possible.

Most of our clients are people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD), people with physical disabilities or symptoms, and seniors choosing to age in place. Because of this, when we design support solutions at SimplyHome, we start by discussing the individual’s priorities and goals first, then consider how technology can assist them in those goals. How can tech help them to live more independently? How can they be more connected to their communities, and have more choice and dignity in their daily lives? We don’t want to fit an individual to the product, but rather fit the product to the individual’s priorities.

“We talk about people’s vision of a preferred life, and we gear person’s outcomes towards those visions. Brad’s vision was to live on his own. Technology made that vision a reality.” - Joel Walker, DIDD Case Manager and Tech Champion

Most smart home products are designed for people whose independence is not in question. Smart home devices are geared for convenience, entertainment, and even sheer novelty, and we want to adapt them for our purpose: creating new possibilities of independence, access, and dignity.

"For us [technology] makes tasks more convenient, for [our clients] it may make the impossible possible." - Chris Baumgart, Assistive Technology Specialist at Imagine!


2. When your goals don’t match pre-programmed skills.

Colleen recently moved into her own apartment, with the help of enabling technology from  Simply Home.

Colleen recently moved into her own apartment, with the help of enabling technology from SimplyHome.

Because our clients’ priorities are incredibly varied, the smart home devices available off the shelf do not always fit their needs. Some of our clients enjoy cooking and meal preparation and have concerns about health-related issues or forgetfulness. When we customize our sensor-based technology at SimplyHome, we can program many “if this…then that” situations, such as “If the stove is on, and there’s no motion in the kitchen, then send an alert.” This programming can mean the difference between someone enjoying life independently and having a constant staff presence in their home.


3. When smart technology creates a barrier rather than creating access.

Some off-the-shelf smart devices can create accessibility issues. Although hopefully voice recognition software will continue to improve, voice assistants are not good at recognizing or understanding non-standard speech patterns. For people with non-standard speech or people who are nonverbal, voice assistants are not helpful. Other smart technology is controlled by touch, and for many people it is difficult or impossible to select a tiny icon on a screen. Many off-the-shelf devices do not take the broad array of human abilities – such as dexterity and mobility – into account. Our customization process cannot do everything we dream up (yet!), but it certainly can make tech a lot more adaptable to people’s abilities!


4. When you need specific devices to integrate or be grouped into a single, customized interface.

Another issue that may come up: unfortunately, many off-the-shelf apps and devices still do not talk to each other or play well together in a single interface. As an IT professional who works for one of our provider partners said, "Sure, I can control all of the smart items in this home, but I have to open 12 apps to do it." When you need different devices to promote independence, making sure they all work together is crucial.

While you can accomplish some customization on other platforms (such as Alexa or SmartThings), these platforms don’t offer the ability to customize an interface (to make icons more accessible, for example) and don’t give you the full control of available features. For instance, some of the color options and settings available in the Philips Hue aren’t accessible through Alexa.  

Some specialized products, like those designed to promote cooking safety (stove sensors), address concerns about wandering (bed pads), or assist with limited mobility (automatic door openers), aren’t even available on existing off-the-shelf platforms. Coordinating smart home devices with adaptive controls (i.e., adaptive switches or other assistive technology) is an additional customization not available through most existing platforms.  


5. When you are implementing smart-home tech for an entire organization.

Some concerns about off-the-shelf devices are specific to providers. When you need to customize smart support systems for 100 individuals, this becomes daunting fast. In other words, smart home tech is not something that is easy to scale. To provide each person with an Alexa-enabled device is one thing, although that likely does mean keeping up with 100 log-in credentials. But what if you want customized tech? As a provider, you need to be able to log in and access more than one system at once. In this case, customization on a larger scale can be helpful. The custom systems designed by SimplyHome allow you to see sensor activity for all the individuals you support.


6. When you need reporting capabilities to plan services.

While we’re on the topic of sensors: the sensor-based systems available off the shelf today are great about triggering specific actions. However, there is currently no reporting capability. For our providers, especially those who choose not to use cameras, being able to access sensor activity reports is crucial to planning services. Is this person exiting the house in the middle of the night? Does Sally leave the stove on regularly, or is she careful about turning it off? Whatever the concern, our providers depend on this data to assess support needs, help individuals grow their independent living skills, and increase peace of mind for their staff, clients, and families.

To produce custom outcomes with off-the-shelf technology, providers often need a designated person to program, install, and maintain the technology. For many of our provider partners, this isn’t their current reality, so SimplyHome provides a high level of customization and support for their clients and staff.


7. When you need both customization and security.

Security has been a concern with some smart home technology since day one. While nothing can be done to make technology completely unhackable, SimplyHome carefully vets each piece of technology we use, putting security measures in place to make it more difficult for other people to access our clients’ smart home systems. Some smart home devices are accessible to anyone who logs onto your Wi-Fi network, no username or password required, and that’s something we work to prevent. It’s essential to be aware of security vulnerabilities in smart home devices and to address these vulnerabilities as much as possible.


8. When your organization is ready to level up.

Another concern for providers is staff education and buy-in, especially with rapid turnover. When you want to prepare an entire organization to use smart technology and help your staff truly embrace the possibilities created by smart home tech, then you need more than just a device off the shelf. We don’t see enabling technology as a replacement for the other kinds of support required by many of the individuals we serve. We’ve heard from DSPs who say that enabling technology has made their jobs more fulfilling. But technology can feel strange and disruptive at first.

“Having that technology in itself is not going to solve the problem. You have to be able to bring your organization and your staff to that level where they are going to be able to use it effectively and efficiently.” - Jerry Bernard, the Charles Lea Center

SimplyHome provides customizable education options, both online and in-person, to help organizations transition into integrating technology among their services. We’ve seen providers implement tech in a way that wasn’t truly person-centered, and we know the difference. We can help your organization avoid the common pitfalls of tech integration, and make sure that technology really does serve the priorities of the individual.