When you’re in the market for a new smart home device, whether that’s a colour-changing light bulb or an always-on voice assistant, you’d be forgiven for focusing on what it does first, how it’ll look in your home second and then paying absolutely no attention to how that shiny new piece of tech is going to fit in with the rest of your family.
Wait, what? Yes, it may sound strange, but think about it. Smart home tech is, well, smarter than ever before. It can talk to us, reply to us, get to know us, respond to our every whim and sit there with us when we’re watching Netflix and having a meal.
That means in the same way a new baby or pet might cause mixed feelings, a big upheaval and some arguments, so might a new connected device – just likely to a lesser degree. This seems especially to be the case when one person in the household is sweet on the smart home and others need to be convinced.
To better understand how smart home tech fits in with our families, rubs us the wrong way in relationships and gets confused by our kids, we asked people to share their smart home tech tales.
“I'm sorry, Dave. I can’t do that”
Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa has become a smart home staple thanks to the popularity of the Echo and Echo Dot devices. For that reason, a lot of the anecdotes I collected were about how well (or not so well) Alexa understood commands, picked up on voices and fit in with families. As you’d probably expect from a piece of tech built around voice commands, misunderstanding accents, mishearing questions and offering up seemingly unrelated or unhelpful advice was common.
A long term prank for Echo owners: Name your child Alex
“We randomly had an Amazon delivery of the Beatles box-set 'Help' special edition turn up. My husband Rob had the email notification and ignored it thinking it was spam,” Alix told us. “Then the DVDs turned up and he thought his Amazon account had been hacked. Well, it turns out that he had been asking me (Alix) for 'Help with something' and Alexa thought he wanted to order the DVDs!”
It might be more personal but Amazon's assistant having a real name can get annoying for some. Lizzie agrees that having someone in the family with a similar name was only ever going to end badly. “A couple of months ago, Alexa responded to hearing my son Alex's name by saying, 'I've added salami sandwiches to your shopping list.' I have no idea why,” she told us. “The final straw came when my mum was telling my husband that she and Alex had seen a dustbin lorry – very exciting when you're a toddler – and Alexa piped up, 'I've added dust to your shopping list'. And she had!”
Could there be a hidden benefit in these misunderstandings? Well, maybe. Plenty of people told me that voice-related mistakes can be one family’s in-joke and a source of bonding. Jonas, who works in marketing, told us, “To demonstrate the power of Siri, I asked, ‘hey Siri, please call my wife’ to which she replied ‘which one?’ My kids were amused, my wife not so much.”
“We were given an Echo speaker as a gift and maybe we're not using it properly but Alexa so rarely does what we ask,” Lisa told us. “It's become a bit of an in-joke we all bond over. We joke about what kind of ridiculous incorrect response 'she'll' come up with.”
When the smart home turns sour
As you can imagine, a boxset delivery mystery and some misunderstood commands can be funny. But there’s a fine line between a joke and a constant source of frustration with both the voice-activated assistant and other people within your home.
“Alexa just doesn't recognise my voice at all, despite having a fairly standard southern English accent. My partner's thick northern accent? She picks that up right away!” Jane told us. “My partner is the long suffering type, so he just wearily repeats all my messages to Alexa. I joke that he's the communications officer (one for Galaxy Quest fans), and I'm not sure that's massively appreciated.”
My husband Dan will always set alarms with his voice. Why do I have to listen to this dull task over and over again?
“My husband Dan will always set alarms with his voice,” Ocean told us. “This inevitably takes several attempts, each one more annoying than the last. Why not just do it silently with your fingers? Why do I have to listen to this dull task over and over again? Same goes for checking the weather, checking his diary and asking HAL to open the pod bay doors. Bore off Siri. Dan will have a fight on his hands if he thinks Alexa is joining us anytime soon!”
And it’s not just frustration at commands that’s a problem – sometimes Alexa’s willingness to please can cause a bit of a rift too. ”It drives me mad when my husband uses Alexa,” Patricia told us. “Mostly because he says he prefers talking to her because she doesn't answer back! I let him get on with it and my daughter finds it hilarious I now refer to Alexa as his ‘girlfriend’. She jokes that there are three people in our marriage now: me, him and Alexa.”
What’s in a name?
There’s no precedent for welcoming a new electronic family member into the fold. So lots of people told me they found it tricky to figure out the best way to name their new voice-controlled friend, especially when another member of the family already has a similar name. I expected that. But what I didn’t expect to hear was how many people felt guilty renaming Alexa. “We tried changing the 'Alexa' command to 'Computer', but it wasn't the same. We're already used to having Alexa around the home now, she's part of the family,” says Alix, a new mum.
Likewise Lizzie, whose son is named Alex. “We could have changed the wake word sooner, but I don't like any of the alternatives: Echo, Amazon or Computer. In the end, we went for Computer, but I don't like it – I know it's completely mad but it sounds dismissive! Poor Alexa. I had been hoping it would make me feel like my kitchen was the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.”
An easy to wake gesture controlled lamp can cause fisticuffs before dawn
When the future’s far too bright
Although lots of conversations revolved around voice-activated assistants, the proliferation of smart lights and bulbs meant there were some stories about lighting up homes too.
“My girlfriend has a new lamp that she loves. The good news? It changes colours and because it’s gesture-based it’s really easy to turn on and off. The bad news? It’s really easy to turn on and off,” Simon, a copywriter, told us. “She’s constantly accidentally turning it on when she checks the time in the night or first thing in the morning when she reaches for a glass of water. Which means it’s really bright when the last thing you want is a really bright light.”
I came across these stories a lot. Of one person in the home pushing forward with new tech and another not being as well-prepared – or in Katie’s case not being told about it at all.
“My boyfriend installed Philips Hue bulbs without telling me and for a week he flickered the lights with his phone so I thought the flat was haunted,” Katie, an author, told us. “He loves being able to control everything from our phones,” she continued. ”We have a Nest Thermostat, Philips Hue lightbulbs, Wi-Fi plugs for the radio, and we're looking into getting a pet cam so we can see our cat from work… The only problem is, with my iPhone battery, my phone frequently dies in the evening and then I can't turn anything on or off!”
"It's Smeg or nothing," she said, killing his peek-a-boo smart fridge fantasy
Style over substance
It might be a cliché but couples living together for the first time can often butt heads over design versus function. Even The Ambient’s co-founder James Stables thinks he is unlikely to convince his wife Rachel, an art director, to agree to a smart fridge when her heart is set on a Smeg. Add connected IOT gadgets into the mix and this is only amplified. One of the biggest decisions you can make when decorating is where to put the TV, now often coming either with built-in smarts or streaming sticks/boxes to hook up as well.
When designers Samantha and James moved into their one bed flat, James got to choose the sofa – which Samantha hated. So she was determined to put her foot down on the TV front. “It’s an ongoing battle. We had a massive, high-end Samsung TV but didn’t have a spare wall to have a TV cabinet and we didn’t want to mount it,” she says. “It just looked ugly in that space.”
The TV floated around in their lounge for a few months before they sold it and got a projector. “The hassle of putting it away constantly got too much so we stopped using it apart from special movie occasions. Then we sold the projector too and now we watch everything on our laptops.”
Learning to love the smart home
Although it may seem there are a lot of ridiculous stories and tales of tech causing more headaches than headspace, everyone I spoke to was also really excited about the possibility of smart home tech. Even those who rolled their eyes at some of the frustrating habits of their loved ones or said they weren’t previously convinced by smart tech in general were surprisingly hopeful.
“I wasn’t sure when my husband Robert started out with one Echo Dot to connect to the soundbar. But then as a novelty he hooked up our Christmas tree lights. 'Alexa, Christmas tree ON'. I liked that,” Alix told us. “It's all actually pretty cool. Now when I get up for the middle of the night feeds and am carrying our baby daughter I can ask Alexa to turn on white noise and the lights on to 10%. Very handy.”
Having said that, it’s difficult to tell whether those people who were initially not so enamoured with the smart home have changed their minds because their home is now as-connected-as-can-be. In other words, there’s no turning back. Is this the beginning of Smart Home Stockholm Syndrome?