The iPod of Thermostats

October 26, 2011 by
Filed under: Design and Society 

It’s a hideous cliché for product companies to say that their product is “the iPod of…” breadmakers, shopping trolleys, remote controls or whatever they make (though just another indication of how Apple have raised the profile of good design). But one product launch that took place yesterday had more right to use this title than most. Tony Fadell was a senior executive of Apple’s iPod division until 2008, but has more recently started Nest, a product development company.

Nest’s first product is the iPod of (sorry) thermostats. It’s simple, intelligent (its main selling point is that it ‘learns’ from the way you live) and wouldn’t look out of place in a Foster + Partners home (if they made homes). It’s an interesting example because thermostats are exactly the kind of product that are traditionally heavy on features and light on desirability and ‘human interface’.

Developing the last point, cognitive scientist and designer Don Norman used thermostats in his Design of Everyday Things (one of the inspirations for Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge) to illustrate how the human interface of a thermostat often fails to match a homeowner’s mental model of their central heating system. Norman writes that people often think of the thermostat as either a valve (in which turning the dial up increases the amount of heat flowing through the system) or a timer (in which turning the dial up makes the system respond more quickly). Both are wrong, and both illustrate a problem with how people understand thermostats (for more see this post from Rattle Research and this post in response by Dan Lockton).

Why does this matter? Well, while possessing products that are well-designed might fulfil some of our desires, it also has an impact on big social and environmental problems. ‘Space heating’ is the highest percentage (61%) of domestic energy consumption in the UK (domestic energy is itself 32% of the UK’s overall) and with sky-high energy prices, more falling into fuel poverty & climate change, it becomes more important than ever that we can clearly understand and manage the energy we use. The way that we interact with our home’s central heating system directly affects our energy consumption.

Nest seem to be motivated by trends like these. They reckon that thermostats control about 50% of a US household’s energy bill, and that a well-designed and properly programmed device will be an attractive proposition to consumers. We’ll wait and see I guess (there’s price premium of about $100 more than competitors), but it could be another example of great product design not only making consumers happier, but also helping to solving social problems. As Nest’s website says: “Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference”.


  • Kevin Couling

    Interesting – great there is someone out there addressing the issue of usability; something largely ignored in the design of the human interfaces of building services controls for years despite the long slog of those extolling the virtues of such solutions (such as Bill Bordass in the UK).

    I’m sure they won’t but I am slightly worried that Nest’s marketing approach will be based on an economic argument that itself is predecated on the understanding that, presented with information which clearly indicates a financially beneficial choice, people will act rationally (implied, perhaps only by the author in the last para).

    This is potentially exacerbated by the fact that the majority of their target market are unlikely to be facing a choice when they hear about the Nest product, i.e. they aren’t necessarily going to be in the market for a new thermostat becasue (as far as they’re concerned) the one they have works fine.

    So, the product may well be interesting and those who are forced to make a choice (maybe their current stat has broken or they are building a new house so need to choose a stat) may well go with it, but the real but to crack fro Nest will be existing home owners.

    I really hope this works because the industry could do with a hard shove in the right direction – good luck Mr Fadell.


    • Jamie Young

      Thanks for your comment - interesting points. On the first; I understand it learns from the way you use it so as to become more autonomous over time. Much more info here: On the second; I guess it’s probably a niche rather than mass market product – at least initially. As you say – good luck to them!