Smart home market needs partnerships to manage niche gadgets : The Staples + Zonoff story

Staples ConnectThe home automation market is becoming a fragmented one, what with all the smart gadgets hitting store shelves and Kickstarter campaigns launched daily. Cheap components and pliable software provide endless niches to fill, catering to dozens of smart home needs and desires. Driven by the equally influential startup and big brand scenes, home automation will inevitably consolidate efforts when convenient in this promising market’s early stages.

Today there seems to be a single company for every niche. One home automation company may specialize in motorized window shades, while another is expert at smart lighting. These two mid-size companies could easily see the potential of combining forces, enabling both parties to serve the condensing needs of buyers. Rising consumer awareness of the automated home has sparked conversations in the business world, angling to commoditize cloud services.

The cloud is vital to the success of the home automation market, serving as data storage and a point of access for homeowners. The cloud is where humans will interface with machines, spurring creative interactions that take place in a virtual setting. The winners in home automation will have a thoughtfully designed interface that truly connects with consumers. Such attention to the user experience is something to promote in one’s own business, and to seek in potential partners.

Shared vision of smart home’s future

 .

A shared vision for the user experience is what brought together Peter Gerstberger, Director/DMM New Business Development at Staples, and Mike Harris, Zonoff CEO. When Gerstberger was tasked with laying the groundwork for the office supplier’s Connect platform, he knew it was better to partner with an established developer team than to build out its own solution.

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 9.42.02 AM

“We don’t have any right as a consumer company to build the platform from inception,” said Gerstberger. “We need to team with those focused on that 110 percent of the time and make it understandable for consumers at the retail level.”

Zonoff’s existing platform was in fact exactly what Staples was looking for, serving the retailer’s needs for its product partners and buyers alike.  The Malvern, PA startup became a central piece of Connect, tying together many of  the gaps previously seen in the consumer smart home space.

  • Serving dual needs

“Zonoff is good for resellers, putting products on the shelf that are appealing to the consumer,” Gerstberger explained. “That didn’t really exist yet, so we utilized Zonoff’s platform.  It was everything I was looking for. It’s not often in this business you find a company you can work with and move fast. That nimbleness and strength of the platform made for a nice marriage.”

Far-reaching retailers like Staples are the first places many consumers will encounter connected devices, and so they play a role in educating buyers about this emerging market. This circles back to the importance of software design in creating the user experience, especially for Staples. But even before Connect became a reality, Gerstberger had to educate his peers on home automation. This is a responsibility that carries over to consumer education, now that home automation has become a retail service.

Gerstberger noted that for him, there was “a lot of education on what could be. When we first started pitching this idea almost a year ago, most didn’t get it until I started giving use cases of what could happen. Once you start describing it, that’s when people get excited. And that’s what we needed to bring in-store and on the site.”

Designing consumer education

 .

As a Connect user, you’re interface is comprised of two distinct purposes: device setup & management, and the Staples store for discovering & buying more connected devices.  The ease at which you can be redirected to Staples’ online store is, for some, a downside. But for Staples, it’s a significant branch of Connect’s ecosystem tied directly to marketing and consumer interaction.

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 9.43.30 AM

“When we looked at putting this together, we wanted a very clean look and feel, not intimidating,” explained Zonoff’s Mike Harris. “It’s easy to put too much functionality in front of users. We also bring the power of the cloud into play to make it seamless and perform those actions for adding devices and managing those devices. One of the most critical things we’re finding at this point is consumer education. Not just before they buy, but once they have it there, give them an opportunity to learn what they can do and other devices that add value.”

Speaking directly to Harris’ comment, Gerstberger admits this bridge to product discovery was one of his favorite things about the Zonoff platform. “Not just what you could buy, but what you could do if you add additional devices,” he said. “One thing that sold me is, you see all these tiles, and as you add devices they become illuminated in blue, so they’re activated. There’s an icon for managing your thermostat.”

Designing an interface for managing multiple devices is no small feat, but it’s a key differentiator for any competitor in home automation, large or small. Gerstberger outlines the pain points his service addresses:

“If you want a device connected to your home before Staples Connect, you’d have to go to all of our partner websites, buy them and set them up separately. We have a central retail hub for the products that work with the platform, we have instructional videos, and recommendations on what products can do when paired with each other.”

The need for strategic partnerships

 .

Binding all these objectives, devices and services is an ongoing challenge for Zonoff’s development team, especially as the connected sea of gadgets is only expected to grow.

“For the most part, our job in being behind the scenes is to go where the devices are,” said Harris. “We can’t have religion around radio and protocols. At the end of the day, consumers want the best products at the best prices. That’s what our system is architected for – bringing in the brands that matter and innovative new devices, making a platform to support that full breadth of suppliers.”

Screen shot 2014-02-25 at 9.44.42 AMAs any other budding ecosystem, open standards are key to the home automation market. There will be hundreds of devices communicating with one another across half a dozen protocols, translating data in the cloud. Zonoff, like its rivals, is future-proofing its platform through open source initiatives, hedging its bets.

“We support open source standards and bigger firms that have established standards, and then everything that’s IT connected, and giving them the opportunity through our SDK to do the work that’s necessary and expose their uniqueness,” said Harris of the Zonoff network of software developers and brand partners. “To get them really behind the solution, you have to understand their brand value, how they differentiate their product.”

Ultimately Staples Connect is a partnership between a retailer and a development team that runs the line, touching every aspect of the consumer’s smart home experience. The next step after interfacing to and between connected devices is to automate those interactions, triggering home actions accordingly. Doing so successfully as an interface platform, Zonoff is particularly keen on open standards to stretch current limits on how much they can really tap into a device to manage it or ping for data.

Such limitations trickle down to the user, restricting some device’s management more than others’.

“There’s limits to devices and the data that they will have,” said Harris, going on to provide an example: “A lot of outlet solutions don’t measure power utilization. From our perspective we can show consumers how often the outlet is on, and there’s still a lot of data that’s available.  We continue to refine how that data’s presented without overwhelming the user.

“At a very high level you can get a rough idea of what’s important to consumers.  Through those data wading, you see what’s important to users and make that data something that’s actionable to them. Just knowing you’re using this much energy is one thing, but being able to do X, Y, Z to save money is a good service for us to provide.”

images courtesy of Staples