How to Make a Smart Home Device

Airthings
May 19, 2017

Airthings launched a revolutionary product, Wave, at CES in Las Vegas on January 5, 2017. Their cutting-edge technology was crafted under their business philosophy. Established in 2008, with the idea that technology should be used to “promote, maintain, and improve the health and safety of everyone”, a prominent statement on their website. The Airthings team consists of tech professionals, scientists and engineers, all of whom are the springboard towards reaching a common goal: to inform people about radon, and create accessible, affordable technology to safeguard their homes.

I had the privilege to gain insider access into the brilliant minds of those in-the-know at Airthings. They graciously provided the blueprint to creating a smart home device. I spoke with key people in various parts of the innovation and creation processes, and have compiled their knowledge into a workable template, which can be transposed into the creation of other smart home devices.

Evaluate User Needs and Specific Market

First and foremost, it is important to identify a gap in the market. For Airthings, it was a proper way to detect radon. Sure, there are currently ways to ensure that an area or house are within a safe level. The most common of which is the use of charcoal canisters. A container with activated charcoal is placed into the area to be tested, and are left for a set amount of time, afterwards they are sent to a lab for analysis. Unfortunately, this method provides only a short-term view of radon levels. Therein lied the aforementioned gap in the market.

Of course, once the idea was established, countless hours of market research were a requirement. Airthings determined a few things were necessary in order to see their product succeed. Keeping it simple was of the utmost importance — as it should be with any home device. People are not interested in anything complicated, finicky, or counter-intuitive. Rather, they want a streamlined product that does exactly what it states, without any unnecessary distractions. That is to say, the radon detector does not include other popular sensors because they already exist on the market. The first smart home product you create should be as simple as possible, while still maintaining its necessary value.

Connect with Those Who Have the Necessary Skills

Once the product idea has be concretely conceptualized, the next step is to connect with the right people. In the case of Airthings, they decided to gather with the brightest minds in the industry — which included people outside of their core group. By compiling a list of necessary experts, they were able to work closely with the people that would produce the best output.

They made the tough decision to team up with a group outside of their immediate group of employees. It was an important, but necessary decision. EGGS Design, Norway’s leading tech designers were the perfect match. Their impressive design skills and track record were key in Airthing’s success. The investment was more than worth the initial cost. It may be a daunting number to work with the best in the game, but the final product is well worth it.

In today’s day and age, design can make or break a product. People often make the decision to purchase one product over another, simply owing to design. There are even times in which customers purchase something just because it looks cool. This is a key concept when designing a product, and ultimately speaks to how essential it is to work with the best in the industry.

Build a Small, Winning Team

While EGGS design was a crucial part of the Airthings team, a smaller, core group of people were the masterminds behind the cutting-edge device. Since the company was established with the goal of creating reasonable, attainable technology for radon detection, their team was already available at their fingertips. If this were not the case, contacting and collaborating with the best minds for your project will take a bit more time and effort.

At no point during the creation process of the Wave, were there more than 10 people involved. The idea behind a small team allows for creativity and movement in the process. That is to say, when a limited number of people have their hands in a project, there is more control overall. A smaller group lays the groundwork for each individual member to voice concerns or opinions, without feeling left out. It is important to keep this in mind because the team was chosen for their expertise in a given subject. Their knowledge and background is pertinent to the success of both the design and implementation of your smart home product.

Design Process

Once Airthings paired with EGGS, they were able to set some boundaries, in terms of the physical detector. First, it needed to work both with and without a smartphone app. This is because radon levels can fluctuate in a short period of time. If someone’s smartphone dies and that person does not receive an alert, she may not realize she is being exposed to the poisonous gas. In order to mitigate this potential issue, Airthings eliminated the need to connect with a smartphone app. This allows anyone to be made aware of an alert — even children! That is to say, the additional benefit of the app is a secondary way to maintain a constant eye on radon levels.

Since alerts were not to be sent through smartphones, it was essential to find a way to illustrate levels of the poisonous gas. Display lights were the answer. With the wave of a hand, a tri-color system appears. Red signifies dangerous levels of radon, yellow indicates temporarily high levels, and green demarcates safe levels. These three colors are relatively universal in terms of warning signs, so it was easy to transpose them onto the radon detector. Airthings’s goal was to create a universally simple product that anyone in the house can understand. They achieved it through the color-coded warning system.

Next came the power source. The Wave is powered by batteries, much like a smoke detector. Electricity outages can be a cause for concern when monitoring radon levels. The radioactive gas can fluctuate at any given time, so any interruption in the monitoring can be detrimental. Luckily, batteries allow radon levels to be monitored 24/7, providing constant ease of mind. Two AA batteries are included with The Wave, and provide up to a-year-and-a-half of battery life. In addition to calming nerves, batteries are very easy to install.

A product can be extremely pleasing in functionality and design, but can utterly fail in terms of installation. If a customer is unhappy with any aspect of a product, there is a very good chance he will go online and voice his opinion. Other people will be privy to his dissatisfaction, and shy away from your product. It is a slippery slope that is best avoided. For that reason, Airthings focused on the design, use, and instillation of its product.

By utilizing a single screw on the back plate, they were able to allay any frustrations surrounding the design. From there, magnets were the simplest solution to keeping the device in place, while maintaining the ability to easily remove it. This is a very elegant solution. People truly dislike complicated installation-processes, and Airthings seamlessly removed this grievance.

Prototyping and Testing

The design was locked down, but the physical material the device was to be constructed with was yet to be determined. The feel of the Wave had to exactly match that of its looks: sleek, elegant, and simple. Without this key element, the product does not live up to expectations, and the psychology of the shopper (i.e. the way people shop) is essential in any product design. People are attracted to aesthetically pleasing products. In turn, they also love the appeal of a product that just feels good.

Once the materials were narrowed down, the next step was to test them for real-world functionality. Would it hold up in a home with an exploring toddler? How about a place that allows pets? These questions, in addition to a slew of others, needed to be answered before a material could be officially selected. Testing is a very expensive endeavor, so it was ideal for Airthings to test internally amongst their own team, for the sake of cost-savings. Moreover, it reduced the amount of time in between tests because the product was already in the office.

Airthings’s amazing team was already an expert in some way, regarding the creation of a radon detector. These individuals were then able to determine what worked and did not work in a real-life scenario, and explored a variety of situations that may arise in every day life. Thanks to rigorous testing, they were able to extract all of the materials that worked best, and put forth a durable, practical device.

Marketing

Today’s technology allows for businesses to market themselves in vastly different ways than they could do even a decade ago. Airthings realized digital image-renders, instead of standard product photography was a better and more flexible use of their marketing dollars. A physical photo shoot can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. Rather than wasting precious time and money, digital image rendering is the best route to take for procuring images of a product. Since there was not anyone on staff that had these skills, the task was outsourced to Poland. In fact, almost everything on the Airthings.com website is renders, not actual images!

Launch and Follow-Up (Launch Semi-Soft!)

A big piece of advice: do not invest in a big, splashy product launch unless you are 100% certain it will be an absolute hit. Keep in mind, if this is your first smart home product, then there is no way to be 100% certain. Creating a big splash can be costly and pretty unnecessary. We launched at CES. This trade show is extremely well-known in the industry. While it was some investment, it has been extremely useful for the sake of PR. Plus, pre-orders of the Wave have skyrocketed. On the other hand, Airthings did not spend a lot on making an awesome marketing video. Take a moment to watch their video here, There are tons of ways to make fantastic marketing material without a huge budget, and Airthings’s video does just that. Other ways to market yourself include social media and blogging. The Internet is your friend — use it to your advantage.

Conclusion

Creating your own smart home device has a relatively straightforward process. Finding a gap in the market and conducting proper research is the first step. Compiling a team of experts, and pursuing an incredible design are next. Third you must find the best material for the prototype and test it in-house. Create a solid website and marketing material. Remember that you do not need to invest a lot to make a professional video or write phenomenal content. In fact, you should not plan a splashy launch unless you are absolutely certain your product will succeed. Smart home devices are here to stay, and like Airthings, you can create the latest home technology with an idea and a strong team!

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