Alexa, Clean Up Your Smart Home UI

12 Things Amazon Should Do To Improve Smart Home Management for the Echo

I have quite a few connected smart home products in my home. I have lighting control and sensors on an Insteon system, smart bulbs from Hue and Stack, Nest and Ecobee thermostats, Serena shades, a Harmony Hub-based remote, and various other random products. All told, I probably have about 90 different connected smart home devices in my house, many (e.g., hue bulbs, thermostats) connected to multiple bridges through cross-platform integrations. I also have many scenes to group devices and manage timers.

What I’ve learned, as Amazon’s Alexa platform has evolved to support these various different products, is that the Smart Home section in Amazon’s Alexa app is woefully ill-equipped to support large numbers of devices as well as devices integrated across control systems. Between the integration of scenes, duplicated devices across platforms, and pre-loaded platform defaults, managing devices in my Smart Home section is a disaster. Alexa sees my 90ish smart home products as 243 different devices.

At first glance, this isn’t too surprising. Amazon is targeting consumers with far less complicated home systems than the hobbyist crowd I’d identify with might have. But as someone who looks at everything from an experience perspective, it frustrates me that so many of Amazon’s scaling problems here could be fixed with basic user interface (UI) improvements, not requiring changes to their voice platform itself. (Sure, there’s also a lot more they could do to improve the smart home platform. I’ll save that for another piece — let’s start with the easy stuff.)

For my own therapeutic purposes as well as for anyone at Amazon who might be listening, I thought I’d lay out my recommendations for how Amazon can and should better support Echo users who have larger collections of devices. Let’s call these free suggestions. I considered writing them up as fully-formed user stories, but I decided that might be a bit too passive-aggressive. Instead, let’s start with my device list for some context….

This is only about half of the list—the full-length image was too long for Medium to import

Now let’s talk about how to make this better.

Device Management

  • Add more sorting options for devices. We can currently sort the devices list (“Your Devices”) by Newest (default), Oldest, and Name. Add Service (e.g., Hue, Insteon, Nest, etc.) and Type (light, outlet, scene, thermostat, etc.) as additional sorting options to make it easier to find things in larger collections. For these options, the secondary sort would be Name. And what’s even the point of Oldest? Simplify the options to Date Added (always sorted in reverse chronological order), Name, Service, and Type.
  • Remember my selected sorting option. Today, the sort option resets to Newest every time the Smart Home view loads or refreshes. Retain the selected sort option between views and sessions.
  • Replace Forget with Hide. When I Forget a device, it falls off the device list, and then it shows up again the next time I scan for new devices. That’s…not useful. Forget Forget — replace it with a more useful Hide feature that hides select devices from use and keeps them hidden after rediscovering devices. The interaction pattern would be the same…triggered from a text option on each device line. Then add an option at the bottom of the Smart Home view that links to a new “Your Hidden Devices” view where I can see all of my hidden devices (sortable, with details) and optionally Show any of them (again with a simple link for each device).
  • Don’t display devices I can’t control. The devices list includes devices, like sensors, that cannot be controlled through the Echo. The description for these devices even says “Echo is unable to control this device.” Why even show these until and unless you offer some capabilities for these types of devices? This just further muddies the experience, making it harder to scan the devices that matter. Don’t display these, don’t forget or hide them…just don’t show them at all.

Group Management

  • Sort groups by name. The organization of the groups list (“Your Groups”) seems entirely random. List these groups by name for quick scanning.
  • Sort the group devices list by something. Right now, the sort order for the list of devices in a group (“Devices in This Group”) appears completely arbitrary, making creating and editing groups for large device collections nearly impossible. I’d assert that the design pattern used to manage devices in a group should be entirely rethought, but short of that at least let us sort the devices — also by Date Added, Name, Service, and Type — and retain the selected sort option between views and sessions.
  • Show device details in the group devices list. Device names across services can sometimes be similar, making it difficult to differentiate between, say, the “Front Floods” and the “Front Door Spot.” Which is which? Maybe they’re the same. Just show the same information about each device that’s already shown on the main devices list to aid in selecting the appropriate device(s) for a group.
  • Make it easier to see what’s included in a group. To determine which devices are included in a group, I have to scroll through all the devices in the list. Enhance the “Devices in This Group” list so that the selected devices appear at the top of the list, regardless of the selected sort order (essentially Selected becomes a higher-level sort parameter). Devices don’t need to move around on the page dynamically as I add or remove them — just let me select or deselect them wherever they appear, then display them correctly the next time I see that view.

Skills Management

  • Sort skills by name. Like groups, the list of enabled skills does not appear to be sorted by anything in particular. Sort these by skill name to facilitate easy scanning.
  • Optionally remove devices when disabling a smart home skill. When I disable a particular service’s skill, the app retains all of the associated devices, even though they’re no longer accessible. Provide an option to remove these devices when I disable a smart home skill. If selected, this will permanently remove the associated items from the devices list and also remove them from any groups they’re assigned to.
  • Allow me to edit skill settings. Certain smart home skills, like Logitech’s Harmony skill, prompt for very specific settings when enabled. Provide a Settings option for those skills so that I can adjust these settings after the skill is enabled and initially configured.

Stretch Goal

  • Allow multiple group aliases. Creating groups is one of the most powerful features the Echo offers, enabling us to control multiple devices, across services, with one command. But people don’t always reference things with the exact same word or words every time. Instead of just one group name, let us create multiple aliases that can also be used to reference each group.

As someone who focuses on experience in nearly every aspect of my life, I have a hard time understanding how the product team behind Alexa can deal with the Smart Home management experience they’re delivering. Presumably the team members themselves have devices at work or at home that they use to test and exercise this app, and we’ve heard the head of Alexa Smart Home, Charlie Kindel, discuss the many devices he controls with the Echo in his own home. Every time I access the app’s Smart Home view, I get frustrated and angry.

I know Amazon has great plans ahead for the Echo, and we have every reason to expect they’ll continue to evolve and improve the platform. But in the meantime, these basic updates to the Smart Home UI would make a huge impact on usability for perhaps its most avid users. So what do you say, Alexa? How about dedicating a sprint or two to cleaning up your Smart Home UI?

In the meantime, one thing that can help people with large device collections is to use Amazon’s web-based version of the app on a desktop browser — a capability that I only recently learned about. This at least makes it easier to dig through long device lists with a basic page search. I’ve basically stopped using the app on my phone and tablet entirely in favor of this web interface…at least until Amazon makes some improvements to the management experience.

Shameless self-promotion: If you’re interested in more of my highly-subjective opinions about smart home tech, check out my podcast, Home: On, a show about DIY home automation for hobbyists and enthusiasts.