Comfort is a simple, yet powerful control to managing home heating, delivering state of the art features, without requiring a smartphone. Comfort appeals to a wide audience by delivering modern conveniences in a familiar and simple to use package.
The idea for Comfort came after a year of working for domestic heating market leaders; Worcester Bosch as a Product Management Intern with constant exposure to a spectrum of end users and installers from which key insights could be drawn.
Research was conducted with Bosch Thermotechnology to discover the opinion of consumers and installers on their expectations from a heating control, attitudes towards current products, their usability, and how they thought controls could be made better in the future.
Literature reviewed from other studies examined the usage of heating systems by consumers, their perception of heating systems, and their behaviour with different kinds of heating controls. Combined with research from Bosch; it showed that:
controllers currently on the market have been used ineffectively because of a lack of understanding of features due to unfamiliar terminology, symbols, and layout, insufficient feedback being provided resulting in misuse, and a mindset that doesn’t want to evolve with the way a heating controller can be used, despite potential benefits.
The culmination of the research was a set of requirements that define what a heating control should be able to do and what affordances it must make to be usable, create energy savings, and improve comfort. This includes making sure that the system is as usable and simple at basic interactions as a traditional on/off control, and that users should not need to interact with the heating system to adjust the schedule or operating temperature unless there is an atypical change to their routine.
The research found that people tended to forget about their heating; primarily expecting for the system to ‘just work’ and provide heat. This was correlated by studies showing that when a smartcontrol was fitted, interaction decreased over time – a positive outcome.
Segments of the market were also found to be weary of internet connected controls, especially those living in rural areas with limited connectivity, or price savvy consumers who couldn’t see the benefit in paying for the feature.
A next generation heating control needed to address all of these issues to be a successful heating control for the mainstream consumer market.
Comfort – Product Overview
The goal with Comfort was for it to feel synonymous with using a classic thermostat in day-to-day operation. That’s why the outer edge adjusts the temperature, and buttons physically push in to highlight the current mode.
OLED displays allow for the interface to blend with the glass, removing the sense that the product is a digital interface.
Comfort has been designed from the ground up to provide the easiest and most rewarding experience. Since it’s impossible for a controller to accurately know or predict a person’s schedule, and manually setting one is a strong pain most for users, Comfort removes the schedule and instead uses analogies natural to humans: ‘sleep’, ‘wake’, and ‘away’, creating natural metaphors for the different times in the day.
Sleep and wake are used in tandem to ensure that the house is heated to a much lower temperature at night to save energy, yet is at a comfortable temperature when waking up in the morning.
Away focusses on the idea of turning off or optimising the heating whilst no one is home to save energy, but making sure the home is warm upon return, to ensure satisfaction and cosiness.
To adjust the current temperature, simply rotate the dial around the controller, just like existing thermostats.
Plus, Comfort is fully smartphone independent, so there isn’t the need for a smartphone or location sharing to take advantage of smart features such as ensuring the home is heated upon the user’s return.
To encourage energy saving behaviour, as well as ensure that the heating is off when the house is vacant or its occupants are asleep; Comfort provides visual feedback to indicate when a selected temperature is inefficient to run at. This means Comfort will glow orange when running inefficiently, and green when saving energy.
To further encourage good behaviour, Comfort shows how long it will take for the house to reach the target temperature, discouraging those that like to set the temperature unnecessarily high to achieve a quicker heat-up time.
Comfort focusses on the idea of turning off or optimising the heating whilst no one is home to save energy,
To do this, simply activate Away mode upon leaving and set the duration of being away for. The system will automatically reduce the heating to an efficient setting for the duration of absence, and ensure the house is warm by the time of return.
In other products, away-like modes are normally dependant on tracking the user’s location using their smartphone to heat up the home in time for their return, but Comfort is able to replicate the functionality on-device, addressing multiple concerns.
The optional Away Panel makes it convenient for users to let the heating system know how long they’re going to be gone for as they leave. Simply turn the dial to a countdown time and press the screen in.
Consumers are also keen to be able to situate their control in a living area, which is why the Comfort control can be placed into a stylish polished aluminium or natural oak dock, ideal for coffee tables.
The heating can quickly and conveniently be adjusted from the living room instead of having to go to the hallway.
A set of initial ideas were generated around themes identified in the primary and secondary research.
Alongside these ideas, several assumptions were made to be able to create a realistic scenario for the initial concept phase:
- The heating is on only when people are in the house, and awake
- The comfort (default on) temperature is generally correct, but may occasionally need adjusting
- The time someone wakes up and goes to sleep regularly changes, so the heating system needs to be able to adapt to that.
With a rough idea of what features were needed for the control, key areas needed to be considered:
- Whether occupancy detection could be a true replacement to a scheduling based heating system
- How occupancy detection can function without the use of smartphones or location tracking
- How will other aspects of a routine such as a morning wake up time and bed time, function alongside detecting whether the home is occupied
- How to deal with non-routine aspects such as if the heating needs to come on particularly early one morning
- How human traits and behaviour such as turning off the heating to save energy might affect the designed operation of the control
Consumer opinions were consulted on topics underpinning potential design solutions, leading to insights from 74 homeowners, predominantly aged 31-50 years old.
The research proved that it is essential for a heating control to encourage users to turn their heating off when they leave the house. The majority (54.2%) of respondents currently would not turn it off unless they were leaving for 6 hours or more, therefore wasting energy if they were leaving for any time less than 6 hours. This places emphasis on needing occupancy detection working effectively to ensure the heating is off when the home is unoccupied.
Consumers were then asked more directly how much on a scale of 1-5 an occupancy detection-like system appealed, with 5 being very appealing. Nearly 80% of respondents found this to be at least 3/5 appealing, suggesting that this feature is attractive and that it is essential for the control to be able to host occupancy detection-like functionality.
One of the most controversial aspects to occupancy detection is the heating system no longer needing to operate on a schedule. Based on what respondents had been told about an occupancy detection-like system, the majority (54%) thought that they would no longer need a schedule during the day, and whilst 46% of respondents still wanted a schedule, it is possible that they would be willing to forgo a schedule with a better understanding of how the product would work.
The questionnaire then asked where users would expect to find a button to notify the heating system that the house would be unoccupied. The overwhelming majority of respondents (60%) expected it to be by the front door.
This juxtaposes with how the majority of consumers (81.1%) responded that they would like for their controller to be wireless allowing for it to be positioned anywhere in the house, suggesting and overwhelming and untapped market for wireless portable controllers.
Key design goals
- Smartphone independent
- Easy to use
- No scheduling
- Reduce heating output when the house is empty
- ‘wake’ time to turn on in the morning
- ‘sleep’ time to turn off at night
- ‘comfort’ temperature throughout the day
- User activates an ‘away’ mode when leaving to switch to the setback temperature
- Set how long they will be away for to create a manual ‘occupancy detection’ mode
- Provide feedback on time remaining to reach the target temperature
- Allow for users to set their efficiency preference
- ‘Comfort’: reach the target temperature quicker by running at a higher power, and turning off only once the target temperature is reached
- ‘Efficient’: switch off the heating burner sooner and allow latent heat to carry the house to the target temperature
- ‘Weather aware’ by using internet connectivity to determine how much the outside weather will impact on the house temperature and adjust heating power accordingly
- Easily change wake / sleep time
- System can be extended using a smartphone to:
- Remotely activate when away mode should end
- Turn the heating on with immediate effect
- Change the current comfort temperature
Areas for Improvement
Comfort is the first attempt at a radical new way of thinking about heating, as a result, some aspects of the product could be improved based upon reflecting back on the design as well as user feedback.
Whilst buttons that push in on the control to provide visual feedback on the active item work well as a concept, a haptic feedback and touchscreen option may work better due to the mechanical unreliability of push buttons. This was considered during the the product realisation phase, and there was little difference conceptually between the two, therefore there is little to lose.
Additionally, using buttons that do not push in could reduce some complexity in the UI, where sometimes it does not make sense for a button to remain depressed, such as to navigate into a menu item. A touch screen could also allow for more innovative user interface designs where visuals can spread across the entire control face, rather than be restricted to a small display for each quadrant.
The away panel could be made smarter, with an element of the screen suggesting the away duration based upon the time of day, making it less repetitive then having to rotate the dial the same amount each day.
The design of the dock was based upon the compromise that a control with batteries would create too much friction if the charge ran out, however the dock loses its appeal when viewed in a real world context due to the power cord that is needed for it to function. This aspect of the design should be revisited to see if there is a better way of making the control truly wireless.
Comfort can be seen as a successful product having fulfilled the project requirements and goals. This can be attributed to listening to user feedback from research both in initial primary and secondary research, and additional consumers early on in the development of the product. Taking these thoughts and exploring different ways of implementation has allowed for a well thought out product.
Bosch are excited about Comfort and can see a future for in their product portfolio. Considered compromises and decisions has led to a product that addresses needs in the market untapped by other companies, namely to offer a heating control that is smart, yet independent from a smartphone.
The goal with Comfort was to create a control that helps consumers save energy, stay comfortable, and be easy to use, and thanks to Comfort’s three core functions; ‘sleep’, ‘wake’, and ‘away’, this has become possible.