Smart home devices shouldn’t have so many little annoyances in the setup process

The smart home is meant to add new levels of convenience and utility to everyday life. Why, then, is the setup process so often the stuff of nightmares? Whether it’s finicky processes, applications that feel more at home in 1990 than 2021, or the strange position of QR codes, smart home device setup needs to be streamlined and standardized.

Every company has its own process, but there should at least be a set of four to five basic steps each device follows. I’ve set up dozens of smart home devices. Sometimes it takes three steps, and other times it takes 10. The ease of setup has nothing to do with the price of the product, either — budget devices have had the easiest setups I’ve ever seen, while luxury smart lights have been some of the worst offenders.

Wi-Fi names are easy to access, or so I thought

I recently set up and tested a set of smart lights for a review. In the process, I had to connect to my home’s Wi-Fi network. That’s not a problem; it’s part of almost every device setup and helps ensure the firmware is up to date, that remote features are available for access, and more.

Gryphon Mesh Router placed on wooden table.

The problem with this particular device setup was that it didn’t offer a list of Wi-Fi names in range of my phone. Instead, I had to manually enter the name of my home network. Thankfully, I’ve renamed my own network to something punny (House LANnister), but if someone is still using their default network name, it becomes more difficult.

No one wants to type in NETGEAR-15GD52X9R. The actual typing of the name isn’t the problem — the problem is that most people aren’t going to remember a default network name and will need to go and find the name of their network, write it down, and come back, especially since their mobile device has to remain within two meters of the smart device during setup.

The ability to pick your network from a list of those in range has been a feature in literally every single smart device I have ever installed, save this one. The oddity jumped out as something that would be an easy fix (and could be patched into the app through an update), but feels like a tremendous oversight by the programmers.

The camera should not need to see a QR code

Home security cameras sometimes include a peculiar requirement in their setup process. The app displays a QR code on your phone that you must then position in front of the camera for it to scan. In theory, this isn’t complicated — but unless you have studio-quality lighting in your home, the camera will struggle to see the code.

I’ve seen this in at least two home security cameras. The easy fix for this is to ensure you have decent lighting in your home (don’t set up the cameras in a dark room) and to turn the brightness on your phone to its highest level. I’m sure there are security reasons for this step of the setup process, but it feels unnecessary and unneeded. At last count, I have eight different brands of security cameras in my home, and only two of them have requested I hold a QR code up during the setup process.

Please stop placing unique QR codes in manuals

One of the worst offenders for setup processes is any device that works with HomeKit. The HomeKit code itself is either placed on the device or in the manual. Think about that for a moment: A unique code required to set the device up, placed in a paper manual that likely will not be kept. If you ever need to remove the device from your network and reinstall it as part of troubleshooting steps, obtaining that code requires a lengthy call with customer service.

QR code for Level Lock.

The theory behind scanning a QR code is that it simplifies the setup process. The problem in practice is that the codes are never in easy-to-reach spots. I also don’t want to lose access to the codes because I accidentally threw away a small piece of paper.  The devices should be discoverable at all times, even without the code. The inclusion of the QR code should be another, optional way to add devices to the network.

How setup and installation should work

There are necessary steps in the setup process, and there are unnecessary steps. When a device is more complicated — for example, like the Eight Sleep Smart Mattress Cover — including pictures and videos in the step-by-step setup is beneficial. It ensures there are no mistakes.

For the majority of devices, especially those like smart lights or a smart plug, there should be only a few steps:

  1. Log into your account for the service, whether that is LIFX, Govee, or Amazon.
  2. Fill in the details about your home if you haven’t yet set up an account. If you have, add the device through the on-screen method (usually a + sign somewhere within the app.)
  3. Select the new device from a list of options.
  4. Setup the new device.

A smart device with numerous features and settings should wait until after it has been added to your network to prompt the user for customization. By waiting until after the device is recognized and added, it avoids the problem of setting up and customizing a device only for it to fail to connect and force the user to repeat the setup process from scratch.

I’m a big fan of smart home tech. I use it on a daily basis in my home for everything from lighting to cleaning, but there have been times when the setup and installation process has been decidedly not smart. By loosely standardizing the setup of smart devices, companies could remove some of the anxiety this poses to people who are intimidated by technology.

Wait, there’s still hope

Thanks to a collaboration between the major companies in the smart home industry, including Amazon, Google, and Apple, the idea of simplified setup and control might not be a thing of science fiction.

The Matter protocol (once referred to as Project CHIP) seeks to create a sort of “smart language” between all smart home devices that allows them to communicate, regardless of brand. What this means is that in the future, it might let some of the current Google-only products work with HomeKit, Alexa, or any other compatible platform.

Despite my gripes with its setup process, HomeKit is a great example of what this could look like. HomeKit-compatible devices can be set up and controlled directly through the HomeKit app without the need to download the device’s application. The number of devices that work with HomeKit is limited, but Matter could provide backward compatibility for older hardware, allowing it to work with HomeKit.

On my phone, I have more than a dozen apps for controlling my smart home. Although most of my devices can be controlled through Alexa, I still need the specific apps to adjust certain settings, access security features, and more. The thought that Matter could bring these apps under a single umbrella is an exciting one indeed.

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