Visually impaired man using a tablet device at home image

Usability testing by older and disabled people of a range of smart central heating control apps highlights that the majority could do more to enable customisation that supports people with visual or cognitive impairments.

Smart home control apps can help elderly and disabled people remotely control different aspects of their own home. They can be particularly helpful for people with mobility, visual and cognitive impairments, who might otherwise struggle to control different aspects of their home, such as lighting, heating and doors, giving them greater independence.

RiDC (Research Institute for Disabled Consumers), with funding from the Energy Industry Voluntary Redress Scheme, has now published a guide into the ease-of-use and money-saving features of six popular heating control apps. These are: Hive, Honeywell home, Honeywell Total Connect Comfort, Netamo’s energy app, Nest, and Tado.

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The research included usability testing by ten disabled and older members of RiDC’s consumer panel, who were already smart home central heating app users.

A concurrent online survey with 633 respondents also showed that one in four disabled people have difficulties using apps in general, with almost half of these going on to uninstall or stop using the app because of this.

During the usability testing, each smart home heating control app was tested for accessibility characteristics such as ease of download, ability to customise and responsivity. The team also looked at the app’s ability to save the user energy and money, with features like open-window detection and program modes.

The guide gives an overall rating for accessibility and potential to save energy. It also features recommendations of who the app might work well for, according to their disability or specific needs.

The overall accessibility ratings are:

  1. Hive app (4.4/5)
  2. Nest app (3.7/5)
  3. Honeywell home app (3.4/5)
  4. Netamo’s energy app (3.4/5)
  5. Honeywell Total Connect Comfort app (3.3/5)
  6. Tado app (3.1/5)

Gordon Mccullough, CEO at RiDC, commented: “Smart home technology is often championed as a way for disabled and older people to have greater independence at home, which is particularly true for the control of heating and energy use. What’s interesting here is the variation in how much the apps can be customised, which unfortunately means that customers may miss out on being able to use some of the features, including those that have the potential to save energy and money.

“Inevitably, customers will choose the product which best meets their needs, so we’d love to see other apps exploring how they can make sure their design caters for the different ways that their customers need to use it. Especially this year, where disabled and older people in the UK have been staying at home out of necessity.”

There are 14 million disabled people in the UK and an ageing population means that an increased number of people are likely to become disabled in some way, the charity underlines. Some physical conditions and old age make it harder for the body to control body temperature and stay warm when needed.

Dr Wesley Scott, a participant in the user testing, has cerebral palsy and learning disabilities including dyslexia. Therefore, writing, counting and learning new concepts may prove difficult. He also experiences stress and anxiety.

Being at home a lot and having to use more energy, he needs to keep track of how much it’s costing him to heat his flat. A confident smartphone user, his choice of energy provider depends a lot on the usability of their app.

He shared his experience: “I would like it if (when filling in forms) I could speak my email address into it and other details. (Filling it in manually) is tricky because sometimes my hands get spasms and I end up pressing letters or words I don’t want to.

“Too many colours make it confusing for me… and the contrast between the background and the writing isn’t very clear.”

Users also made suggestions on how the apps could improve accessibility and take up among disabled people.

Each app was user-tested by RiDC’s researchers and members of the consumer panel in November 2020. Individual scores of ease-of-use features represent an indicative interpretation by RiDC of the feedback received from members of the consumer panel rather than scoring by consumer panel members themselves.

Overall, the research found that the Hive app was the only one to perform well in all seven categories. Its minimal user interface and clearly displayed features making it easier to use for most impairment groups.

A full review of each app, along with ratings for each feature are now available to view on the RiDC website.

RiDC is a UK charity working towards an inclusive and accessible life for all. It helps businesses and organisations to get the insight, knowledge and innovation they need to open their services and products up to as many people as possible.

Last year, the charity launched an online car search tool to help elderly and disabled people find a suitable vehicle for their accessibility needs.

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