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MIT Technology Review

EmTech: Nest Technologist on the Problem of Remaking “Unloved Devices”

Nest technology vice president Yoky Matsuoka says the smart-thermostat maker has learned the importance of making a device people want to touch.

September 23, 2014

On a plane the other day, Yoky Matsuoka, vice president of technology for Nest Labs, asked a fellow passenger what kind of thermostat he had in his home. He didn’t know, he said, but it was brown, and square.

“I assume if they don’t like it, they don’t use it,” Matsuoka said, relating the encounter at MIT Technology Review’s annual EmTech conference at MIT on Tuesday. On the other hand, she continued, users of Nest’s Internet-connected thermostats are pretty hands-on with the device, literally: they touch it an average of 1.6 times per day.

Nest, which was purchased by Google for $3.2 billion early this year, is probably the most well-known and style-conscious company making connected devices for the home, a swiftly growing segment of the so-called “Internet of things.” The company released its first product in 2011, a slickly designed, Internet-connected thermostat that can be controlled remotely via a smartphone, and can save energy by learning about your habits and adjusting itself accordingly (see “How Nests Control Freaks Reinvented the Thermostat”).

The importance of creating a product that people want to touch is one of several things Matsuoka said Nest has learned as it takes “unloved” products like the thermostat and, more recently, smoke detector, and tries to make them covetable, connected, and capable of saving energy.

Nest discovered it must build products that are clearly improving their lives, she said, but people also have to feel like they’re in charge of the devices.

As of last month, Nest users had saved 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours, but interestingly, not everyone who uses it wants to conserve at all costs: in an early trial of its machine-learning technology, Nest saw that users got upset when the thermostat assumed it would be okay to change the temperature from what the user wanted.