Do you believe in 21st century Intelligent Design?

Late last month, columnist Mike Cassidy wrote about visionary Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma in the San Jose Mercury News and his words reminded me that it was time, past time, to make yet another blog-based plea for intelligent design. No, I’m not talking about “intelligent design” in the form of an alternative to evolutionary theory. Not that one. I’m talking about “intelligent design” in the form of adding more microprocessors and more software to all electronic designs in a valiant attempt to produce products are more aware of the context of their surroundings. In other words, products that are far less stupid. At the same time, I believe that this form of intelligent design can help you cut product manufacturing cost.

More value at lower cost. Doesn’t that seem like a good deal?

Here’s what Cassidy wrote that triggered this blog:

“Clay Christensen has an idea: Scare the hell out of yourselves.

OK, that’s not precisely the way he put it. But the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” is all about new ideas. Not just new — but different, unorthodox, radical, uncertain, frightening and disruptive. You don’t solve old problems with old ideas. The other day, Christensen held a one-man teach-in for non-profits and their supporters at San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza, preaching the gospel of “disruptive innovation.” It’s an idea that is embedded in Silicon Valley’s DNA. It is also an idea that is a lot easier to talk about than to actually deploy.”

So what’s the connection with “intelligent design”? I was immediately reminded of a great new product, a home thermostat of all things, that I’d just written up from last month’s CES show.(See “Friday Video: Two minutes of system-design expertise from Matt Rogers, VP of Engineering and founder of Nest and designer of the thermostat of the future”) The thermostat is from a new company called Nest and the product is called the Nest Learning Thermostat. It looks like an updated 21st century version of the old golden Honeywell manual thermostats that were common in the 1950s and 1960s. (Noted industrial designer Henry Drefuss created the Honeywell thermostat’s iconic circular industrial design in 1952.)

However, unlike those old Honeywell thermostats that were based on bimetallic temperature-sensing coil springs and mercury tilt switches, the Nest Learning Thermostat is based on a 32-bit microprocessor. And a TCP/IP stack. And WiFi. In adding these specific technologies to its Learning Thermostat, Nest demonstrates a grasp of Christensen’s concept of the “Innovator’s Dilemma.”


First, understand that the context of what we mean by “home” has changed. Frequently in the modern Western world, there’s no one home. That means the home’s heating and cooling requirements are different. Also, our definition of “home” increasingly includes a home WiFi network, possibly with access to the outside world through the home’s broadband router. Add some intelligence and connectivity to a thermostat, and you can disruptively change how we heat and cool our homes with a large resulting energy savings.

After installation, the Nest Learning Thermostat needs to know three things:

  1. What’s your Zip code (Yes, I know there’s a US bias built in here. Early intelligence has its limits.)
  2. Should the thermostat start to heat or cool your home?
  3. What temperatures should the Nest Thermostat use to heat or cool your home while you are away?

After that, you set the thermostat to the desired current temperature and the Nest Learning Thermostat then starts to observe your daily habits (with respect to heating and cooling only!). It monitors when you turn up the heat (like in the morning) and when you turn it down (like before you go to sleep). It notes when you turn on the cooling (like when the afternoon sun starts to make it overly warm for you).

The Thermostat learns your daily routing and your weekend routine (weekend habits are different for most people) and by the eight day, the thermostat has developed a pretty good idea of your habits and strives to maintain a comfortable home for you by catering to those habits. The Nest Learning Thermostat can start to heat your home several minutes before you rise in the morning. (This is a major feature for those of us whose first job in the morning is to turn up the heat for our spouses so they can get up.)

You can log into your thermostat from your office to adjust the heat so that your home is warm by the time you return from work or to let the thermostat know you’re going out for dinner and the heat can be delayed for a few hours. And of course, you can do the same from your smartphone no matter where you are on the planet (assuming you’ve got cellular coverage wherever you are).

The Nest Learning Thermostat also tries to train you after it learns your habits. It wants you to learn better habits in terms of energy consumption. It does this by starting to display a small green leaf when you turn down the heat or taper off on the air conditioning relative to your habitual heating and cooling use. This leaf tells you that you’re saving energy and thus money. It’s a subtle form of coercion and some people won’t like being told what to do by a thermostat. Others—the ones most likely to buy this product—will appreciate the watchful eye.

None of this would be possible if the Nest Learning Thermostat did not have a 32-bit microprocessor and a WiFi connection. Note that it took an entirely new company to build a thermostat like this. Although Honeywell still makes thermostats, microprocessor-based ones at that, it’s not building anything like the Nest Learning Thermostat. At least not this year. We just had to replace the thermostat in our condo and it is a Honeywell thermostat. It’s a standard setback thermostat design with an LCD. I have to tell it the time. I have to program it for a setback sequence. And Honeywell knew that the user interface on this product was so unintuitive that it kindly included a fold-out instruction booklet that pokes out of the top left of the thermostat, as you can see from this photo.

Frankly, I find the display of the new Honeywell thermostat extremely confusing. It shows the current temperature on the left side in large characters, the setpoint temperature in somewhat smaller characters on the right side, and the time in even smaller characters in the middle. To me, it looks like the display information was simply thrown on the display with little consideration to how the information is portrayed. The time is not the central piece of information on a thermostat yet that information is central to the display, albeit in small characters. The two important and conjoined pieces of information, the current and setpoint temperatures, are spaced nearly as far apart on the display as possible. And there’s no fixing this design with a firmware update. That LCD’s permanently configured to save manufacturing cost.

Not, repeat not intelligent design.

You can bet that the Nest Intelligent Thermostat does not have an ungainly instruction booklet poking out of its sleek, smooth industrial design. To anyone who has ever used a regular dumb thermostat, the Nest Learning Thermostat’s everyday operational use appears to be entirely intuitive. And if you want to do more complex things with the Nest Learning Thermostat, you interact with it through a Web page, not a handful of multi-use rubber buttons and a limited (for cost reasons) LCD. For these reasons (and a few more), I think the Nest Learning Thermostat is one of the best examples of 21st century intelligent design I’ve seen. It offers up several lessons in thoughtful design that I hope you will appreciate as much as I do.

Note: To read Mike Cassidy’s entire column, click on the following link: “Clay Christensen sees Silicon Valley non-profits’ dilemma as the innovator’s dilemma

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