The Apple Way: How The Second-Gen Nest Thermostat Evolves To Help Users

The Nest Learning Thermostat, invented by the iPod’s original product manager Tony Fadell, is a good case study in making small, thoughtful improvements that help users.

When we first sat down with Tony Fadell, the CEO of Nest and the inventor of the Nest Learning Thermostat, we asked him what made Steve Jobs so great. Fadell is, perhaps, one of the best-qualified people on the planet to answer. He’s the one who first pitched the idea of an iTunes/iPod ecosystem. He’s the one who Steve Jobs hired to bring the iPod to life. And, working with Jobs, he shepherded 18 generations of iPods, and the first three generations of iPhones. At the time, Fadell simply said "Steve had a way of scoping the problem bigger. He could just look at a problem and find the solution by thinking larger."

That lesson certainly explains how Fadell arrived at the Nest Learning Thermostat, a simple, high-end device which has about as much in common with a regular thermostat as the first iPod had with an iRiver MP3 player. Unlike the thermostats you know, it learns your living patterns and senses whether you’re at home, managing your energy use. Programming it is a matter of adjusting a dead-simple, dial interface. When combined with an iPhone and web app, Nest is a solution to a much bigger problem of how much we know about our energy use, and how we learn about it.

But just a few months after the Nest’s introduction, it’s clear that Fadell and his new company also took another Apple lesson to heart: the constant need for tiny tweaks that are laser focused on making the user’s life easier. And also: the need to introduce big changes to the consumer slowly, over time. By looking at how Nest’s second-generation thermostat has evolved, we can see those two crucial ideals at work.

Rethinking The Set-Up Experience

As Fadell has told Fast Company, one crucial element of its success was that its unboxing experience immediately worked hard to enchant the user with its ease and refinement. It was (and is) the iPod’s very first statement about how the device itself works, and its attention to detail. Along those lines, Fadell’s team made the Nest unboxing and install easier with a custom, ergonomic screwdriver for hanging the thermostat, and a level for indicating whether the device was hanging straight. "This isn’t cheap," Fadell told us. "But when you take it out of the box, you want it to be easy to install—at all costs."

Along those lines, the second-gen Nest boasts clever improvements. For one, the connectors on the backplate, which link the thermostat to your HVAC system, have been rethought. Previously, the layout meant that you’d have to push down on the connector with one hand, while threading the wire with the other. (You can see this layout on the left, below.) But the problem was that the push-down tab was too close to the opening for the wires, meaning your fingers would bump into each other. Now, they’ve solved that by placing the push-down tab on the opposite end of the assembly. Check out the new design on the right:

Another subtle, but rather thoughtful detail that Nest thought about was the actual act of screwing it into the wall. Virtually every home today is dry wall; unfortunately, dry wall is an annoying surface on which to hang things. If you’re screwing into it, you usually have to use an anchor. If you’ve ever used one, you know they’re fussy and messy, and if you don’t get the hole right, you simply tear up the wall completely, leaving behind a divot nearly as wide as an iPod Shuffle. So instead, Nest actually engineered a new type of screw, which can grip into dry wall directly, without needing an anchor at all. Note how widely spaced the threads are. This is so that they can grip into the powdery dry wall, without having it crumble around the screw:

To some people, those two changes would seem basic, perhaps even minor. But then again, how many companies can you think of that would spend so much time thinking about how users place their fingers when installing their product, and what the entire experience is like, from the very first unboxing to the screwing-in? As important as those human-centered solutions are, what’s just as important is the fact that they were a priority. Again, how many companies would have even thought to make these changes? And how many would think to release these changes fewer than six months after their first-generation product hit the market?

Introducing Big Shifts Slowly

"If we’d come out with the iPhone of home-energy management, people would just get confused," Fadell told us previously. Meaning that if the very first Nest thermostat had boasted all of the functionality and features that Nest plans for it, it would have been too confusing a product to get mainstream adoption. You have to let people buy into a device first, before building a world of functionality around it. Thus, Nest 1.0 was basic by design. And the current generation introduces a far richer set of features. But they live behind some very simple changes to the mobile and laptop apps.

Nest clearly wants to move in the direction of becoming not just a thermostat but a central nexus for managing your energy use. (Think here of the way an iPod is not merely a music device but is also connected to a famously well-developed iTunes ecosystem.) They’d like for the thermostat to be a smart device, capable not just of reacting to your commands but helping you live better, using less. Along those lines, look at the new app for managing the thermostat. One bar tells you how much heating or cooling you used on each day. (Green Arrow.) If your energy use is relatively high or low, an icon tells you what was behind the changes. (Blue Arrow.) And if you want to see an energy bar with finer detail, there’s an expanded view that tells you exactly what went on. (Red Arrow.)

User-Centered Design Is The Best Marketing

A skeptic about all of this would point out that thermostats aren’t at all like iPods. You don’t buy them every two years. You don’t want to think about them. They’re designed to be taken for granted. But Nest—along with any top-notch designer—would probably say that wanting to interact with a product is precisely the problem that design is supposed to solve. By offering delight where there was once annoyance, the hope is that you can draw your customers in closer. And once you have them close? Well, look at what Apple did. How many people who first bought iPods then upgraded to iPhones? How many people with iPhones later bought a Macbook Air?

Sure, there’s a sense in which the Nest seems almost over-designed—all of this care for a one-time experience of screwing it in might seem excessive. But the fact is that user-focused design is also a form of good will—and a better sort of marketing than any ad could ever be. What happens if Nest starts creating all kinds of other products, for keeping track of your home or, hell, even managing your entertainment and utility bills? Consumers won’t forget the experience they had. And it will sell them on the next new thing.

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