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  • 08.19.15

Try A Connected Home Before You Buy, In Target’s Open House

Trying smart on for size

The Internet of things has one major problem: it’s invisible. The value of connected devices is often not apparent in the product itself, but manifests in being used. You don’t fall in love with a Nest thermostat until it’s winter and the heat kicks on 20 minutes before you have to crawl out of a warm bed. Hue lights are a very expensive novelty until you hook up an IFTTT channel to turn them on as your Jawbone Up gently wakes you up. The value of these things is very difficult to convey without actually experiencing them, and it’s hard to imagine these things looking at the device in a box on a shelf.

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How does a retailer give people an idea of what these products offer before they buy them? The current modality is to emphasize strong industrial design on the shelf, perhaps with a story that explains the ideal. A great example: Jawbone’s Up tracker, with a beautiful design (Yves Behar) to stoke one’s desire to wear it. Once you’re living with it, Jawbone’s Smart Coach keeps up with you, interpreting your step count to give insights that were previously inaccessible: You were awake about 27 minutes earlier than usual this morning. You tend to move more after an early rise. For you, that 27 minutes means about 1,240 more steps. This continuous analysis provides a real value and keeps you engaged, but it’s hard to understand the real value when shopping in the electronics aisle.

Target is tackling this problem head-on with their Open House installation in the Metreon center in downtown San Francisco, billed as “the most connected house on the block—where people meet and products talk to each other.” It’s a showcase and retail research lab for nearly every commercial IOT and wearable device that Target currently sells (and some they don’t), ranging from the Nest thermostat to a connected basketball, and is the manifestation of Target’s massive investment in the connected home.

The team at Target address the problem on three fronts: Apple-esque product tables at the entrance, an acrylic wireframe home with beautiful contextual-display walls, and a staff that’s well versed in the specific storyline of each product, allowing you to buy the products on the spot.

The most visually arresting part of the space is the acrylic-heavy home area. You enter through a door with a Bluetooth lock, after ringing a doorbell with an electric peep-hole. Once inside you’re greeted with a tablet that brings the room to life explaining the thermostat, light bulbs, and sound system with speech bubbles on the back-projected rainbow colored walls. The bedroom of the house is focused on personal health and relaxing, and the nursery helps you out by keeping an eye on the toddler. The house not only displays the products in context, but goes so far as to suggest scenarios where there’s an event via a tablet interface on a podium in each of the rooms; there’s even a button for burglary. Press it, and a networked Nest Cam records the identities of the “burglars.” (In the Open House, you’re both the homeowner and the burglar.)

“In our initial research talking with startups and makers, we found they were a little frustrated that their products weren’t fully understood by relying on packaging design,” says Patricia Adler, Experience Manager at Target SF. “So we decided to take the products off the shelf and out of their boxes. We believe showing the products in situ helps people better understand how these products actually work in their homes and can create solutions for their everyday lives.”

One of the most interesting things about this project is that it’s not a pop-up. This is actually the third iteration of the Open House—and it’s permanent. Target plans to continue to iterate on the structure and update the storefront as new products come out, as well as respond to seasonal events like the Super Bowl and holidays.

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At a recent design community event in the space, when asked about how they plan to measure success, Patricia Adler said: “Target Open House is a lab, so our ability to test and learn will be a key success metric. We want the guest to learn and better understand what the connected home can be, and we want the startups and makers we’re working with to learn by interacting with consumers and with each other.” It’s a forward-looking—and a little more educational—experiment for a company as big as Target, which are typically motivated by more immediate revenue movers.

About the author

Scott Sullivan is an Experience Designer at Adaptive Path in San Francisco and co-author of O'Reilly's Designing for Emerging Technologies.

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