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Don't Buy A Smart Bed

Not every product benefits from more technology.

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On my first night with the itBed smart mattress, I slept terribly.

The bed's app had crashed during setup the night before. Since it had already taken longer than the expected 15 minutes to get up and running—a process that included connecting to the internet, calibrating the bed, and then setting the firmness of each side—I'd given up and allowed my side to stay at a very firm setting.

I regretted it the next morning. After a night of tossing and turning, I woke, bleary-eyed, to find that the app had given my sleep a rating of 78. Was that good? Bad? Either way, I needed an extra cup of coffee.

itBed is a smart mattress—and, essentially, a giant sensor—created by the mattress company Sleep Number. Its embedded sensors track your heart rate, breathing, and sleep restfulness, providing personalized suggestions to help you sleep better. The mattress also integrates data from smart gadgets, like FitBit and Nest, so it can tell you if you sleep better when you've hit your 10,000 steps, or that the ideal temperature in your bedroom should be between 65 and 68 degrees—though you don't need those products for the bed to track you. The bed ships right to your door, and inflatable air tubes inside the mattress can be controlled via a smartphone app and adjusted separately on each side. After setup, the itBed isn't supposed to require any turning on or adjustment. All you have to do, theoretically, is sleep.

Given all the research that's been done on how sleep is one of the keys to productivity, creativity, and overall health, products like the itBed seem like a sensible addition to the internet of things landscape. In fact, there are already a few other smart mattresses out there, like the Eight Smart Mattress, which also allows you to set a temperature for the mattress—the corresponding app will even wake you up at the most auspicious time with an integrated "smart" alarm.

These beds are part of a multitude of new internet of things-connected home appliances—some of which have been criticized for failing to deliver good UX while overemphasizing data. Ranging from smart ovens, to smart cribs, to even smart water bottles, these gadgets are designed on the assumption that tracking users inherently makes appliances more useful, and thus improves their lives. In my case, the itBed didn't do either.

A Bed With Too Much Tech

The itBed's SleepIQ is the core of its UX. It's a number-based "grade" that the mattress gives you when you wake up every morning, determined by the amount of restful time in bed, average heart and breathing rates, motion, and bed exits (and your own sleep goal, a number you set with the app). Determined by a proprietary algorithm, the SleepIQ number is supposed to empower you to sleep better—though how it does that is a mystery to me, and the company could not provide more information.

Over the month that I slept on the itBed, my SleepIQ only matched up with the lived experience of my sleep about two-thirds of the time. While my scores typically ranged between 70 and 90 (or a C to an A), often I'd wake up feeling drowsy only to have a score in the high 80s, or wake up feeling perfectly rested to a score in the 70s. After the election, for instance, I slept terribly for days—but my SleepIQ insisted I was scoring in the 80s. Sleep is a much more complex experience than any one number can express.

This inherently simplistic number drives the app's interface, which is designed as if your score is the only important quantifiable piece of information. In the app's "trends" section, the only representation of your data is your average score. Since it was difficult to know what exactly my SleepIQ meant, the average of all my scores put together (a 78 over one month) didn't offer me any kind of insight into my sleep.

The app's visualization tools are out of sync with the amount of data it collects. It represents one night's rest in a single graph of restful sleep, restless sleep, and time out of bed, rather than showing trends over multiple nights. Simpler systems, like the app Sleep Cycle, can show graphs of when you went to bed, total time in bed, and even how sleep quality is affected by the moon while only using your phone's microphone or accelerometer. Meanwhile, the itBed has sensors spread out through the entire mattress but only offers a single visualization of your sleep and no long-term trends.

These UX and UI problems were compounded by the fact that the bed wouldn't always track my sleep at all. I was having internet issues (who doesn't?) for about half the time I was using the mattress, and if the internet went out, the bed would disconnect without a notification—which meant that it wouldn't track my sleep until I remembered to check to see if it was connected or not.

The part I was looking forward to the most was the personalized suggestions based in my data. Yet the recommendations were generic, like "don't drink too much coffee before bed," or "start your day in bright light," or "a warm bath before bed might make you sleepy." These tips come from Pete Bils, the company's VP of sleep innovation and clinical research, but are not medically endorsed. The data analysis didn't even give me any insight into exactly how firm the mattress should be for me to get a better night's rest. After the horrible first night on a firm 95, I swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and spent the rest of the month sleeping on its softest setting.

In Defense Of Stupid Appliances

Perhaps the itBed would have worked better if I had other smart devices to pair it with—then it would know, down to the step, how much I was exercising and how that might be affecting my sleep. But the efficacy of the product shouldn't be dependent on me owning a host of other trackers to deliver on its value proposition. (For non-FitBit owners, the app allows you to add in your own activity tags.)

There are smart devices that have changed people's lives for the better, but simply turning home appliances into "smart" devices doesn't necessarily make them truly useful. Last week, my colleague Mark Wilson called June, a $1,500 smart oven, "archetypal Silicon Valley solutionism." He was describing the conviction that objects in the home need to be crammed with technology in order to be transformed into better products worthy of our 21st-century aspirations, and that every problem—including that you overcooked your salmon, or you stayed up too late watching TV—can be fixed with a combination of data, graphs, and push notifications. Beds haven't required any buttons for centuries, and there's a reason for that: More technology doesn't make every product better.

As for the mattress itself? It did get squeaky, but beyond that, it was comfortable and cozy. Sometimes simplicity—or stupidity, by IoT standards—can be a virtue.

[All Photos: via Sleep Number]

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