Home automation in two minds
Have you ever played the ‘two things’ game? No, I’m not being rude. The two things game states that for every subject there are only really two things you need to know.
I first heard about it on a blog years ago by an economist called Glen Whitman. The story goes that he was chatting to a stranger in a bar when the topic of conversation turned to his profession as an economist. The stranger then posed the question, “So, what are the two things in economics?”
After getting a blank stare in response, the stranger went on to explain that the idea behind the question is that once you establish what the two key things in any subject are, everything else is either the application of those two things, or simply not important.
Such a thought provoking question inspired Glen to write a blog about it, which received quite a lot of attention and submissions from people on a variety of topics. On economics, his answer to the question was firstly, incentives matter and secondly, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Sounds fair enough.
You might be asking what this has to do with home automation. Well, the beauty of the two things game is that it forces you to break down even the most complex of topics to its fundamentals.
In a field as technical as automation systems integration and design, it’s a great question to ask and a reminder to subtract that which you don’t really need so you can focus on what really matters to your business and your clients.
In an attempt to uncover the mystery of the two things in automation, I asked two of Sydney’s best automation specialists a bunch of questions and I realised that although they both design, commission and install different systems, the philosophy behind their businesses is very similar.
In a nutshell, the approach is to be well versed in systems you know to be reliable and that you know will cover you in most situations. The second thing is to look at what’s possible, including the practical and eliminating the superfluous.
As Clayton Brown, C-Bus Point One member from Synergy Integrated Services, puts it:
“With automation, it’s a question of firstly, what to have and secondly, to what extent.” “With the way technology is developing, in my opinion home owners need to think very, very seriously before saying “I don’t need that” and opting for a 1940s wiring system in a new home in 2012.
“Further, automation doesn’t need to be confusing or complicated. It’s not out of anybody’s reach. It is not just for the elite or wealthy and it will enhance your life. You just need to use an experienced professional to help design, supply and program the correct equipment.”
As Glen Whitman says, one of the interesting parts of the two things exercise is that it points out the contradictions that lie at the heart of many professions. An example that is one of his favourites is the ‘two things about medicine’. The first is “do no harm”, while the second is “to do good you must first risk doing harm”.
In an era when most of us are walking examples of technology overload, the contradiction between using the latest technology to ease your workload and simplify your life seems a little cliché. Yet with careful professional planning and creating user friendly and intuitive controls you can make sure that when it comes to your systems the end user is in control of the technology – not the other way around.
Contradiction definitely exists at the core of the automation business, says Philips Dynalite specialist from ICS Kevin Hardwick.
“Philips Dynalite is a lighting control system that seems to have no limitations and task writing can be as complex as you like, but ultimately the objective is to make the end user operation as simple as possible,” he says.
Clayton adds: “How to control the devices is the key to the success of a system. The interface needs to be logical, practical, user friendly and well designed. The irony is that to make something ‘easy’ to use takes years of experience and a deep understanding of the underlying systems.”
My wonderful and now retired GP once told me the two things in his practice were to “assume every woman under the age of 70 is pregnant” and to “never trust a breast”. I’m sure there is more to being a GP than that but it’s certainly an answer I’ll never forget.
Sadly, my two things aren’t as memorable as his, but from the point of view of the technician on site the two things in automation could very well be:
1. Planning and documentation (so if you aren’t available to fix it someone else can).
2. The most obvious solution is probably correct. Given Glen’s clarification of the two things about the two things, I’m totally prepared for you to disagree.
To paraphrase, he says: “People love to play the two things game, but they rarely agree about what the two things are.” And secondly, “…that goes double for anyone who works with computers”.