Usability testing by older and disabled people of a range of smart central heating control apps highlights that the majority could do more to support people with visual or cognitive impairments, according to research by the Research Institute for Disabled Consumers (RiDC).

The charity, which works towards an inclusive and accessible life for all, carried out research which revealed that smart home control apps can help elderly and disabled people remotely control different aspects of their own home.

It found that these apps can be particularly helpful for people with mobility, visual and cognitive impairments, who might otherwise struggle to control different aspects of their home, such as lighting, heating and doors, giving them greater independence.

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Together with funding from the Energy Industry Voluntary Redress Scheme, the RiDC has published a guide into the ease-of-use and money-saving features of six popular heating control apps. These are: Hive, Honeywell home, Honeywell Total Connect Comfort, Netamo’s energy app, Nest, and Tado.

The research included usability testing by 10 disabled and older members of RiDC’s consumer panel, who were already smart home central heating app users.

A concurrent online survey with 633 respondents also showed that one in four disabled people have difficulties using apps in general, with almost half of these going on to uninstall or stop using the app because of this.

During the usability testing, each smart home heating control app was tested for accessibility characteristics such as ease of download, ability to customise and responsivity. The team also looked at the app’s ability to save the user energy and money, with features like open-window detection and program modes.

The guide gives an overall rating for accessibility and potential to save energy. It also features recommendations of who the app might work well for, according to their disability or specific needs.

The overall accessibility ratings are as follows: Hive app (4.4/5); Nest app (3.7/5); Honeywell home app (3.4/5); Netamo’s energy app (3.4/5); Honeywell Total Connect Comfort app (3.3/5); and Tado app (3.1/5).

Gordon Mccullough, CEO at RiDC, commented: “Smart home technology is often championed as a way for disabled and older people to have greater independence at home, which is particularly true for the control of heating and energy use.

“What’s interesting here is the variation in how much the apps can be customised, which unfortunately means that customers may miss out on being able to use some of the features, including those that have the potential to save energy and money.

“Inevitably, customers will choose the product which best meets their needs, so we’d love to see other apps exploring how they can make sure their design caters for the different ways that their customers need to use it.

“Especially this year, where disabled and older people in the UK have been staying at home out of necessity.”

There are 14 million disabled people in the UK and an ageing population means that an increased number of people are likely to become disabled in some way, the charity underlines. Some physical conditions and old age make it harder for the body to control body temperature and stay warm when needed.

Each app was user-tested by RiDC’s researchers and members of the consumer panel in November 2020. Individual scores of ease-of-use features represent an indicative interpretation by RiDC of the feedback received from members of the consumer panel rather than scoring by consumer panel members themselves.

Overall, the research found that the Hive app was the only one to perform well in all seven categories. Its minimal user interface and clearly displayed features making it easier to use for most impairment groups.

A full review of each app, along with ratings for each feature are now available to view on the RiDC website.

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