The benefits of smart home devices are promising and are expected to increase as these technologies develop. In addition to the individual benefits of energy and cost savings and increased comfort, support and safety, these technologies can serve societal purposes, such as reducing power grid overload and supporting the aging population to live independently. With the entry of the Internet of Things (IoT) into people's homes, there is a high need to pay attention to digital skills associated with it. To benefit from IoT home automation, users need operational, data and strategic skills to control and automate smart devices, retrieve and understand collected data, and make informed decisions. In a recent study, we examined levels of these digital skills among Dutch adult citizens, and differences across gender, age and education. Among a representative sample (N = 99) of the Dutch adult population, performance measures were conducted with real-world tasks while using interconnected smart home devices in a virtual testing environment.
The resultssuggest that the Dutch adult population lacks sufficient skills to fully utilize IoT home automation. Overall, they have sufficient operational skills to set up and operate smart home devices, however, they largely lack data skills to retrieve and interpret the data collected by the devices. Participants struggled even more with targeting settings and data; only a third of the strategic skill tasks were successfully completed. This could explain, for example, why smart home users' interest rarely translates into sustainable behavior change. For example, users of smart thermostats do not make full use of the potential because they are unable to set up and use advanced features such as automatic adjustment of energy consumption patterns (e.g., via GPS or motion sensors). In contrast, underdeveloped skills could lead to higher energy consumption through improper application of preheated rooms or simply through the inefficient application of energy-consuming smart home devices. Therefore, these skill-related difficulties could potentially even have negative consequences (e.g., unnecessary energy costs).
The results further showed that older individuals possess the least developed IoT skills. Thus, the promise that the smart home is going to simplify and improve daily life is not going to hold true for them for now. Unfortunate, as it could enable older persons to live independently at home as they age. Everyday tasks can be automated and data collected by the IoT can be used in potential emergencies. Interestingly, when 40- to 55-year-olds were considered, no significant difference with the youngest age group was observed, implying that even if they did not have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Internet technologies from a young age, IoT skills are acquired later in life as well.
Furthermore, our study shows that lower educated people are less skilled than higher educated people with regard to data-related and strategic use. However, operating smart home devices was not found to depend on education level. Retrieving and interpreting IoT data is more challenging for less educated users. Although the smart home can be used for simple purposes by everyone, lower-educated users do not fully benefit because of poor data and strategic skills. For example, they use smart devices in a less sustainable manner, leading to lower energy savings and thus suboptimal financial benefits compared to their more educated peers. The lack of data and strategic skills could also affect them financially, as they have more difficulty reading data and understanding its implications when choosing between energy providers, prices and new smart home devices.
The overall conclusion is that IoT skills of the Dutch adult population can and must improve to reach its full potential. Differences in IoT skill levels can magnify existing inequalities, especially when it becomes more widely integrated into our daily lives.
Implications for policy
Policy can address the lack of IoT skills from both demand and supply side. Vendors could consider designing their smart devices and IoT platforms in a comprehensible way that meets the needs of individual users, for example, through a customizable design in which features and data visualizations can be adapted to individual needs and desires (e.g. by changing the appearance of the interface by arranging functions based on how often they are used, removing the clutter of unused data, or simply changing the font size) or through explainable artificial intelligence (xAI) so that users can understand the decision-making process (e.g., by visualizing the algorithms involved through a decision tree). From the demand perspective, formal and informal support can be facilitated given that IoT skills can be developed later in life and that smart home users can be supported by the skills of fellow users. Education can take IoT skills into account by raising awareness of the data collected by the IoT and its potential use by other users and third parties. Moreover, more attention could be paid to retrieving, interpreting and strategically using the collected data. In addition to formal education, public support can be provided through informal initiatives such as help desks or peer support in community centers that users can consult when they need help to use smart devices and collected data usefully. This support is especially important for populations that are most disadvantaged because they have the least supportive environments.