When it comes to developing new technology, big established companies – especially former state monopolies – tend to lag behind compared to agile start-ups with fresh ideas.
So it’s a badge of pride for the team at Hive that their parent, British Gas, chose to take a different route to get ahead of the competition and hopefully stay there.
“If you look at Europe, there’s no-one who has done such a dent into the Internet of Things market than 80,000 people,” said Andreu Tobella, head of product at British Gas Connected Homes.
“A lot of people are looking at Hive because we’re the first product with a big marketing campaign with a product with a clear value proposition for the customer, and to have managed to actually get some traction on it.”
We headed over to Hive’s offices in central London – far from the British Gas HQ in Crawley – to see how they’re planning to stay ahead by staying close to their users.
Like many tech offices, from BBC R&D to small start-ups, the walls are covered in white boards, and in turn the white boards are covered with work-in-progress ideas and calculations.
Big screens display a stream of live customer usage information, though we’re assured it’s all anonymised and they can’t pull up individual data.
Another wall is filled with sets of Hive thermostat and boiler control systems for live testing and troubleshooting of updates, new features and user problems.
British Gas Hive: getting the basics right
The project that became Hive was launched in January 2013, after a short trial of British Gas MyHome – a basic smartphone-controlled thermostat – showed there was a clear demand for more controllable central heating systems.
Hive’s first systems were installed by the end of the year for staff and journalists – including my own system for Recombu’s Hive review – and it launched commercially in January 2014.
The arrival of competitors with big backing and more advanced features – like the Google-funded Nest and Honeywell’s Evohome – has made Hive’s simple on-off controller quickly look dated, but it’s not something British Gas is worried about.
The first half-year has already seen new features like geolocation to notify you if the heating’s off when you’re coming home or on when you leave, and numerous small tweaks to the smartphone and web control apps.
“People just don’t understand their existing thermostats and how to control them.”Seb Chakroborty, director of technology for British Gas Connected Homes, explains that getting the basics right is more important than overloading it with features.
“Our surveys have showed us that people just don’t understand their existing thermostats and how to control them, but if they could understand them with a nice, easy to use interface, then they would interact with it.
“We know that because our customers interact with their heating around twice a day, 14 times every two weeks.
“We’re really focussed on being the market leader, and regardless of what the others do, we just really want to get the right product out there that customers love and that helps us grow our customer base. They can be British Gas customers or non-British Gas customers, we don’t mind.”
The central London office wasn’t just an attractive location for recruiting the Hive team, it also allowed them to get out onto the streets and pester the public with ideas and questions as they developed the product.
It’s something they still do to get rapid feedback, alongside weekly sessions in London and Manchester, where users are invited in to give detailed feedback on their experience and potential ideas.
These beta teams are recruited through the Android app, which now also features a community area where users can propose and debate new features for Hive. Sadly for iPhone users, they can’t duplicate this in iOS.
The small office and a team of just over a hundred also lets Hive keep its customer teams next to its programmers and developers so they can easily pass on feedback and information about how people are using the system.
British Gas Hive: small with a big reach
Being part of British Gas has its benefits; not just deep pockets and 12 million customers, but customer service centres and an army of engineers around the UK.
Tobella says it’s the best of both worlds for developing a product like Hive: “With beta customers – we try on a weekly basis every Thursday, with five people for 45 minutes to an hour, customers and non-customers, and the Android app was very successful where it requests you to become a beta tester.
“I cannot emphasise how important the British Gas engineers are for us.”“That is something that in a big organisation might have taken months. We did it in 10 minutes and very quickly we got hundreds and hundreds of people signing up – in three days we had 600 or so. It shows there’s a lot of interest from the community to start interacting with us.
“I cannot emphasise how important the engineers are for us: it’s 10,000 well-trained, amazing engineers that everyone loves. They’re very well respected.”
The Connected Homes team put Hive into as many of the British Gas engineers’ homes as possible before launch – not just because they made great beta testers but so they know the product thoroughly when they install it.
As I discovered in my own beta-testing session, the installation experience is something every tester is questioned about, from the engineer’s speed to how they explained the system.
The Connected Home team continue to meet engineers in the field every month, and engage with them on an in-house social network, while the team also engages regularly with Hive users on Twitter.
British Gas Hive: making the next move, the right move
The other half of a beta-testing session is experimenting with new features, and we looked at Hive’s upcoming addition of extra heating periods during the day.
Hive currently gives you four ‘heating periods’ each day, which can be set at different tenmperatures. The default setting is a warm period of around 22C in the morning, a cooler or off period at 5C during the daytime, another warm period in the evening and a cooler one overnight.
Each day can be different, so at weekends you might have a longer, later morning period and a warmer daytime.
The new feature will add two more heating periods, so you can come home to a warm house at lunchtime, or come home for tea-time, go out in the evening and turn the heating down, then come home to a warm house at bed-time.
The challenge is presenting it in a way that doesn’t confuse or frustrate users, and even how to describe the new feature. I’m shown different layouts of the web interface and we discuss how it might appear in the app as well.
This, Tobella explains, is at the heart of making Hive a system that all of its users will be happy with, but similar tweaks like holiday heating schedules are are likely to come out of the same development process.
“Automation is not rocket science. Learning algorithms have been here forever.”“What we try to do is keep improving our system, so it might not be a big new launch, we may be enabling bits and pieces like this, so that everyone is very happy with the control they have.”
The eight months since Hive launched have seen more than a dozen smart energy competitors launch, many trumpeting advanced features like zoned heating, motion detectors and learning algorithms that will take control of your heating schedules.
Learning your lifestyle is the major feature of US-based Nest, but Tobella said that’s the wrong approach for this side of the Atlantic.
“In Europe, we have found that people tend to be more sceptical, at least at the beginning, and less prone to allow something they don’t understand control something so vital, such as the heating.
“That’s why we went for full control, not adding any learning or logic behind that’s not transparent, so people will feel comfortable and we can get more market penetration – and then we can automate.
“The automation is not rocket science. Learning algorithms have been here forever, the question is whether these learning algorithms actually add value.”
British Gas Hive: on the wish list
Multi-zone heating control is another popular request, and one that’s now in the very early stages of customer labs as the Hive team decides exactly what people want, and why.
It’s not just adding wireless radiator controls, but integrating them into the app and web interfaces, and deciding how they’re controlled.
Even further from launch are a temporary heating boost button, a dedicated iPad/tablet app, smart electrical sockets which can be triggered remotely, the ability to compare your heating schedule with other users to see who’s more efficient, and having multiple users so Hive can track who’s in or out of the house from their phones.
One request beloved of techies but not even in the mainstream for most users is a connection to IFTTT (If This Then That) the free service which lets apps and devices trigger each other.
“We have to make sure that people want it, and they understand it”There are no immediate plans for an IFTTT Hive channel, but Tobella admits it could be launched as an extension of the customer labs, allowing users to experiment with different features that might end up in the app one day.
For instance, you could set up an IFTTT trigger to turn on the hot water when your Fitbit activity tracker records a workout, or when a Belkin WeMo motion detector senses someone in the house – perhaps a surly teenager emerging from beneath their duvet.
“We have a lot of new ideas, and every day there’s new ideas coming in which is very exciting, from all these channels – engineers, customer service, actual customers, labs.
“We have to make sure that people first want it, and second they understand it, because that’s a big question.”
Hive’s development team share office space with British Gas engineers working on smart meters and connected boilers, so there’s plenty of room to develop smart energy technology beyond central heating and hot water.