The team at Hive have an interesting story to tell.

Iterating a new product in a nascent part of an old industry, doing this within an enormous organisation like British Gas, while maintaining an independent, startup culture.

There's a lesson in there for anybody.

Here's what I learnt about Hive by listening to Tom Guy, product and commercial director, at #canvasconf, organised by 383.

A startup with a strategic investor

Hive was set up in 2012 to act as a startup classically would. British Gas is effectively the strategic investor, bringing not only cash but a source of distribution.

The decision to create an insulated startup-like team was not taken because British Gas was doing anything wrong, rather because of how nascent the connected home idea was.

People, location and 'air cover'

Take a look at the Hive About page and you'll get a good impression of the type of project and working practices Hive wanted to embody.

70% of the team was recruited externally and previously had startup experience.

Tom stressed location was key to attracting the right people, with the most talented product people wanting to work in London.

Lean principles and agile methodology were both adopted without losing some form of 'docking' or integration back into the mothership of British Gas.

'Air cover' was sought from the core business, with appropriate British Gas sponsors giving the project the freedom to proceed.

The project's culture, Tom argues, comes from each of these constituent parts and was designed not to compete with other energy companies but with tech giants in silicon valley.

hive offices

Using the strengths of British Gas

Though Hive was a new brand with a new tone of voice, the team was well aware of the benefits of being associated with British Gas.

One of the most obvious of these is security - the British public trusts British Gas engineers (Tom even claimed that, not so long ago, mothers were happy to leave their children with an engineer).

Creating a frictionless customer journey

The aim of a frictionless journey is summed up in four steps.

  • Choice: Allowing customers to purchase the system from electrical retailers such as Dixons Carphone.
  • Installation: By British Gas trusted engineers.
  • Use: Via a beautiful device alongside an award-winning app.
  • Support: Via the Hive hub in Glasgow where customer service is delivered in plain English (so good that the NPS is higher for those who have encountered a problem). 

The stats from a consumer survey of Hive 1 customers show the product was incredibly successful.

70% believed they had saved energy. 98% felt they were in control of their heating. 92% would recommend the product, and 58% used the app every day.

That's astounding given that Tom said there was previously a stat in the sector suggesting customers thought about their thermostat for little more than five minutes every year.

Iterating with a religious belief 

Hive 2 was the next step, needed to improve on the actual thermostat product to match the experience of the app.

The team brought in Yves Behar, an influential designer of products including Jawbone and SodaStream.

Yves' opinion was that there are too many screens in our home, so it was vital to avoid a smart thermostat simply appearing to be a tablet stuck to a wall. The thermostat should be familiar as a functional unit.

The team created three prototypes. What interested me about the design process was a reliance on customer feedback but within a process where the Hive team remained convinced that one of their three prototypes would be right.

This belief had to border on the religious for the product development team to be able to forge ahead with purpose.

Conviction alongside feedback

Creating Hive 2 involved designing journeys by flipping from industrial design to UX whilst understanding that even if you build the best paths possible, the user will always pick another.

The design team included specialists in UX, industrial design, energy, procurement and sourcing.

The project team was accountable to many consumers whilst believing in the strong leadership of its design head.

So, one world class designer worked with a team of product experts, hundreds of engineers and thousands of customers.

This ability to take customer feedback very seriously but also rely on design instincts is vital to deal with a new technology where the customer may not always know what they want.

Common user niggles and creating an aesthetic

Solutions to user niggles became a focus, including filing new patents around the battery change process and making the product easier to set up.

This was achieved, with 95% of customers setting up the technology correctly first time and achieving a usability score of 78 (with above 70 understood as very good).

A partnership with Dulux has led to a range of colour surrounds, to suit each individual. 

Rather soberingly, the most popular colours in the UK are black, grey and wood effect. Hey, connected thermostats are one thing, but pink connected thermostats...

hive

Expanding into the connected home (brings whole new UX challenge)

With 200,000 Hive customers acvross Hive 1 and Hive 2, the team are now releasing a new range of products including window and door sensors, a motion sensor, an active plug (with one of its oft-cited possible uses during customer research being the ability to switch off straighteners remotely) and a Hive hub, to run the connected home from and unite these products.

The challenge with new products is not about hardware but about changing the UX of a single use app so it can function as a multiuse app, with rules, notifications and more.

Hive is currently trialling a honeycomb layout to the app dashboard (see below).

If this incubated startup continues to work so well, perhaps British Gas will be the first to crack the connected home market.

hive multiuse 

Ben Davis

Published 28 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Deputy Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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