Big Ideas

Well™: A Smart Home Water Conservation System

Let’s be honest: extreme weather conditions appear to be the new normal. 

For our two California-based firms – Mindtribe, an engineering consultancy and Matter, an industrial design firm – climate instability has hit us close to home. We’ve seen our state go from an intense 5-year drought to the wettest year on record with widespread flooding in 2017. And, despite record rainfall, 10.5 million California residents are still affected by drought. Consequently, water rationing mandates have gone into effect and the cost of water has gradually increased.

With these conditions in mind, our two teams came together to develop a solution that would help address the perils of water depletion and the rising cost of home water consumption. 

Matter designer Elvin Chu demonstrates Well’s smartphone app.

Very early on in this collaboration we discovered a major hurdle in our effort to encourage water conservation; that is, most households have little to no visibility of their actual water usage. Ask anyone how many gallons a month they actually use, and chances are they will be a magnitude off. It’s not surprising; when your water bill eventually arrives it is not even measured in quantities most of us are readily familiar with. Instead, it’s billed in “Units”. A Unit is 100 cubic feet of water.  (Still staring blankly? 100 cubic feet of water is 748 gallons, or about the size of a large hot tub). How can you effectively save water if you have no idea how much you use and where?

The challenge of demystifying water use and empowering consumers to manage the way we use our natural resources is ripe for innovation. Smart home devices such as Nest have paved the way for useful and actionable insights in managing one’s home, yet a comparable tool for water management has remained elusive, until now. 

We put Mindtribe’s IoT hardware engineering experience together with the ID and UX chops of Matter, and in six months we designed and prototyped an integrated system that will help individuals and households change the way they consume water.

The result is Well™:

At its core, Well consists of a network of connected water sensors. Combined with an AI-infused smartphone app, these tools remove the barriers our teams witnessed to reducing water usage; it is simple to install, pays for itself, and is completely self-powered (more on this later). 

With Well, people can clearly view their water consumption patterns, understand how to reduce that consumption, identify potential leaks, and ultimately act on their newfound insights. 

This system will lead users to save over 12% on their water and sewer costs alone. And for the average home that spends $1100 a year on water and sewer, that’s savings of $130 per year. These numbers may seem marginal, but small changes make a substantial difference; we’re talking tens of thousands of gallons of saved water in a home with Well.

Marrying the worlds of industrial design and engineering comes with its challenges, and is no easy feat. However, our teams were committed to the challenge and were looking to disrupt the traditional (slow) linear product development cycle. Here’s a small peek into our process.

Mindtribe’s Ryan Vanderpol demonstrates a working Well Shower Head prototype.

 

IDEATION & FEASIBILITY

We began exploring and brainstorming a variety of tools that we felt could have a real impact on an individual’s water consumption habits. We actually hooked a large flow meter up to faucets in the office to observe our colleagues’ behaviors.  We took apart our sinks and showers at home to install benchmark devices. We even flooded the shop floor in the process of “simulating” a plumbing leak. 

Throughout the course of our investigational phase, we discovered several key elements necessary to create real change. To achieve wide adoption, a smarthome water monitoring system would need to be non-intrusive (not bulky), self-powering (no more replacing batteries), and easily integrated (no professional installation).  These core requirements became our first product nucleus for our preliminary design and technical feasibility phase.

Most existing water-powered products utilize turbine impellers to generate power. We needed a pretty efficient generator to broadcast over Wi-Fi, so we optimized existing impeller designs by 3D printing and testing our own impeller strategies. We literally had to reinvent the wheel.

 Testing 3D printed impellers.

 

In practice, our minimum viable product (MVP) approach to product development is simply the systematic mitigation of all of a product’s potential risks, starting with the biggest risk and iteratively working through subsequent ones until the product is ready to ship.  With power generation addressed, we turned to other prioritized engineering feasibility issues, such as measuring flow and detecting leaks. 

After completing prototypes that successfully broadcast flow data to a server, we had a pretty good idea of the components and volumes required to measure and broadcast water flow.  Together with our partners at Matter, we set to work refining our product strategy. 

There were several obstacles to address jointly, including form, cost, and user experience.  We recognized that to offer up a viable business strategy, our product would have to be compatible with multiple water outlets in a home, otherwise it would only be capturing a fraction of a home’s water usage.  On the other end of the spectrum, complete custom fixtures throughout a home seemed impractically expensive, as did a requirement to monitor every possible water outlet. 

Instead we developed a strategy to monitor the principal consumption points, and employ machine learning to build an accurate picture of water usage points that weren’t specifically being measured.

Well technology can be discretely connected to existing fixtures in the home.

 

In response to this strategy, Matter created the industrial design for a suite of products to fulfill those system and user requirements.  There is a small and minimal module that can operate more discretely – subtly doing its job from under a sink, next to a washing machine, or behind a toilet. While the standalone flow monitoring modules are designed to work in quiet symphony with each other, Matter designed a complementary showerhead for the system with Well technology inside, that Mindtribe prototyped. 

First plumbed Well Shower Head prototype.

DESIGN COMPROMISE

The back and forth process between an industrial design firm and an engineering firm empathetic to user experience is a well-choreographed game of compromise. We play this game especially well with Matter, each team in constant communication to reach an understanding of exactly how much there is to give, and how much there is to take.

One of many examples was the number of LED’s displaying water consumption inside of Well’s showerhead.  We knew that the number of LED’s being used for display needed to be limited in order to preserve the power generated by the water flow. But the designers at Matter knew that a useful display would require enough resolution to provide actionable data to the user. 

Matter’s conceptual rendering of the LED backlit wand.

 

Instead of putting our foot down, we pivoted our LED driver strategy and used LED brightness to create stronger display gradients in the final design. Matter knew early on that we had power limitations, but we also acknowledged that the UI was a critical part of the showerhead’s UX.

Mindtribe engineers examine a backlit prototype.

PARTNERSHIP

Ultimately, turning a nascent idea between Mindtribe and Matter into a thoughtfully designed and functional prototype is a testimony to the innovative and collaborative spirit of the engineers and designers who contributed to Well’s product development effort.  

Cohesive partnerships unite the worlds of industrial design and engineering to create impactful products.  Our teams have been working together on client projects for years, solving challenging product design and engineering problems. 

Mindtribe built Well’s prototype app, and Matter designed the UI.

 

What started out as an internal passion project — used to accelerate our team’s technical capabilities and strengthen our design and engineering partnership — has quickly become a tangible solution for residential water conservation, and for that reason we’re excited to introduce Well.