My 86-year old dad has been living with me since August. At the breakfast table this morning, he politely requested that we set the thermostat a bit warmer at night. The cold season is upon us here in mid-northern latitudes, and his elderly body just can’t handle it. To be honest, his request was not all that polite. He’s a former truck driver, which influenced his choice of vocabulary. As a result, his exact request can’t be printed here.
While fiddling with the thermostat to satisfy my dad’s unprintable request, I realized it must be time to finally write a blog about the Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat and companion app.
A Missed Opportunity
My neighborhood is designed for seniors. In our mid-50’s, my spouse and I are on the younger side of the neighborhood bell curve, but my dad fits right in. He loves the fact that there are no steps anywhere, and the three-foot-wide doors throughout the house easily accommodate his cane or walker. Unfortunately, the homebuilder failed to address the needs of the vision impaired, even though 6.5 million people in the U.S. over age 65 have some kind of vision impairment.
One example is the Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat, which features a 7” touchscreen display with high-contrast white letters on a navy blue pattern background. The large current temperature is easy for me to read with my remaining crappy vision. I thought to myself, certainly this thermostat is designed for low vision users and must have tons of cool accessibility features.
No such luck. There is no way to change the color scheme, font size, and font style. There is no built-in speaker, therefore it’s completely inaccessible for totally blind users. It does, however, have an app available for iOS and Android, and that’s how I’m able to use it. I’ll describe the app shortly. First, I need to vent my frustrations on this missed opportunity for accessible design.
Why, oh why, do companies create products with pixel-addressable displays but no facility for changing the font size? The whole point of the pixel-addressable display is that it can display anything—any font, any style, any size. While I can discern the large current temperature, everything else is too small for me to read, and there’s just no option to make it bigger.
My number one suggestion to Lennox is that they add an option to use a large font, or preferably a range of font sizes. This would be a relatively simple software modification.
A bigger font would have made it much easier for me to satisfy my dad’s thermal desires. Instead, I worked around the font size issue with a handheld magnifier. An iPhone magnifier app or even the iPhone’s built-in camera app also work. This is not a perfect solution, however. The thermostat has several screens to flip through, and by time I examine the magnified image on my iPhone, the display usually times out and goes back to the home screen. This was a serious issue when I was new to the thermostat, but not so much now that I’m more familiar with it.
My number two suggestion for Lennox—Make the screen timeout delay configurable. Five seconds just isn’t long enough for vision impaired users.
I imagine it would also be fairly trivial to allow the user to select a color palette. White on navy blue happens to work fine for me, but other low vision users might prefer a different color scheme. Even normally sighted persons might want red on black so that they wouldn’t kill their dark adaptation if they checked the thermostat in the middle of the night.
The Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi thermostat could be accessible to low vision users. The existing thermostat hardware is certainly capable of supporting all three of my suggestions above. Restricting these features in software is a missed opportunity for accessible design.
Extra Bonus Points
If Lennox wants to earn extra bonus points, they should consider modifying the hardware so totally blind people can use their thermostats. Apple has already shown that touchscreen devices can be made accessible, so it’s not like the technology needs to be created from scratch.
Nonetheless, hardware redesigns are involved and expensive. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to make the thermostat blind-accessible without changing the hardware? Hmm… Let me think…
The iComfort Wi-Fi Companion App
I can access many common thermostat features from the free Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi app. It works with VoiceOver, so the font size and screen timeout issues are not a problem. It lets me check the current indoor temperature and humidity, set the temperature at which the furnace or air conditioner come on, control the fan, and set the active program.
Unfortunately, the app is not a replacement for the thermostat UI. Many features, settings, and information displays are available only from the touchscreen. The most critical missing feature is the ability to edit a program—that is, make a permanent change to the temperature settings.
The app also has some accessibility issues. Here they are, and how I worked around them.
- There are two unlabeled buttons that control “away mode” (used for vacations). I labeled both of these (2-finger double tap and hold) so that they read “away is on” and “away is off”.
- The app has two spinner controls to set the “heat to” and “cool to” temperatures. These controls have serious issues when VoiceOver is enabled:
- Their visual labels are not available to VoiceOver, so they appear unlabeled to blind users. You just have to remember that the “heat to” temperature is on the left, and the “cool to” temperature is on the right. For this reason, it’s best to place your finger on the screen and drag around to find these controls.
- They are simply not standard spinner controls. I should be able to swipe right into the “heat to” control and have VoiceOver read the current value, as well as inform me that it’s a spinner, then swipe up or down to change the value. These controls don’t behave that way. Swiping right into these controls takes VoiceOver focus to the lowest temperature—40 degrees Fahrenheit, almost certainly not what you want—and sets it as the new value. Coming at it from the other direction, swiping left into the control activates the highest temperature. This poor design means it’s very easy to unintentionally set a dramatically wrong temperature.
- It’s difficult to change these spinners with precision. If the “heat to” temp is set at 66 and I want to increase it to 68 to make my dad happy, I must swipe right until I hear “69”. In other words, I need to select one past the value I want. It’s just not intuitive.
In spite of these issues, the app is usable. Once you learn its idiosyncrasies, a totally blind person can control the thermostat with an iPhone. And as you would expect, you can also check the temperature and control the thermostat while you’re away from the house, which is handy for vacations and extended road trips.
Suggestions for Lennox
In my opinion, fixing the iComfort Wi-Fi app to work well with VoiceOver enabled should be a top priority, especially the badly broken “heat to” and “cool to” spinner controls. Lennox should also enhance the app to allow editing a program, which would eliminate almost 99% of my need to use the inaccessible thermostat touchscreen UI.
Modifying the thermostat firmware to support configurable font sizes, screen timeouts, and display color schemes would be a great second priority, and would help a lot of low vision users who don’t have a smartphone.
With these much less expensive solutions available, I don’t expect Lennox to redesign the hardware to support voice output. On the other hand, if they are looking at a major product redesign sometime in the future, it might be worth considering.
How did I end up setting the thermostat to satisfy my dad’s request? While I could use the app to set the heat temperature just before we hit the sack, the better solution was to edit the program, which I did at the touchscreen with a handheld magnifier. We will all sleep warmly tonight, and there will be no unprintable complaints in the morning.