I don't understand the SmartThings/SmartApps ecosystem -- thoughts and feedback after several weeks

I’ve had SmartThings for a few weeks now (my devices consist of the hub, a motion sensor, a couple garage sensors, and a half dozen switches so far). I get the basics – I can get the devices connected, I can flip them on and off from my phone, I have lights triggering from the motion sensor, etc.

What I’m really struggling with – what I thought I would get comfortable with but I’m not – is the way the SmartApps framework (generally) works and the philosophy behind how the whole ecosystem is organized. After several weeks, I still find myself often confused when trying to setup simple things. And I hate it when people say stuff like this, but I’ll say it anyway and risk sounding like a pompous ass: I’m a software engineer/architect and I’ve worked on some reasonably complicated stuff, so it’s unusual for me to not grasp a system like this and just kind of “get” it. Thus I feel like I’m missing something important about the vision or the philosophy of how SmartThings is built/organized/operated.

So I’m going to dive in and if anyone feels up to it, tell me what you think.

== (This wound up being a lot longer than I expected. But hopefully some good discussion will come.) ==

1. At a very basic level, I don’t intuitively understand the organization of the iOS app and the way SmartApps are managed/triggered in it. It seems there’s 4 or 5 ways to add a SmartApp, and sometimes I wind up with two apps doing the same thing – for example, when I added garage sensors, after the device was successfully added it asked if I wanted to be notified when they open. Sure, set that up. Later, I wanted to edit that setting, and I went into the Notify Me When app (the ONLY app showing in Convenience at the time, which I had already used to setup another alert). I setup the alerts there the way I wanted them. But now I’m getting two sets of alerts. After digging around for awhile, I noticed in the associated SmartApps for “Garage (small)” – the name of one of my garage door sensors – there’s a SmartApp called…“Garage (small)”. Huh? Opening that up reveals notification settings. Oh but wait! There’s a ANOTHER app attached called Door Open/Close, which does the same thing. As it turns out, that’s what’s sending me the alerts. I don’t even know how these all got attached to this one device.

That is just one example of the many cases I’ve found the app’s organization of events and devices to be confusing. I feel lost in the SmartThings app and I only have a handful of devices and apps setup so far. This does not bode well.

2. Specificity of SmartApps is not scalable. I find the specificity necessary for SmartApps very odd, and this has a number of side effects (not the least of which is the confusing duplication of a lot of functionality, as I mentioned above).

Let’s say you want to turn on a light when someone taps a certain (not physically connected) switch, or when motion is detected after a certain time of day. In today’s SmartThings ecosystem, I would have to find and install two different apps, which itself can be a challenge – is the app categorized where I think it should be (e.g. sometimes I look for stuff in Security but find it in Convenience)? Is the app named/described in a way that I can easily search for it (answer: not always)? And why in the hell can’t I access apps to add that align with a device’s capabilities from that device tile? Why do I have to back out to Setup, then start navigating through those menus?

But setting aside the discovery of apps – because that’s not the main problem with this point – why do I have to find/build separate apps at all to do things so basic?

This whole system would be so much easier to manage if there was a more flexible rule system like IFTTT. SmartThings should already understand what things are triggers (events/conditions: switch presses, devices turning on and off, motion detected, device state, new presence, certain time of day, etc) and should present a whole (filterable) menu of those things for me to choose from as the “IF” (and allow me to combine them with AND – IF motion1 triggered AND time after 8pm). SmartThings also understands the actions it can take – it has devices attached to it which declare their capabilities. Select from devices and set the actions to take (or state to set) as the THEN. Let me set my triggers and actions, using any events and actions that have been declared to SmartThings from my devices, and then let me categorize those rule sets myself into the right dashboard.

This sort of singular, flexible rule builder would probably accommodate 90% of the needs that people have. And (at least the way I’m envisioning the interface in my head) it would be vastly simpler than the convoluted smorgasboard of apps floating throughout the interface, and would be much more user friendly for the average Joe. Namely, it wouldn’t rely on a developer already having thought of the combination of events/actions that I want to take – a frustrating problem I’ve already run into several times (for example: there’s 2 or 3 published ways to get alerted if a door is left open for a certain number of minutes, but no app to alert me if it’s left open past a certain time of day. Or at least none that I could find [see point #3]. I had to write one.)

That is both the power and the curse of SmartThings – with a (somewhat) open ecosystem to build your own apps, we, being techies, run there far too quickly and build very purpose-specific apps. With building custom apps for rather rudimentary needs being the default behavior, rather than the special case, we’re going to grind this platform into dust and make it impossible for all but the most tech-savvy to navigate. As I’ve noted, the proliferation of similar-but-different apps doing nearly the same thing is confusing and hard to manage, yet with the vast number of apps available it’s still hard to find one to do what you want because they’re all so specific.

3. My Apps / Community Apps are a mess and hard to find. – Which brings me to my next point: the SmartApps database itself. The SmartApps exposed in the phone app by default (the globally published, accepted apps) are relatively thin compared to what’s out there from the community. But how to search them – there’s no search function that I can find? So you browse the whole damn list, but only after starting your own app from the IDE? I sat there and read through the apps for an hour or so one time, and saw about a dozen near-duplicates. That doesn’t help create a “clean” pipeline for apps that could be potentially published for the whole community. People are duplicating each other’s work because they can’t easily find each other’s apps, and because (returning to my second point) the very nature of the whole system seems to result in the creation of apps that are far too specific to one use case.


I think that about does it, as relates to the SmartApps. So while I take issue with the SmartApps ecosystem, I have to say that I fully support the mission of SmartThings and am passionate about making home automation more accessible to the mainstream. I admire the steps you’re taking to make that happen and I hope the platform continues to evolve.


I agree with these statements. I believe the developers are working on a rule builder as you mentioned, so hopefully that will be delivered soon and solve many problems. I would likely favor a rule builder and no SmartApps at all if it was done right). I did not have as much of a hard time setting up my system and I believe this to be attributed to being an earlier adopter last August. All of my things were setup before the new iOS app that seems to be growing and growing and becoming less and less organized. There used to be only the Things Panel and that’s where all my devices were setup. Now there are new ways to setup devices and I’ve noticed if you change the name of a device in the new Dashboard, then the name of the device on the Things Panel doesn’t change (this may have been fixed, because I have not setup or changed any devices recently).

In general I think a lot of these issues can be attributed to growing pains. Early adopters setup their devices one way. New adopters setup their devices through a setup wizard. Merging those old setups and new integration with SmartApps will probably be difficult, but I hope it can be sorted out and all integrated nicely, without having to wipe all of our previous setups from before the setup wizard.

I’m hoping for setup and customization options from the web, as the smartphone apps are quickly becoming too complicated for non-techie users. At that point maybe the smartphone apps can be scaled back and simplified (turning things on and off, etc) while leaving the more advanced features and customizations for web support (which could likely provide a much better organizational atmosphere with more screen real estate).


I whole heartedly agree with the OPs statements as well. I am hoping for some improvements in the UI and the rule builder will give the base system more expandability without having to write your own code.


Well stated! I’m glad to read this, as I’ve suffered through all your points, but assumed it was just my lack of understanding. I was thinking I was just missing something that would make it all better.

I’m beginning to wonder if ST momentum has slowed? I’d love to see a roadmap for the product, with a breakdown of hardware, app and dev roadmaps specifically. Does anyone know if there is such a thing?


Remember, as much as ST is an open architecture product, they can’t really give away the farm on their plans to us. They need to keep some things close to their chest to keep a competitive advantage.

I’m pretty certain there has been a lot of momentum in the company. I know they have hired a bunch of people, including Kelly Liang from the Google Glass Team. So, they are definitely doing things. I have a feeling we’ll see more announcements from them over the next few months.

1 Like

I am at the very same view as you of SmartThings. Lots of promise - not intuitive, no simple workflows or How Tos, lots of arcane steps to go through to do simple things. Great community but I am already getting tired of having to work so hard to do basic things…


I’d be curious as to what you think is missing between this forum and our knowledge base (http://support.smartthings.com). It’s as easy as pointing out the gaps and we’ll write new knowledge base articles.

In fact, we overhauled the Welcome to SmartThings section today to include a new layout and new media.

Browsing this I can’t seem to find anything that changed? Is there a change log or anything? Looks the same as it did a few weeks ago.

Tyler - c’mon - you have been around many support sites.

You need a ‘How To’ Section - with stickies - basic info for newbies to end the same questions I ask that I see all over the board. Location Aware Actions. How to Easily add a SmartApp (ugh). How to Use Multiple Sensors Together. Etc. Sample workflows for everyday needs - explained for the common person taking a risk buying your product.

Your FAQ has a grand total of 84 pieces - most of them useless IMHO. Your ‘Build with SmartThings’ section. So I go there and click on this that I’m interested in: https://support.smartthings.com/hc/en-us/articles/200901480-Turn-It-On-When-I-m-Here. What the heck do I do with it?? How do I install it? etc, etc, etc

SmartThings is great - but Half-Baked, Incomplete and Very Confusing. Just my 2 cents. And if Samsung buys you holy crap. They are the last company that understands simplicity and function.


This section was completely redone. I think we only reused the articles describing the experience activating the hub and using Hello, Home and Modes.

This article is an example of new content:

Ahh, misunderstood, thought the UI and site had changed, didn’t understand you just posted a few more posts on the getting started. Too bad it doesn’t have a way to flag returning users what is new or a date time stamp or anything to indicate what is new.

Hard to go back and be a “new” user again.

1 Like

Hrrmmmm… Let me look into that.

1 Like

I really wish I could disagree with any of the points in this post. I am also a sometime software developer and IT maven, and I find a lot of the behavior and design of SmartThings to be completely incomprehensible. I really do like the functionality I end up with in the system, but getting there has been a challenge of illogical user interface jumbledness and hidden features.

I began by writing up a set of complaints/suggestions, but it ended up looking an awful lot like Mattew’s suggestions, so never mind. Just let me say that I think a web UI for configuration and an iOS app for reporting and interaction would be vastly preferable to what’s in place now.

I’m new to the home automation space, so I don’t know if any of the competing systems have a more-generic approach to building custom event handlers. I sort of suspect not, but I’m going to investigate that a bit.


Just as a quick follow-up, I was doing some browsing and found the Zipato rule creator, which appears to be a fairly simple interface for building event/action logics. The key here is that the components can be mix and match - drag whatever devices/sensors you want into the logic: http://www.zipato.com/default.aspx?id=26

Well, I was hoping I was just missing something that would make it all easier, but at least I’m not alone in these frustrations :smile:

I really hope we continue to see improvement in this platform on the UI and rule building. Although the rumblings about Samsung buying SmartThings has me mildly terrified, since Samsung has a track record of screwing things up with their “special” corporate bloatware (see: Boxee, Android…).


Looks pretty good. However, seems you need more real estate than a smart phone can give you to be effective. I believe SmartThings has come to this conclusion because I heard they are leaning towards a browser interface instead of a phone app for the rule builder.

Excellent post, and I agree with it all. I’m not a software guy, but I’ve got a lot of experience with UX and app design. The ST workflow is maddening, and there’s little chance that anyone mainstream would bother doing much beyond very basic controls. And the irony there is, ST is not focused on easy control in the UI, but rather automation.

To get simple control takes a whole ton of customization. I finally have a Minimote my wife can use to do simple things like turn on or off a light, or push a Mode change. But even that is tough because it takes kludges and custom modes/phrases to do things that seem simple in theory.

A very, very simple “I want to…” dashboard on the app would solve nearly all the WAF problems. Let me set up simple app-driven actions there, so the wife can see the four or five things she really wants to do, on one screen, with one click, on her phone.

I want to …

  • Turn the kids lights on dim red
  • Turn the kids lights off
  • Turn on the family room lights warm white
  • Set up the family room for a movie
  • Play NPR on Sonos
  • Turn everything off


1 Like

These are good points. In the meantime you could get the wife an Aeon Minimote. Mine likes it much better than opening the phone for a few things - especially late at night. Its 4 buttons can perform up to 8 actions with long presses. Does require button memorization, though.


Heh, Ben I know you were talking to @bmoffett but I actually just got the Aeon Minimote a couple days ago too. The main reason I bought it though was so I could get 3-way switches working. All I needed to do was associate an Aux switch with a dimmer, but there was no way to do that with SmartThings (and Big Switch almost never works reliably for me). So I got the Minimote. Without that, about half the “main” switches in my house didn’t function. I have a lot of 3-ways (…wait…that sounded wrong…).

I think I might use the Minimote periodically for setting scenes and the like, but it has a low WAF because it’s another thing to keep track of. We need the equivalent of the Minimote that can be installed in the wall – as many people have been discussing in other threads, trying to get the various multi-button scene controllers to work with SmartThings. Seriously though: take the guts of the Minimote (or just the part for the four top buttons, really), change the mold to make the buttons a bit bigger so I can put labels on them if I want, and stick it in a 120v wall switch housing :smiley:

1 Like

Thanks, Ben. I actually received and set up a Minimote two days ago. It’s definitely a helper, but as you said there’s a memory requirement. Working to get that into her routine. I think I might even command strip it to the wall like a switch.

For Hue lights, which are my wife’s main interest, the Hue Tap is actually a lot better for me. It’s a little more idiot proof, as you can set it up to ONLY turn a light OFF with a button press. For our specific needs with lights in little kids’ rooms, that’s a nice safety feature. Nothing like turning the Hue on by accident at 100% dim bright white at 3am and waking up your 3 year old.