Lonely Pets, User-Centered Design, and Utility Demand-Side Management

Blog | April 19, 2012 - 12:35 pm
By Susan Mazur-Stommen , Behavior program director

Recently I spoke at the 2012 E Source Utility Customer Experience Conference in Charlotte, where I was invited to talk about user-centered design and the role of ethnography in helping utilities design programs to more effectively reach their customers and change their energy use behaviors. This topic dovetails nicely with my webinar, “Strawberries and Wheat,” which I delivered for the Yale Center for Business and the Environment two months back where I discussed utility branding practices and customer segmentation. In my E Source presentation, we look at examples from the high-tech world, like Apple, which design “with the user in mind.” User-centered design (UCD) and user-experience testing (UX) are both deeply embedded in the high tech sector, since the concepts emerged in Silicon Valley over 30 years ago. 

Since the 1970s, big think tanks like Xerox PARC and SRI have employed anthropologists and other qualitative researchers and social scientists in a quest to better understand how people use things, whether they are physical objects like mice and keyboards and copiers, or abstract products, like software and information architecture. These early beginnings have burgeoned into a large and well-organized community of UX experts, who are involved with product design at every life stage: conception, implementation, quality assurance, iteration, and sun-setting. Nor are all of these experts anthropologists—they include engineers and designers who want to understand the human factors behind how their products succeed or fail in the “real world.”

Demand-side management is an area that has, in the last few years, begun to take steps to incorporate usability/human factors into program design. In fact, here at ACEEE, we are working with the EPA on a “round robin” set of usability tests for programmable thermostats and other residential climate control devices. The short history of programmable thermostats as ENERGY STAR-rated products came to an end about five years ago when evidence mounted that for many people the difficulty they had programming them meant that they went unused and energy savings did not accrue at the rate that had been predicted. In fact, in some cases it was in retrograde due to users not being able to manually manipulate the temperature settings. Because a lack of usability definitely leads to lower savings, it seems logical to conclude that better usability will lead to higher savings.

How might such insights about usability be applied to other demand-side management programs? Savings, for behavior programs, are often difficult to establish, because to some degree the predicted amount is modeled upon a customer who follows instructions. While we already know that people do not do this, it would be a good use of ethnography (or at least contextual interviewing) to understand why they sometimes do what they do. For example, many people leave their televisions on all day for their pets. How many people do this? How much energy does pet TV watching consume? Is there an alternative solution that can be offered? In this example, until one solves the functional problem that drives the behavior (“My pet is lonely during the day.”), the desired behavior change will not take place. User-centered design, with its emphasis on function over tech, and on filling user needs over providing engineered solutions, can help us solve such problems.

If you or someone you know has left an appliance on during the day for the convenience of a pet, please tell us about it in the comments!