A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use

Dan_Lockton.width-300Dr. Dan Lockton (@danlockton) is a senior associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, at the Royal College of Art in London. Originally a design engineer, he became interested in including people better in design research while working on mobility products. For his PhD at Brunel University, he developed the Design with Intent toolkit, a multidisciplinary collection of design patterns around human behaviour which Tricia blogged about in 2011. Since then, he has worked on a number of domestic and workplace energy-related behaviour change projects, including CarbonCulture and currently SusLab, a large pan-European project. There is a ‘SusLab at the RCA’ blog; this article is based on the paper Dan presented at EPIC 2013.

Editors note: Energy usage and conservation can be a seemingly mundane part of an individual’s daily life on one hand, but a politically, ecologically, and economically critical issue on the other. Despite its importance, there is a startling lack of insight into what guides and influences behaviors surrounding energy. 

With conventional quantitative analyses of properties and income explaining less than 40% of variations in households’ consumption, Dr Dan Lockton (@danlockton) and Flora Bowden set out to unpack some of the behavioral nuances and contextual insights around energy use within the daily lives of British households, from the perspective of design researchers. Their interviews had them meeting everyone from “quantified self” enthusiasts to low-income residents of public housing, and involving them in the design process. What they discovered bears significant implications for design which seeks to influence behaviors around energy, for example, where policy makers and utility companies see households as “using energy”, household members see their own behavior as solving problems and making their homes more comfortable, such as by running a bath to unwind after a trying day, or preparing a meal for their family.

Read on to see what else Dan and Flora learned in their ethnographic research, and how understanding “folk models” of energy – what energy “looks like” – may hold the key to curtailing energy usage.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.

Gas prepayment card

A householder in Bethnal Green, East London, shows us her gas prepayment card.

It’s rare a day goes by without some exhortation to ‘reduce our energy use’: it’s a major societal and geo-political challenge, encompassing security, social issues and economics as well as environmental considerations. There is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem, both technological and behavioural.

However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something fungible—homogeneous even—to be addressed primarily through giving householders pricing-based feedback, with an assumption that they will somehow automatically reduce how much energy they use, in response to seeing the price. There is much less emphasis on understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing?

During summer 2013, Flora Bowden and I carried out home visits, interviews and probe studies with a diverse group of nine householders in London and south-east England, investigating people’s daily interactions with heating and lighting, meters and appliances, alongside their understanding of energy and how their actions affect its use. We’ve followed this up with a co-design process with householders and experts, to develop new concepts for understanding and managing energy use in the home.

In my presentation at EPIC, I talked about some of our findings from our studies with householders, including insights around phenomena such as how people categorise activities, self-imposed rules around payment schedules, household ‘policies’ on using particular appliances, unexpected use-cases for energy displays, and some intriguing conceptions of ‘what energy looks like’. Our paper goes into more detail.

Following the Helen Hamlyn Centre’s established research methodologies, developed in the context of inclusive design, in our ethnography so far we’ve focused on lead users in one form or another — people who have particular needs around, or interest in, energy use at home, and who are indeed often self-described ‘edge cases’.

Flora and Dan interview Debbie

Flora and Dan interview Diana, a householder in north London. Sadly Diana passed away in December 2013.

Why ethnography?

People use energy differently—the UK’s highest 10% of gas users use four times as much as the lowest 10%—yet purely quantitative modelling based on income and property characteristics explains less than 40% of the variation. Understanding people’s daily routines potentially offers answers to both understanding variation and helping to address it in ways which are appropriate to different needs. So, judicious integration of quantitative energy use data with qualitative insights from ethnography could also allow a much more nuanced design approach, reflecting the diversity of everyday experience. We are trying to develop a fuller picture of the contexts of energy use in everyday life—hopefully working towards addressing, within the energy context, Tricia Wang’s discussion around ‘thick’ data and ‘big’ data. Certainly, energy use is an area where there is a lot of big data around, but less usage which takes account of context and meaning.

All work on behaviour change necessarily embodies particular models of human behaviour—assumptions about how people will act in response to certain ‘interventions’. Even more social science-informed approaches, for example, Opower’s work, or the UK Behavioural Insights Team’s work nevertheless focus mainly on applying behavioural economics effects to frame costs and social norms differently, rather than attempting to address the intricacies of decision-making in everyday life. This work has its place, but the models used largely fail to benefit from the contextual insights that an ethnographic research approach can bring.

We contend that people don’t set out to ‘use energy’: instead, they’re solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, often with an emotional dimension. It is people trying to make their homes comfortable in different ways, having a cup of tea with a friend, cooking meals for their family, putting the light on to read a book, leaving the light on because the switch is difficult to reach, running a bath to relax after a difficult day, turning up Grandma’s heating because they worry about her, and even people putting the radio on to keep their pets company. Much of this is eminently discoverable through ethnographic research, and all of it has consequences for energy use.

Social practices, culturally shaped, interact with people’s understandings, mental models and experiential knowledge of what energy is, how their actions relate to its use, and how all of this fits into the flow of everyday life of a household. These aspects are under-explored in energy research, but could be extremely important in developing new ways of managing and influencing energy use in ways that are meaningful for householders. This is where ethnographic research can provide insights which are directly useful for a design process.

In our initial group of 9 participants, of a range of ages, backgrounds and family situations, we have:

  • Social housing tenants on very limited incomes
  • People who are already part of existing programmes aimed at saving energy (via home energy displays and online monitoring) and people who have taken it upon themselves to cut their energy use without using any kind of display
  • People with medical needs which mean they use higher than average amounts of gas for heating
  • People with strong environmental motivations and people much more focused on cost
  • People from the ‘internet of things’ and ‘quantified self’ communities, who have set up their own home energy monitoring systems for their own interest, and have incorporated using the systems into their everyday routines

Some of our ‘early adopter’ lead users could be in the vanguard of coming trends around technology use at home, but equally, trends also represented, such as ageing populations and more in-home care provision, will have other effects. The idea is that through learning from these interested users—understanding their routines, their motivations, their interactions with technology—we can identify design opportunities for interventions which take account of the real contexts of everyday energy use.

Meter cupboard

Where the meter is: a householder in east London shows us where her electricity and gas meters are

Energy monitor

A householder in south London talks us through how he and his partner use their energy monitor

Co-designing with participants

Annotating an activity

Householders annotated the steps involved in everyday activities such as making a cup of tea

After the interview process, some of our householders have then been involved in a co-design process, creating briefs based around their own needs, in collaboration with designers from the RCA. As well insights from the ethnographic process, working with our householders in a ‘design’ context has revealed clearly articulated opportunities:

  • In/visibility of energy: Householders have told us that not being able to ‘see’ the energy they use (and what’s actually using it) limits their ability to change how they use it. This doesn’t just mean visualisation via numbers and graphs – what could be new ways of communicating energy? Following on from this, are there opportunities for more ambient (e.g. audio) interfaces for energy use?
  • Thermal comfort: Heating uses the largest proportion of energy in homes. Can we look at this question not directly through temperature, but instead from the perspective of householders’ comfort and their sense of control over the home environment?
Co-creation workshop
Householders and designers worked together to co-create briefs
Co-creation workshop
Householders and designers worked together to co-create briefs

After our co-design process, we then brought together a group of 35 ‘experts’ – designers, developers, researchers and makers – to work on those briefs, via a ‘Home Energy Hackday‘ held at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in November 2013, which also included participants from our partner organisations, Chalmers TH (Gothenburg) and Imperial College London. The concepts and proof-of-principle prototypes they created have formed the basis of our development process, synthesising inputs from householders themselves around what they believe would help them reduce their energy use, with other insights from literature and parallel research.

We are currently developing new systems based around these, which the householders will then be able to try during 2014 to see, in practice, how useful they are, and how the designs can be iterated and improved.

Scenes from the Home Energy Hackday, November 2013
Scenes from the Home Energy Hackday, November 2013
Scenes from the Home Energy Hackday, November 2013
Scenes from the Home Energy Hackday, November 2013

Our householders will also be trying systems developed by our project partners in other European countries, to understand better the cultural differences around energy practices. The work is part of SusLabNWE, a collaborative European project, funded by Interreg, with partners in the UK, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands; the project’s energy use theme covers quite a broad scope of work and expertise, including environmental scientists, civil engineers and architects alongside design researchers. It benefits from ‘Living Lab’ instrumented houses in each country, which will provide a platform (albeit artificial) for demonstrating and trialling the systems developed. In London, our Lab will be a modern three-storey town house being built by the Institute for Sustainability in Essex, with monitoring equipment installed by partners at Imperial College London.

Gas use graphing app
An energy (gas) graphing app used by one of our ‘early adopter’ householders

The importance of design

While the project is still ongoing, what have we learned so far? One major aspect is recognition of the importance of design. Many approaches to the ‘energy use behaviour change’ area understate the importance of the details of the designed systems which people use in everyday life. For example, as Jon Froehlich, Leah Findlater and James Landay noted in a review of research on ‘eco-feedback’ systems, even in environmental psychology research specifically focused on energy feedback interfaces, only half of the psychology papers in their sample even included an image of the feedback device or interface, despite it being the primary way in which householders would be receiving the information.

This might seem trivial, but it is not simply aesthetic design details that are important. The design of products and services influences how they are used. For example, in a study with a common model of heating controls, researcher Nic Combe found that difficulties in programming them due to interface complexities—including both physical and cognitive issues—could lead to householders using 14.5% more energy than if they had successfully programmed them.

Aside from social and environmental benefits, there are commercial design opportunities arising from better understanding people’s interactions with energy-using systems, and developing new products and services taking account of these insights, drawing on the wide range of design techniques available for influencing behaviour. Some early market entrants (e.g. the Nest thermostat, just acquired by Google) are already focusing on a design- and user experience-led approach, and sound research can help define and grow the market.

Electricity bill

A typical electricity bill: complicated, and provided long after the energy has been used

Units are a major area of potential confusion; according to a 2010 OnePoll survey of 2,000 people in the UK:

“1 in 5 people don’t know what kWh (kilowatt hour) stands for—some thought it was a make of Japanese car, a type of heavy goods vehicle or even a boy band.” (E.ON)

Sonja van Dam makes similar observations about householders’ understanding of the use of m³ (cubic metres) for gas, while Alison Kidd and Peter Williams include a variety of quotes from participants in an energy display study about their understandings of units. While an understanding of units may not be vital for reducing one’s energy use, design choices of how quantities are represented on interfaces and displays need to be made in a way that is informed by ethnographic research Is it possible to design qualitative feedback into displays alongside the quantitative? Could displays adapt to users’ degree of understanding, or help them to understand better?

Folk models of energy

This leads into another significant area which ethnography can explore: people’s understanding of the systems and concepts which they encounter and interact with in relation to energy—particularly where that understanding may relate to the actual ways in which systems are used.

Research on ‘folk models’ or mental models, such as Kirsten Revell’s work on heating systems, reveals a rich seam of different kinds of understanding and interaction, at least some of which (e.g. Willett Kempton’s work) can be directly connected to household energy use. There is clearly an opportunity for energy-related design which seeks either to match existing mental models—designing systems that work like people think they work—or helping to shift them. Understanding of systems could be revealed more concretely through qualitative investigation of the self-imposed ‘rules’ or heuristics which people may use when interacting with systems (I previously did some work on this with heating systems in offices)—especially useful where there are obvious links to relevant design techniques.

What energy looks like

What energy looks like – drawings by show visitors, September 2013

What energy looks like

What energy looks like – drawings by show visitors, September 2013

What energy looks like

What energy looks like – drawings by show visitors, September 2013

More abstractly still, there is also an opportunity to investigate aspects of mental imagery and conceptualisation of energy, including the use of metaphors and symbolism. Again, this is particularly relevant where it might link to design implications, e.g. making use of different kinds of (non-numerical) imagery to represent energy on a display.


James, a householder in east London, takes us through his daily routines using a timeline

Conclusion: designing with people, rather than for people

What wider implications are there of this work? Overall, we hope to demonstrate, in the context of the wider political, academic and commercial debate over energy and behaviour change, what it means to design with people, rather than for people.

This is something that’s lacking from much of the behaviour change work that’s going on across sectors, both academically and commercially: the value of involving people in the process. Ethnography is a major part of this, and can provide powerful insights into opportunities for developing new products and services that actually take account of the real contexts of people’s lives and everyday decision-making—in lots of areas, not just energy use.

The goal of fields such as behavioural economics is to develop better models of human behaviour, but without being informed by qualitative insights from ethnography, it misses so many of the details of real life. To draw on cybernetics terminology, if simplifying the complex world of behaviour means ignoring the variety of everyday experience, the solutions developed will not be well-matched to that variety, and hence will inevitably be less effectual.

The rise of ‘big data’ (in energy, as in many other fields) provides an ideal opportunity for integration of quantitative data and qualitative insights from ethnography, to enable a much more nuanced design approach, identifying opportunities, including commercial ones, for products and services which are better matched to everyday life. For something as mundane as energy use, this is exactly what we need.

There is a ‘SusLab at the RCA’ blog, and Dan also has his own blog on design, people and systems (2005-date). He’s on Twitter: @danlockton.


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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6 Responses to “A case study on inclusive design: ethnography and energy use”

  1. February 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Reblogged this on MythGinger and commented:
    A great article on why ethnographic research is a must in business.


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