How Presentation Medium and Design Influence Energy-Saving Technology Adoption

Over the last few years many display technologies have come onto the home energy management (HEM) market that aim to provide feedback on residential energy consumption.  You may have heard of some of them like Google’s PowerMeter, which was a free application that was retired late in 2011.

Providing visual feedback to consumers on their energy use has been accepted as an effective way to achieve energy savings.  This makes HEM products highly innovative because they can take intangible energy information and make it visible, raising energy awareness.  However, the HEM market has yet to influence the average consumer.  In fact, Google cited low consumer adoption as the main reason they retired their service.

The issue is not that consumers have to make better-informed decisions.  Rather, they have to go through an important technology adoption process and become motivated by the device itself in order to make habitual changes to their energy behavior.  This motivation is often driven by how engaging or useful the product is.  As is, many users won’t spend more than about a minute monitoring their energy use through such a product.  We set out to understand how to maximize feedback in such a short amount of time.  In other words, what would make HEM displays the most actionable?

One important factor to consider is that HEM products can range across media from home energy displays (HEDs), to web portals and smartphone applications, all of which may have present different types of information and offer different levels of design.  We set out to identify how user preferences for various designs, and across different presentation media, may affect their likelihood of adoption.

We profiled 50 early adopters (median age=35, range 21-67, 74% homeowner) using an online survey.  Early adopters were picked because they tend to be consumers that are self-motivated to seek out new technologies.  Product researchers and developers often look to this type of group to see how a new product or idea works.

We asked participants about their preferred features of HEM, and also collected “usability ratings” for 12 HEM systems across three presentation media (4 HEDs, 4 web portals, and 4 smartphone applications).  These ratings broke down into three questions:  Is it nice to look at?  Is it understandable?  Do you want to explore more?  In addition, also asked participants how long they were willing to use each system.  This “length of use” data served as a loose metric of technology adoption.

Preliminary results indicate that consumers may be more interested in energy education than cost and bill prediction (Figure 1).  Further, device extras like news, games, or social networking were not preferred, whereas goal setting, weather, and home automation capabilities were moderately preferred.  Finally, about half of the respondents were not willing to spend more than $100 on any HEM product.  This signals a significant gap between what consumers are willing to invest and what HEM currently costs.

Figure 1: General HEM Preferences. Participants were asked: “Which feature of home energy management would you be most interested in? (check one)”


We also found that adoption is more likely to be successful when other multimedia is offered (Figure 2).  When asked if they would prefer a smartphone app, a web portal, or an HED, the most popular answer chosen by survey respondents was “I’d like them all.”

Figure 2: Presentation medium preferences. Participants were asked, “Which medium of home energy management do you think you’d most prefer?”



Respondents also rated how long they were willing use each of the HEM systems.  Here is how the “length of use” data broke down across presentation medium:


We see that the largest percentages for all media fall within the expected 1-5 minute category.  Remember, most people aren’t going to interact with HEM for too long.  However, we also see that a large percentage of users are willing to spend more time with web portals and that a large percentage of users are not even willing to interact with smartphone applications.  This highlights an important discrepancy with Figure 2, where we saw that smartphone applications are more desired than web portals.

How does ‘usability’ affect how long consumers are willing to use HEM systems?


We see that usability is a good predictor of time willing to spend using.  That is, users are more willing to spend time with an energy feedback device if it rates highly on aesthetics, ease of understanding, and prompts exploration.

Overall, our findings suggest that real-time energy displays need to further improve interface intuitiveness and flexibility while keeping costs low.  People won’t become regular users of HEM products until we understand more about the most effective ways to visualize energy information and make it motivating.  User-centered design may help to make home energy management (HEM) technologies more effective.   So far, we’ve found that approaches to residential energy management providing multimedia options are the most likely to be successful.  The future of energy monitoring should strive for web portal looks plus mobility for users.

Full slides from my talk given at BECC 2011 can be found here.

I’d like to know what you think: what would your ideal home energy management device be like? What sort of interface (phone, web, device) most appeals to you? Do you think the design would impact your use? Please let us know in the comments.

About author
I was a member of the Fraunhofer CSE technical staff until 2013, researching how human behavior and other human factors affect the efficiency and adoption of energy-saving technologies.
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