Simple and Intuitive Design, Human Behavior Drive Energy-Saving Technology Adoption

Dr. Sachs looks over study data with two of CSE's Human Factors Fellows.

Dr. Sachs looks over study data with two of CSE’s Human Factors Fellows.

Fraunhofer CSE research shows that—in addition to the clever design of home energy management (HEM) technologies—human behavior is a key contributing factor to these products’ energy saving potential. Consequently, if designed in a simple and intuitive way and tailored to meet consumer preferences, return on investment of HEM technologies may be increased. Fraunhofer CSE’s contribution to the Fraunhofer Building Alliance’s 2011 research yearbook includes an article from Dr. Olga Sachs on the key behavioral factors that contribute to broad acceptance of HEM technologies.

HEM technologies are devices that help home occupants manage their energy consumption more effectively. These can range in scope from single control devices, such as thermostats or smart power strips, to full-scale centralized home automation systems. But the success of these products is not only dependent on the quality of the technology itself, but on a range of softer ‘human factors’ that are far more difficult to evaluate. For instance, there is great variability in how people interpret technology and interact with it, making the energy-saving potential and return on investment for HEM products highly unpredictable.

As a trained experimental psychologist, Dr. Sachs works at the intersection of technology and behavior, bringing a unique perspective to questions of building energy efficiency. We wanted to take a minute to share a couple of Dr. Sachs’s most interesting insights:

What features of energy feedback technology result in more persistent energy savings?

Energy Feedback—information about the consequences of household actions involving electricity consumption—is an effective way of making energy information visible to consumers, and can potentially result in energy savings ranging from 5 to 15%. The assumption is that elements such as presentation media, superior design features or aesthetics can motivate occupants to engage in energy-saving behavior. To test this, Fraunhofer CSE conducted a series of studies that included online surveys and focus groups, evaluating if presentation medium and design of energy feedback leads to actionable energy behaviors. Among other things, the results showed that users wanted clarity and intuitiveness in display interfaces, flexibility in their choice of display medium (for example, having the option of using both web portals and smartphone apps to access data), and HEDs priced lower than the current average.

How can HEM products attain energy savings in the face of complexity?

Although consumers want to feel in control of their homes, they often lack the interest and ability to exploit energy-saving opportunities. Trading consumer involvement for increased automation of various tasks can potentially achieve significant savings for occupants. To achieve this, it is crucial that HEMs, particularly programmable thermostats, be as intuitive and effortless to use as possible. This can be achieved, for instance, by decreasing deployment complexity, making thermostat programming more straightforward, or improving the information presented on displays.

To test the effect usability has on energy savings offered by programmable thermostats, Fraunhofer CSE deployed high- and low usability thermostats in a multi-family building in the Boston area. Our teams then tracked occupants’ thermostat use to find out whether households with high-usability thermostats were more likely to use energy-saving thermostat setbacks at night. Despite expectations, initial results indicate that thermostat usability has no effect on how often home occupants use energy-saving settings.

What are the system-level effects of individual HEM products?

Residential energy consumption is not an isolated, standalone thing: among other things, it is influenced by dynamic social relationships and cultural practices. For instance, households often have a higher sense of control if they get assistance and advice from housing associations, appliance retailers, and local authorities. Others relate their own energy consumption behavior to social, political and environmental problems, and can be motivated by a sense of guilt as a result. In addition, behavior changes in one environmental domain can influence consumer choices in other areas. In a field test, Fraunhofer CSE collected data on water and electricity consumption in a number of households over a period of 10 weeks. Among the findings: residents who received weekly feedback on their per capita water consumption lowered their water use to show consistency in their behaviors (positive spillover), but showed more wastefulness in their electricity consumption (moral licensing).

These are only a few examples of behavioral research projects currently being undertaken at Fraunhofer CSE—we look forward to sharing more with you in the coming weeks.

About author
I'm a former marketing intern at Fraunhofer CSE, having supported CSE's communications activities in a number of areas over the spring and summer of 2012.
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