Understanding how residents evaluate their energy consumption
A residential smart home had set itself the goal of becoming a net-zero energy building. Despite having several solar panels and having access to fine-grained information about their energy consumption, they were nowhere near their goal. My mission was to understand how residents thought about their energy consumption and what led to their energy-related behaviors. I generated a report for a group of designers who will create a new visualization platform for the home's energy consumption.
To get a better understanding of how the residents thought about energy and the community dynamics around energy consumption, I did the following activities:
In some scenarios, such as the residents’ weekly meetings, I conducted silent observations where I sat at the table and was able to piece out community dynamics and points of tension.
I shadowed open tours and workshops that the smart home residents offer to the community.
I spent time with a team of residents that sought to collect all the historical energy data for the home.
Ethnographic Interviews and Reenactments
I conducted interviews with the current residents of the home in which I inquired about the community and living experience, the residents’ ideas of sustainable living, and their use of feedback technologies such as wearables. During this interview session, I also asked each individual to give me a tour of the in-home spaces where they spent time. This tour set the stage for residents to reenact some of the practices they engaged in such as turning on and off the lights or using the HVAC system. This provided valuable insights into what residents know about their home and it shed light on the aspects that remain invisible to them.
Unstructured Usability Testing
The home is currently equipped with a set of eGauges, which are energy metering devices. The product gives residents access to a series of dashboards that visualize real-time energy consumption. I observed residents while they interacted with the interface and drew conclusions from the information they saw.
I compiled a list of products and projects that visualize energy consumption for residential homes: from visual dashboards that display disaggregated energy consumption to physical objects that draw attention to the act of consumption.
I identified three broad categories of energy visualization projects: data-based feedback projects, gamified feedback projects, and artistic or aesthetic feedback projects. Although these are not absolute nor mutually exclusive, the projects that fit each category tend to share underlying assumptions, take advantage of similar motivations, and have a comparable temporal focus.
I organized a co-creation workshop that brought together the current residents of the home for a creative brainstorming exercise. The goal was to come up with ideas for how we could move the home towards its sustainability goals. We used the 6-8-5 gamestorming methodology to encourage idea generation in a short period of time. Residents had 5 minutes to come up with 6 to 8 ideas for how to make the home more sustainable. After silent, individual brainstorming, they discussed with a partner and then shared with the group. I recorded the session’s audio, gathered the materials that were produced, and took attentive notes throughout the encounter.
KEY INSIGHTS and recommendations
Although data for total energy consumption and total energy generated by the solar panels is available through the eGauge platform mentioned above, there is currently no way to determine if, in fact, the home has been moving towards that goal. I put together a report for the design team to use as they create a new energy visualization platform for the home. Below are some of my recommendations.
Efficiency > Curtailment
Efficiency behaviors involve investing in equipment that lowers energy costs without sacrificing comfort. Curtailment behaviors, on the other hand, require cutting back on normal and desired activities. Energy researchers have shown that residents can have a larger impact through efficiency behaviors.
Peaks displayed in line graphs grab users' attention and encourage curtailment behaviors such as turning off the lights or not using the dishwasher. It will be key for the design team to shift their attention away from this approach.
Particularly, because the home is inhabited by different residents every year, the visualization should allow residents to explore the impact that each cohort has had in moving the home towards its net-zero goal.
The design team should focus their efforts on aggregating energy consumption of the home. This is currently not possible given that multiple smart devices were installed with the opposite intention: to disaggregate consumption.
The new visualization tool should bring attention to the large portion of the home's energy consumption that comes from undetermined sources and has been lumped under the category “other." The target audience for the visualization is engineers who are interested in finding innovative ways to reduce energy consumption. Instead of focusing their attention on known appliance consumption, the tool should provide them with useful information to improve the home's infrastructure.
Traditional energy visualizations, including the one available at the home, usually display units of energy (kWh), power (kW) or the monetary equivalents. However, curtailment behaviors are usually of the all-or-nothing type: you either use the dryer or you don’t, use the dishwasher or you don’t, turn the HVAC system or you don’t. The decisions made by the residents regarding these curtailment behaviors are not informed, for instance, by information about the fluctuations in power. Importantly, displaying more data does not necessarily lead to better or more effective visualizations. The design team can make use of this insight to visualize information in a way that actually aids residents in their everyday decisions.
A web dashboard is not readily available when residents make consumption decisions. Point-of-consumption displays are a good alternative.
By removing the clutter of obscure measurements and only displaying the number of times that a particular appliance has been used in the past week, point-of-consumption displays could bring more focused attention to resident behavior patterns.