The democratization of design

XVI.5 September + October 2009
Page: 26
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSThe new energy interface

Peter Honebein

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We are in the early stages of a revolution that will change how people think about and use energy in their homes. Utilities around the world are implementing smart meter systems for their electric and gas customers. Smart meters are digital, wireless meters that replace existing mechanical-analog meters. With smart meters, real-time energy-usage displays, dynamic pricing, and other valuable services become a reality. This creates a variety of opportunities for human-computer interaction (HCI) designers to contribute to inventing new approaches for smarter energy use.

The heart of this opportunity comes not from the technology per se, but from culture change. Over the years utilities have embraced a paternalistic attitude in their interaction with customers—caring for them, but not allowing them to have much responsibility. With the advent of smart meters, and ultimately the smart grid, this paternalistic inclination must change to embrace customers for who they really need to be: cocreators of value.

Thinking of customers as cocreators of value has become very popular in marketing circles. It recognizes that value creation does not rest solely with the organization that markets goods and services. Value creation also occurs when customers put goods and services to use, in pursuit of accomplishing a job. Thus, if customers can do that job better, faster, cheaper, and with more enjoyment, the more value is created. The connection to HCI is obvious: The better that HCI designs enable customer performance, the more value customers can create.

Yet HCI is not the sole variable that enables customer performance. HCI designers must integrate their designs into a broader customer performance model (See Figure 1). This model illustrates the orchestration of four specific elements that enable customers to cocreate value: vision (goals and feedback), access (processes, tools, and interfaces), incentive (rewards and punishments), and expertise (knowledge and skills). This design approach motivates customers to change their behavior and ensures they have what they need to perform, thus increasing value.

This brings us back to energy and smart meters. The business case that drives investment in smart meters focuses on four key areas of value that customers cocreate. The first is operational efficiency, which is reducing the cost of delivering energy services to customers. The second is demand response, a short-term conservation action that customers take when electricity demand is expected to exceed supply (the conditions for a brownout). The third is energy efficiency, which is the permanent reduction of energy use through construction, behavioral, and/or technological changes to one's home or business. The fourth is load shifting, which transitions energy use from one time period (daytime) to another time period (nighttime). In each of these areas, customers must become cocreators of value, and HCI designers can be at the forefront by designing the interfaces that enable customers to perform that role.

back to top  Operational Efficiency

Just as self-service gas pumps eliminated the need for service-station attendants, smart meters eliminate the need for meter readers. Meter-read data from smart meters is sent wirelessly to the utility. But that's not all that smart meters can do. Smart meters also have technology that enables remote connect and disconnect, meaning a service technician won't need to be dispatched when one moves in or out of a residence or business.

The first-generation need for HCI designers involves software systems; utility call center employees will use this to manage the remote transactions, as well as many other transactions. Designers will need to create interfaces that permit safe and reliable activation and deactivation of service to customers. But it doesn't stop there. With customer data recorded hourly, these same call-center employees will need interfaces that allow them to quickly and accurately troubleshoot customer problems, such as high bills, as well as quickly link them to helpful advice to be passed along to customers looking to reduce those bills.

The second-generation need sees the movement of many of the tasks described above directly to the control of customers through self-service technologies. Just as airlines have transformed customers into reservation agents, utilities will want to do the same with their customers. Utilities will offer customers the tools and interfaces allowing them to directly create accounts, activate and deactivate service, and troubleshoot high bills, thus enabling greater convenience, control, and choice. We can also image utilities offering customers a menu of products and services, as well as energy in different grades, like at the gas station—30 percent renewable (regular), 50 percent renewable (midgrade), and 100 percent renewable (premium)—that will enable low-carbon lifestyles. A great example of how a utility might offer products and services aligned with a low carbon lifestyle is Well-designed interfaces are needed to help customers make wise choices.

back to top  Demand Response

On hot summer days when air conditioning usage is high, utilities ask customers to voluntarily reduce demand. The aim of demand response is to avoid the cost of building expensive "peaker plants" that run only a couple weeks during the year. To motivate customer action, utilities offer customers a reward for the number of kilowatt hours reduced (peak-time reward), or significantly increase the cost of electricity for several hours during peak times (critical-peak pricing). Smart meter systems enable all of these new dynamic-pricing methods.

Today demand response is mostly a manual action that customers take, which HCI designers can help facilitate. On a demand response day, utilities ask customers to reduce demand, by doing things like turning thermostats up to 78 degrees (reducing AC load), avoiding the use of major appliances such as washers and dryers, and turning off unnecessary lights. Thus, the first generation need is for HCI designers to create notification interfaces that inform customers of peak days/times and/or price signals. Notification interfaces might include email, text, or voice messaging. These interfaces might also include continuous types of notification, such as "energy orbs." These devices indicate price signals using colored lights: green for off-peak price, yellow for peak price, and red for critical peak price. Similar kinds of interfaces may also be embedded in smart appliances. This allows customers to automatically delay a task, such as drying a load of laundry or running the dishwasher, until the electricity price is off peak.

In the future, demand response will be more automated, and HCI designers will play a role in the second generation by designing systems that maintain customer convenience, choice, and control. For example, programmable communicating thermostats that receive signals from the utility to automatically raise or lower temperature will need interfaces that allow both configuration and manual override. Smart appliances will need user interfaces that signal when they've been automatically paused due to a demand response event.

back to top  Energy Efficiency

Most customers have no clue how or when they are wasting energy. The primary reason for this is a long and nonspecific feedback loop. Today, the only feedback customers get about their energy use is the bill. With smart meter systems, customers will be able to determine on a real-time basis how much energy they are using, and the cost of that energy, so they can make wise decisions that eliminate waste.

The first generation of feedback devices that need HCI designer involvement are online presentment interfaces (OPIs) and in-home displays (IHDs). Through OPIs, customers will be able to view day-after usage data on an hourly basis and use a variety of tools to view that data. For example, customers can compare their usage with that of residences or businesses of a similar size. IHDs, on the other hand, display real-time energy usage information in units such as kilowatt hours, cost, or even carbon. IHDs may be stand-alone devices or may be integrated into existing display systems, such as security touchscreens or even your local interactive cable channel. Through the information provided by these interfaces, customers will be able to find opportunities for being more energy efficient.

The second generation need will see a shift from data and information to knowledge and wisdom-type displays. Enabled by a device called a home area network (HAN), HCI designers will contribute to systems that allow customers to view the energy usage of any "smart" appliance in the house, control those appliances remotely (and safely), and set up "energy themes" for their homes or businesses. An energy theme is a preconfigured, automatic profile that automatically sets lighting, heating, cooling, appliances, and so on. Utilities will also use analytics to automatically determine the source of energy waste, and provide customers with proactive recommendations for saving energy and reducing costs.

back to top  Load Shifting

Electricity supply is greater at night than it is during the day. Thus, to reduce the need to construct additional generation sources for daytime use, utilities are asking customers to shift usage to different times of day. Given work schedules and family needs, people often find themselves using dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, and so on during the day. With appropriate customer performance design, usage of these appliances can be relegated to nights.

Dynamic rates play a big part in encouraging customers to shift usage from day to night. Electricity at night is less expensive than during the day, which creates an incentive—lower prices to encourage customers to shift their usage. But HCI designers play a role as well in designing interfaces that support load shifting. Many of these interfaces are similar to what I've already described for demand response and energy efficiency, such as visible price signals and appliance automation.

back to top  Conclusion

Energy needs a new interface, and HCI designers are in the position to create designs that enable utility customers to become cocreators of value. By focusing interaction designs on customer performance and looking for opportunities in operational efficiency, demand response, energy efficiency, and load shifting, HCI designers will be able to make worthwhile contributions to a more sustainable future.

back to top  Author

Peter C. Honebein, Ph.D., is a principal with Customer Performance Group LLC, a marketing and management strategy consulting firm. He is also an adjunct professor at Indiana University and University of Nevada, Reno, and author of Creating Do-It-Yourself Customers and Strategies for Effective Customer Education. Find out more at

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The Customer Performance Model.

UF1Figure. A smart meter captures and sends near real-time energy usage to the customer. Not only is it possible to take remote readings, smart meters can also record automated outages.

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©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/0500  $10.00

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