Utility programs aren't always designed for real people. Here are 5 ways to make them better.

Anyone who’s ever designed a utility program knows that it boils down to one job: getting people to do something. To save energy. To use a rebate. To sign up for a new rate. To adjust a thermostat. At some level, to engage. That's easier said than done. The average energy consumer engages with their utility just nine minutes a year. To break through and motivate action, you have to give people an experience that's truly valuable.

Which, ultimately, is a design challenge. And it's a challenge that many companies are solving through behavioral design, which draws on the best insights from behavioral science to deliver motivating, meaningful user experiences. At Opower, it's what we've used to help more than 50 million people save 5 billion kilowatt-hours — enough energy to take a state like New Hampshire or Montana off the grid. And it's what we're using to help more than 95 utilities engage their customers in new, more valuable ways.

Deena Rosen is one of the masterminds behind the Opower user experience. And this month, she teamed up with David Fetherstonhaugh, a behavioral economist at IDEO, to share the secrets of successful behavioral design in the energy world. Here are 5 quick hits from their conversation.


1. Design for how people actually behave

Most energy programs are premised on the idea that financial or environmental incentives motivate us. Most energy programs aren’t as effective as they could be. That’s in part because they assume we’re all rational actors. As humans, we're not. We’re motivated by all kinds of irrational things. And that's not bad — but it does mean we have to acknowledge it in the way we design for people. To take just one example, Opower's first product — the Home Energy Report — was (and remains) phenomenally successful because it taps deep into our discomfort with abnormality. To get utility customers to save lots of energy, all it takes is a little nudge: information about how much you're saving compared to your neighbors. The data show that's more far powerful than a message about money, or the environment, or even doing civic good.



A sample bar chart from Opower's Home Energy Reports for small and medium businesses. A sample bar chart from Opower's Home Energy Reports.


2. Assume no one cares

This goes back to the 9-minutes-a-year statistic. Any program, any communication, any outreach from a utility should pass a single test before all others: the burden of relevance. Is the information on a standard utility bill imminently relevant? Do you care? Energy professionals might. But for the rest of us, the answer is usually no. But it could be yes. When you pair energy data with timely, personalized insights that people actually value, they're much more willing to care. And that opens the to door to all kinds of new engagement and new opportunities.


pie chart A sample message from an Opower program.


3. Always lead to action

Every step of your process or program should give the recipient a clear next step — and remove possible barriers to getting it done. One example: it’s easy to forget even the simplest ways to save energy, like switching off lights or turning down the thermostat when leaving home. By understanding all of the steps required to follow through with an action, program designers can help people avoid common obstacles to saving. These door hangers remind people to adjust their thermostat when they’d often forget to.



4. Put things people want in the path of things they need

It's a hard truth: behavior change takes time. It’s tough to keep people on track toward a long-term goal that really matters, whether it’s an energy-savings target or another business outcome. How can utilities keep them engaged? It’s all about turning this blue curve.

 graph benefits 1 …into this red one:

graph benefits 2

By building great experiences that deliver real consumer benefits right away — and by following up every one of those experiences with a new action that leads to additional progress — you can keep people on track for the long haul. That's how we've helped our utility partners keep improving their behavioral energy efficiency savings for five years running.


5. Change the currency to change the choice

We wrote recently about why calorie labels are a failure of behavioral design. In short, calories are an abstract unit of measure that’s not truly relevant to human experience. And new research shows that we make healthier decisions when we're given more helpful information — how long you’d have to exercise to burn off that Coke, for example.

The same takeaway applies to kilowatt-hours — the energy industry's standard unit of measure. To motivate people to change their behavior, you get better results when you frame energy consumption in ways that really matter: in dollars saved, trees planted, and progress made.


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