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The truths about Opower smiley faces

Rebecca Rabison
Opower UX Designer

There are two natural human truths at work in this blog post: one positive and one not-so-much.

The first truth: people tend to get shiny, happy, warm and fuzzy feels when smiled at—whatever kind of smile involved, whether flirty, conspiratorial, joyous or just polite.

The second truth: we all hate to lose, from an in-office tussle over strategy to a board game with grandpa. We detest it. All of us.

But, those two truths are flipsides of the same coin: human behavior. My colleagues and I are students of behavioral science, and, behavioral science is at the heart of all of our Opower work, since the very beginning. 

In fact, you might say those two truths—the smiles and deep-seeded competitive insights—working together birthed one darn successful company (and one continuingly successful branch of Oracle Utilities).

Understanding those two truths and their nuances have allowed us to thrive. And so has our commitment to experimentation and data-driven continuous improvement. We’ve been testing, iterating, and changing elements of Home Energy Reports (HERs), digital alerts, and web features since our inception, Mr. Smiley included.

A trip through the way back machine

Let me tell you a short, related tale from the birth of Opower that involves the antithesis of Mr. Smiley. (We can call him Mr. Frowny Face). When Opower first started twelve years ago, we sat down with those two truths, thought hard about how to convey positives (and not-so-positives) and decided on a combination of Mr. Smiley and his evil twin Mr. Frowny Face. The first, if you’re being efficient, and the second if you use more energy than average.

But why faces at all? Research tells us that a face humanizes a concept—and produces more of an emotional response than a non-human symbol would. Since the neighbor comparison is all about producing an emotional response, the smiley face has been shown to be the best symbol to do so. (This corresponds with the explosion in popularity of emojis across all digital devices, by the way. So, the truth of this is in your hand every day.)

The problem was: twelve years ago, Mr. Frowny Face produced a bit too much of an emotional response.

Yep, it made people upset. In fact, it made people mad.

It also motivated people and served the purpose of triggering a natural competitive response, which made people save a lot of energy. But with experimentation we quickly learned that, in fact, we can still generate energy savings without stirring up such a negative reaction. While sending frowning faces to customers who were using a lot of energy did actually increase energy savings, the unhappiness it produced wasn’t worth it.

We learned. We adapted. We evolved. We figured out how to be simple and still subtle. And we removed Mr. Frowny Face from HERs over a decade ago.

How times have changed us

Now, over a decade later: there are no Mr. Frowny Faces. None. Zero. Those evil twins have never returned—just a shadow in the Opower history forgotten by most except the most die-hard Opower fanatic or academic business historian.

We still believe in those two truths, and we still live by them. But, we’re smart enough to embrace new approaches to them. The truths are foundational. How we build on those truths is always adapting—to the new consumer, to the new utility and to the emerging industry landscape still taking shape on the horizon.

So, if Mr. Frowny Face is long-dead Opower history, what does a consumer see if they’re using more energy than their average neighbors? What symbol do we use to convey the same competitive urgency (without the additional emotional baggage)?

See for yourself:

Yep, that classic standard of punctuation: an exclamation point. Gets the point across (all puns intended there) with no judging faces of any kind. Only if you are doing well and receiving a highlighted smiley face do you ever see the grayed out neutral face as a part of the scale.

That pursed-lip version of Mr. Smiley in gray in the scale shown when you’re doing well is not a frowning face, and you only see it if you aren’t in the “using more than average” category. Let’s call him Mr. Straight Face. Why even show that? Why have it in the “good” mix at all? Why not keep anything not-super-smiley super far away?

Because science

Mr. Straight Face is a surprisingly good motivator. That taps into what psychologists call “injunctive norms.” The secret is in providing an indication about what behaviors receive approval or disapproval in a community. If you are doing well (seen here as "good" or "great") you see that you’re avoiding Mr. Straight Face, but that he’s lurking there if you were to start using more energy.

The scale of those three faces helps to both discourage people from using more and encourage and reward those who use less. For those who are very efficient, receiving Mr. Smiley and the “great” status reinforces positive behavior (and deters them from slipping back to average). If you actually do start to use more than average, the scale flips to the version with the exclamation point—no faces at all. If you do need to use more energy, we aren’t judging.

Also, people hate to lose, remember? Now, the best way to visualize a win is to have a scale that shows just how much winning you’re doing. (Think of it this way: only by comparison shopping do we know we definitely got a good deal. The face scale is a form of comparison shopping with efficiency in the savings space.)

Our approach has always been to bring out the best in both utility and utility customer—and in the partnership between the two. The ditching of Mr. Frowny Face over a decade ago is a part of that approach.

Today, the Opower neighbor comparison is undergoing another transformation based on the reality of many homes—the rise of electric vehicles and rooftop solar. We’re working with our clients and conducting in-depth qualitative and quantitative user research to solve the design problem of simplifying what is truly a complex utility customer experience for solar and EV owners.

Stay tuned for updates on the early results of that work.


Oracle Utilities, including Opower, partners with the world's hardest working electric, water and natural gas companies to empower, enhance and enable your every single day. From cloud-native products and better grid management tools to support for every single step of your customer's journey, we have the answer. Learn more at oracle.com/utilities. Get specific product information as quick as clicking right here.


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Comments ( 1 )
  • Matt Thursday, June 27, 2019
    :) !
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