With the drive to make customers less wasteful slowing, we need to encourage them to embrace new ways of managing their homes that will result in them being more energy efficient, says Holly Brenan.

A prevalent behaviour change model stymies efforts to encourage less wasteful domestic energy usage. New insights could revitalise attempts to achieve positive change. Energy providers can be in the driving seat: Hive’s 2016 extension into more smart home devices puts British Gas in pole position.

I came to these conclusions after a large energy provider told me about its challenges in persuading people to regulate their consumption. Its objective makes perfect sense to help achieve differentiation, because the battle for consumer preference is hotting up. New rivals have proved adept at aligning themselves with energy users’ interests, whether via customer service, cost or environmental credentials.

However, efforts to motivate customers into less wasteful practices have been foundering and I suspected that the understanding of behaviour driving them was inadequate. My colleagues and I thought through a response that draws on up-to-date ideas about behaviour change.

Behavioural models are lacking

A conventional behaviour change model (for example, the Fogg behaviour model) leads you to focus on the behaviour that is the focus of changing itself, suggests that if something is easy to do then the action can be inspired even with low motivation to do so and has little to say about fostering a deeper commitment.

Take the example of unplugging a mobile phone once the battery is fully charged – something that could power a city the size of Canterbury if everyone in the UK did it. It is in theory a cinch to do, yet the monetary savings are so small individually that not many people beyond those with an exceptional level of commitment to environmental causes would feel motivated to do it.

Following the conventional model, you might continue to futilely assume it was just a case of finding the right “trigger” or message and repeating the exercise by asking people to shower less, turn the heating down or cook multiple meals in the oven in one go.

‘Drawing Energy’, a research-based Royal College of Art (RCA) investigation of consumer understandings of energy, recently proposed why such efforts might be foundering: “People do not just want to use energy, they want to do the things it enables… it might in fact be counterproductive to ask people to reduce their energy use.”

In designing an approach that would stand a better chance, we took this on board to ask a different and less direct starting question than “how do we encourage efficiency?”, namely: “How can we encourage people to embrace new approaches to managing your home that will result in being more energy efficient?”

Can technology help?

The most obvious candidate area is new technology that tailors the way you use appliances, etc, to your circumstances. The connected homes market is already teeming with the likes of Apple HomeKit, Google Nest, and Samsung SmartThings. Importantly, however, a 2014 Accenture report found that while 70 per cent of people have a high level of confidence in specialist suppliers such as Nest, energy suppliers came a close second at 61 per cent.

Provided it were built to the standards expected by modern-day consumers, the concept we designed – a smart home management tool that forges associations between the satisfaction derived from a home that is more responsive to your needs and energy consumption information – would enable an energy provider to claim leadership. It has three central features.

Firstly, it re-imagines the digital touchpoint for a responsive home in a relevant, meaningful and useful way. We found a number of different mindsets when conducting consumer research when it came to interest in efficiency, so it needs to offer different access points and levels of engagement. This ranges between self-service information provision (for example, bills information) to community.

Secondly, there is a clear opportunity to become a platform by taking an open approach and integrating multiple appliances and brands rather than the current state of affairs of closed offerings to keep out competitors. This entails more than offering a master control device, to simplify the myriad home management options emerging; it means changing internal provider mindsets to being open.

Thirdly, the tool envisaged is proactive in helping customers to find savings and make product purchases from a new smart appliance and tool marketplace bursting with innovation that, being open, it can help to create.

Hive in pole position

By extending the Hive product range in 2016, British Gas is capitalising on the burgeoning appetite for connected tools that help us to achieve what we want around the home. The RCA research suggests that technology such as this could be central to efficiency efforts, too – especially, as we propose, as part of an open ecosystem. This ecosystem would encourage development of smart devices but, most crucially, the tools to control them – so that we could make energy consumption information more vivid for more people.

Holly Brenan, user experience designer, ustwo

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