Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Smart Meters ‘Need Live Displays’

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The UK has plans to install smart meters in all homes by 2020, but focus groups suggest graphical displays are critical to changing behavior:

Most people preferred a graphic indicator of their real-time rate of energy consumption, expressed in terms of expenditure per day.

A gauge of cumulative spend was also a popular idea. Consumers thought that these features would help them track consumption and pinpoint areas of high usage.

The focus group members also felt that the ability to access historical data on consumption and compare it with current levels was essential.

The trust’s energy efficiency strategy manager, Ben Castle, told BBC News that only stand alone in-house display monitors could offer the immediate, direct and real time feedback on consumption that consumers need.

He said: “With a display, you have it in your house. It moves and it can catch your eye and it is very little hassle for you to check how you are doing. It gives a much greater certainty that people will receive this feedback.

“Other alternatives, such as online services and mobile phone technology, don’t give that immediate feedback that people need to inform their behavioural choices.

“I think having good, well designed displays accompanying smart meters is key to the objective of saving energy, saving carbon, saving money for householders.”

The goal of smart meters in all homes by 2020 is laudable as it provides a key infrastructure for information-enabled energy efficiency – using less electricity and lowering GHGs. But there’s a problem here. “IT systems” have a long history of ineffectiveness precisely because of small-scale focus groups and researcher/software engineer/(fill in the blank) bias (I have been guilty of this myself early in my career as a software entrepreneur). It goes something like this: “I think it’s a good system, makes sense, gets the job done, well designed, therefore others will.” 

There are likely to be unarticulated user needs that are best discovered via design thinking: observation, story, ethnography, customer journey map, etc. Moreover, the framing of this design problem is critical. Is this a means for energy efficiency, lowering my carbon footprint, enabling big brother to monitor my energy use, a way to cut my monthly energy bill? In sum, the design problem is not about technology or systems or monitors or displays – this is a service design problem. Maybe the headline should have read

Smart Meters (In) Need (of) Service Design

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Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

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