Changing Energy Use Through Design
by James Pierce  &  David Roedl   

When it comes to sustaining ourselves and the planet, nonrenewable energy and the looming consequences of global climate change are among the most critical issues of our time. In our view, interaction designers have the power and a responsibility to address them. While the creation of a renewable-energy economy and infrastructure is ultimately necessary, it is just as important that we rapidly reduce current consumption and shift cultural notions about the ways in which energy use affects our future. In the developed world, a view has long pervaded that treats energy as relatively cheap, abundant, and without significant consequence. Even as the public consciousness around climate change increases, this unsustainable conception persists.  A new mental model is needed, and interaction designers can and should play a role in creating it. Computers and other digital products and systems consume enormous amounts of electricity. Moreover, it is daily interactions with the ecology of energy-consuming products that help construct our underlying conception of and relationship to energy in general [1].  Design efforts to conserve energy often focus on behind-the-scenes solutions such as efficient engineering (e.g., Energy Star) or automated energy management. Nonetheless, no matter how efficient an interactive product may be, a large portion of energy consumed by a digital product is often governed by user behavior. Interaction designers can actively promote conservation in use by taking human behaviors into account.  Some products provide explicit feedback about energy consumption, such as the often-cited Toyota Prius dashboard. More often, interactive products conceal energy use or encourage wasteful behaviors in unintended, unanticipated ways.  All energy-consuming products mediate relationships between humans and energy. Behaviors and expectations learned in present interactions affect attitudes and expectations in future ones. Designers need to ensure these relationships are designed with sustainable effects in mind.  Sometimes using less energy requires only small changes in behavior. At other times, it requires more radical shifts in lifestyles and values. When designing for sustainability in everyday life, we need to find ways to design products that both create needed behavioral and intellectual change and are
easily adapted into daily routines.  Finding ways to meet both of these criteria is among the most fundamental challenges for sustainable interaction design.  Critiquing Sustainable Interactions In what follows, we reflect on six interactive designs that actively promote more sustainable interactions with respect to energy usage in the home. While similarly intentioned designs exist in many other domains, we feel that the domestic setting is an especially interesting space for interaction design in general, and for sustainable design in particular. Daily habitual interactions with technology in the home have the potential to influence one’s behavior and attitudes in other contexts. Domestic space is also profoundly personal; objects must resonate with users on multiple levels to be acceptable.  When they do, they often come to symbolize deeply held values of self. We have chosen six interesting exemplars, carefully selected from an original set of more than 30 products from 20 different companies and design teams. These six choices complement one another in their diverse qualities and approaches. Through these critiques we hope to illustrate some of the different ways in which designers have begun to promote energy conservation in use, with the goal of teasing out implications that may eventually contribute to the formation of a
critical design framework.  As a starting point, we have loosely structured the critiques around five interaction qualities/criteria, which are well-known concepts used in designing or evaluating designs within the HCI and interaction-design literature.  We believe each interaction quality has potential value for designing to promote sustainability in use, and so we have framed the following open-ended questions to serve as impetus
for criticism:
• Persuasion. Does the product encourage formation of conservation
goals and help users attain these goals by providing motivational
cues and incentives?
• Usefulness and Usability. Does the product encourage sustainable
behaviors by making them easier, more convenient, and integrated
with useful functionality?
• Aesthetics. Does the product offer aesthetic value, such as pleasure,
engagement, etc., that encourages sustainable interaction?
• Symbolic Value. Does the product come to serve as a symbol of personal values and meaning, which encourages sustainable interactions?
• Potential for Critical Reflection. Does the product stimulate critical reflection and discussion about issues related to energy and sustainability?

As designers and citizens of this planet, we need to carefully consider what we do and do not want to sustain. Design, of course, creates both problems
and solutions. There is something both ironic and troubling in our compulsion to design more new devices rather making do with old ones in hopes of doing less harm to the planet. As we design for sustainable interactions and experiences, we should always be looking for ways to “do less with design” [10], a consideration perfectly embodied by Scott Amron’s
Die Electric experiment [11].

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[10] The phrase “do less with design” owes to the
title of a public presentation by Eli Blevis.


Interactions Magazine
July + August 2008
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