4 Rules To Design Our Lives To Use Less Energy

We can all use less power, but it’s going to take some new behaviors. Design can be a powerful tool in nudging us to change how we act, and if we apply design solutions to using less power, it might be a little easier.

4 Rules To Design Our Lives To Use Less Energy
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I feel that I use more electricity than I should and I bet you do, too. When I was a kid, my parents taught me to turn off the lights when I left a room, never leave the fridge door open, and only use the AC when absolutely necessary. Every month, the local utility company came by, checked the meter, and followed up with a bill. We did our best to watch our consumption, but every month there seemed to be little connection between our actions and the energy bill. I often heard my parents use the phrase “What’s the damage this month?” Damage is not a word you usually use to describe something you feel like you have control over or feel good about. Now grown up with kids, I hear myself saying the same things about saving energy. In fact, as I opened our latest utility bill, my wife asked me “What‘s the damage?” and it hit me: Nothing has changed in 30 years.


However, a renaissance is beginning to take place in the energy industry; recent investments in green technology, infrastructure, and renewable resources are laying the groundwork for an era where energy matters. Rising energy costs, emerging regulations, and increased consumer choice have made energy a top of mind issue for end users, but it is clear that a meaningful connection between people’s actions and their energy consumption is still missing. Simply inserting the term “smart grid” into the conversation doesn’t provide this.

In the near future, the challenge of enabling new behaviors is only going to get more complex. Industry changes, such as peak demand response and real-time pricing, have the potential to further confuse consumers. Companies and brands that are able to create powerful and meaningful experiences to help people use less energy, and feel great about doing it, will become the market leaders of tomorrow.

OPower, a new power company, offers well-designed bills that let you compare your energy use to your neighbors.

For more than 30 years, Smart Design has been using design to help people adopt new behaviors. Based on our deep understanding of people and our energy sector expertise, we have created four simple principles that can help organizations in this rapidly evolving market.

1: Take into account people’s priorities as well as their good intentions

While people have good intentions, they also have busy lives and priorities that drive their behavior. Companies need to develop a deep understanding of people’s existing priorities and motivators to connect good intentions with awareness and action. We know that decades of consumption behavior is not going to change overnight. Solutions that start by extending existing behaviors to better ones with simple and clear value propositions have the greatest chance of widespread adoption and success. Don’t pretend that people have the bandwidth to care more than their busy schedules will allow.

2: Using less should offer more

Solutions need to enable and celebrate new experiences that overcome any negative perceptions that come with adopting new behaviors. Intelligently connected products and services can make behavior change more tangible and leave consumers feeling good about their actions. In essence, the substantial benefits gained from using less energy need to outweigh using more.

3: Make the environment personal

Natural resources and energy consumption can be a sensitive personal and political issue that is intertwined with the current economic conditions. Most people care about their environment but everyone defines their environment in a different way. My environment could include the polar ice caps, the quality of the air I breathe every day, or the power substation plant near my kid’s school.


The best motivators for change and the adoption of new behaviors derive from personal relevance, which is discovered not dictated. Using less energy is just good: good for your wallet, good for your environment, and in most people’s minds it is good to not be wasteful. Empathy and positive messaging will connect with a wide range of people and create the biggest impact. Make it personal–in a good way.

4: Create transparency, trust, and partnerships

Utility companies have not enjoyed a favorable consumer reputation with customers. They usually operate as monopolies guided by layers of political regulation, offer their customers little or no choice, and sell a product that is invisible, complex, and can be dangerous. Not the makings of a great relationship.

If we expect consumers to have a positive impression of their utility service provider, companies will need to evolve these relationships from one-way monopolies to two-way partnerships. Now, little effort is spent trying to create the brand and service relationship that consumers have come to expect in today’s market. The issues at hand can be confusing and counterintuitive. For example, why does my power company want me to use less of what they sell? Transparency and clear communication are required to build the partnership that will create the common understanding required to motivate and empower change. Changing behavior is easier with a trusted partner at your side.

People need a tangible bridge to close the gap between new energy technologies and the real-life priorities they face every day. Consumer experiences built on these principles will allow utility companies to maximize efficiency and profit, and build brand-based relationships that can catapult them out of the dark ages. At Smart Design, we believe that everyone can make smarter choices when it comes to energy. From consumers to businesses to governments, we all want the power to do the right thing.