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Usability for Energy Conservation & Efficiency

November 10, 2011

My engineering training heavily emphasized the importance of usability. So it’s no surprise that in my graduate work, it’s one of the first things that comes to my mind when I look at an interface.

As  a result, my current research has emerged from an interest in improving the electricity bill interface for consumers. In fact, the ACEEE recently published a report on how little information is communicated in electricity bills. The main information that a bill is attempting to get across is how much you owe – and that’s also the only item listed on the first page of every electricity bill that the ACEEE studied. Are there really electricity bills where the only thing on the first page is the Amount Due? Yes, yes there are.

I’ve also been developing my own collection of electricity bills. Main realization – I don’t actually care about most of the information on the first page. Shockingly, I don’t really care that I paid a 0.06 tax. I am not dying to know when my next scheduled meter reading is. That doesn’t give me any information that I can use. It’s no surprise that bills are obviously designed for the utility (based on what the public utility commissions require them to disclose), not the consumer. According to the ACEEE report, less than 70% of bills include a graph of historical usage at all. Less than 50% put that graph on the first page. There is obviously a usability disconnect.

But this is only one example of a usability disconnect in the energy conservation space. Some people are looking to fix this. The inventor of the iPod just came out with a fancy programmable thermostat that “programs itself”. I wonder how many programmable thermostats are currently out in the world being misused because the user couldn’t figure out how to program it properly or didn’t have the time/energy to do it. My guess – a significant percentage.

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