Hunting for energy with my OWL

I’m looking at the ways people interact with energy monitoring devices.  Research shows that smart meters and energy monitors help people reduce their energy usage (a bit) but the user experience is often not that great, people can find them complicated and sometimes the experience is not that enjoyable, e.g. if it causes tension in the household.

There is great hope for smart meters on the part of the UK government and various green nerds who buy the idea that smart meters will help people reduce energy usage and save money. I tend to be on the side that thinks that behaviour and technology rather than new technology alone will save the planet. People have to want to USE the good stuff.    And you have to get into some fairly intimate bits of behaviour and people’s lifestyles to find out why people don’t naturally do things which on the surface, appear to be so rational.  Because people are not spreadsheets.

Picture of an Owl energy monitor.
  The OWL.

Here is my Owl. Why is it called an Owl? I have no idea. It doesn’t hunt mice at night, I wish it did. It’s not beautiful or strokeable like an owl I once met at a country fair. It is however rather enigmatic, which I suppose is like an owl.

From the front it’s a visual display with a thick white border. There are buttons on the back, which let you move between various depressing facts such as your current energy usage, its cost and your total CO2 tonnage since it began keeping records, and various less depressing information such as the current date and time.

One of my problems is that I keep not knowing what I’m looking at. When we first got it, the Gentle Giant talked enthusiastically about doing graphs and excel outputs so we could track our energy better. But we have a Ten Ton Toddler to feed, entertain, and keep away from live electricity and deep water. DIY data visualisations aren’t going to happen for the next few years.

I spent some time two evenings ago wandering round the house trying to figure out what appliance we might have left on as the readings seemed unfeasibly high. I have no idea. I tried switching almost everything off, throwing the Gentle Giant into darkness while he was peaceably doing some late night coding on his computer. It all made no difference. I think the wretched mice are siphoning off our electricity and having heated spas, discos and home cinemas in the cellar.

This evening, I resent my Owl. I don’t understand why it’s not working.

I know that if I logged onto our Owl’s website and looked at our energy readings I could probably identify what is causing this hideous spike in our energy usage, or find out that I’m looking at the wrong settings.  I am procrastinating about fixing the problem because gadgets are outside my comfort zone.  Perhaps aesthetics would make a difference – a tactile wooden casing instead of a plastic one to remind me what all this is for, the love of life.    It could be designed to offer some element of reward, e.g. a Finnish study at Aalto University tried displaying more brightly glowing numbers when people had been ‘good’ and saved energy.  (“Light is History” – Acharya, Mikkonen and Bhowmik, 2013).  If I was missing having it in my life and functional, I would be more likely to fix it.  That was one of the core messages I took away from Dr Jonathan Chapman’s book ‘Emotionally Durable Design’, which brought the ideas of the circular economy to life for me.

Above all, something that helped me see the puzzle factor in a more positive light would be enough to prolong the time I interact with it – something to make it feel like a puzzle with a key – a maze or a Rubik’s cube rather than being reminded of struggling with Maths at school. I would like the OWL to court me even though I’m dumb – in other words I am a Twit To Woo.

owl with grandparents

If we can find good and low-cost design solutions that make people feel more inclined to play and explore, we can get more people saving energy, money and carbon.