Wchu [Posted by Will Chu]

Hi all.  My name is Will Chu and I serve customer experience professionals.  Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about green technologies, from those addressing current issues like renewable energy sources to ones preparing for the imminent post-global warming apocalypse.  If the latter is anything like Dennis Quaid’s plight in "The Day After Tomorrow," you may want to invest in a WaterPod – a sustainable, navigable double-domed island that will get you through the toughest of ecological meltdowns.


In all seriousness, the idea of building a more sustainable civilization is becoming a reality sooner than we think.  We have already seen minor successes with initiatives like Solar Power Purchasing Agreements (PPA) that help customers harness solar power and save money on a technology that is traditionally too costly for residential use and Shai Agassi’s Better Place program that will make electric cars the default through a customer-focused infrastructure.  If you are reading this, you are probably like me and don’t have a degree in engineering.  So what does all this mean for the customer experience professional?


None of this means anything if consumers don’t adopt these new technologies or break from their current lifestyles.  Green marketing can only get us so far, especially with all the greenwashing in the marketplace.  It is up to us to tailor the experiences that will shift consumer behavior in a positive way and benefit our companies’ bottom line.  Let’s take a look at an up-and-coming initative that the Obama administration has been pushing to develop: a “Smart Grid” or network of smart meters that will provide realtime data on energy consumption and pricing, while enabling users to switch easily between sources of energy like wind turbines and coal-burning power plants.  This plan has significant implications for customer experience and user-interface design; the Department of Energy (DOE) lists one of the fundamental drivers of Smart Grid success as “improved interfaces and decision support to amplify human decision-making.”  Some of the key factors that will drive consumer behavior include, but are not limited to:


  • Empowering the consumer. Knowledge is power.  Until now, consumers have been uninformed and unable to monitor their own energy usage.  Smart meters can help to transform this relationship into a two-way street where customers are active and involved.  Not only will energy companies and network system providers be able to engage them through dialogue and provide feedback, this communication will lead to a better understanding of customer behaviors and habits.


  • Driving social norms. Being social creatures, humans have a tendency to want to conform and fit in – a phenomenon social psychologists call normative behavior.  Smart meters will effectively connect all households in a network, transforming responsible energy usage into a community effort.  A good example of this is a study conducted in San Marcos, CA where 290 households received notices over a two-week period that indicated the average energy consumption in the community and whether each particular household used more or less than the average.  Households that were using more than the average curtailed their usage, while those that learned they were using less increased usage.


  • Communicating clearly and effectively. Data visualization will play an important role in thinking about the design of the smart meter interface, whether it will be a “thermostat” in the home or widget on a home computer.  Visionaries also see “smart” appliances in the future that will interact with the Smart Grid network and adjust themselves according to the desires of the user.  Designers will have to be “smart” about communicating the costs and benefits of users’ decisions and providing the proper feedback for each action.  In the same study in San Marcos, half of the households received emoticons with their notices – those who consumed more than the average received a sad face, while those who consumed less received a smiley face.  This time, those who used less energy than average were given a positive reinforcement that they were doing a good thing and continued to use less energy!


While these are some of the factors that will shape the experience of Smart Grid users, I believe they are principles that can be applied to all industries and customer relationships.  I would love to hear any thoughts or comments!