The Smart-Grid Needs Great UX

Can you, right now, explain how to program the thermostat in your house? These devices strongly resemble the canonical VCR no one knew how to set the timer on. Over the years, the VCR has transformed into a much more sophisticated device as TV watching has changed. Thermostats have not seen a similar transformation, but change is coming. Imagine having to use something like this to control not only your heating and AC, but to program a dozen other appliances to help manage spikes in electricity demand throughout the day.

A “Smart Grid” is a utility delivery system enhanced with the ability to collect and send information about usage, and gives the utility company the ability to control usage. Smart grid pilots have been quietly testing the technology for years, with smart grid demonstration projects currently happening in Austin and elsewhere. New appliances are being sold with the ability to control their consumption of electricity through the web with the smart grid in mind.

A civil engineer in the Bay Area shared a story with us about a house he designed for a high-end architecture firm. The house had a custom climate control system. Nothing sci-fi, just basic thermostat control that was web enabled, accessed with an iPhone app. The homeowner could not figure out how to use it, nor could his wife, who repeatedly called him when he was out of the country to change the temperature. This homeowner, an attorney, sued the architecture firm and settled for a substantial reduction in the cost of the home.

Here’s a classic example of a user experience failure. Whose job was it to design that thermostat’s UI? And for that matter, whose job is it to design the service of the smart grid? Appliances and houses are products with interfaces. The smart grid provides a service where houses and appliances are the interfaces of the grid.

The smart grid presents a huge and growing service design problem that utility companies don’t give evidence of being aware of, nor appear to be set up to solve. The Nest thermostat beautifully solves one problem of the grid, but we need an appliance as thoughtfully designed as Nest to be an interface that aggregates all of our appliances and connects to the smart grid. Managing our changing relationship with electricity will require more serious rethinking of devices and products than has happened so far.

The first pioneering smartgrids in the US are being implemented by utility companies essentially as services for themselves. The technology will allow utilities to operate more efficiently and be more reliable. Unsurprisingly, consumers are not excited. In fact, PG&E is encountering heavy grass-roots resistance to the installation of smart meters in communities in California due to concerns about wireless signal emissions. If a government agency required citizens to carry wireless devices on their bodies all day this would not be well received either, but we happily carry smartphones, and even allow them to report our physical location and behaviour, because its our choice and we are getting something we want in return.

Smartphones didn’t gain mass adoption until Apple took the time to design and build a great user experience for them. For smart grids to be embraced by whole communities and regions rather by a few well-meaning volunteers, utilities must plan for an excellent utility customer experience. They should start by approaching the smart grid as a service with an ecosystem of customers and partners, and a series of individual touchpoints. Clear benefits should be articulated and communicated to energy consumers, and designs for these touch points should be prototyped, revised, and implemented at scale. By developing a customer experience strategy and executing it well, utility companies can expect much wider and easier adoption of smart grids than without that forethought.

Utility companies face increasing demand, decaying assets, changing generation methods, and changing regulation. Smartgrid initiatives are applying new technology to address these challenges, but by not exploring the new relationship with the consumer as a critical part of the new grid, they take a huge risk. We encourage utility companies to acknowledge the importance of their customers for success. They must treat their customers as smart consumers with the choice to embrace or resist, and then design great smart grid service experiences accordingly.