Learning the whole story about energy consumption- getting the right method


Understand how all the members of a household interact with their eco-feedback display- not just the one who uses it the most.


My PhD was centred around household energy consumption and more specifically the design of situated devices for energy consumption feedback (otherwise known as eco-feedback). Based on the available literature at the time and findings from my own initial interviews, I had become suspicious of the consistent claims from other user studies that eco-feedback systems were great for engaging people with their energy consumption, that they fostered pro-environmental behaviour change and increased "energy literacy" etc etc.

This suspicion was based on a couple of factors; (1) many of the user trials of eco-feedback systems (at the time) were relatively short user trials, perhaps not quite enough time for the devices to become part of the furniture. (2) Much of the literature various successes of eco-feedback systems was basing on "users" or "participants" rather than "families" or "households". For example, if an invitation to participate in research comes through the letterbox, it is likely the family member most keen on the topic is likely to be the representative for that household. My hypothesis was that by engaging ALL the family members in discussions, that a richer picture might be painted.

Choosing the right method for this investigation was critical. Interviewing one "household representative" results in biased data, owing to that person assuming opinions of the others. Yet organising group interviews with families proved next to impossible, owing to busy work schedules, extra-curricular activities and not wanting to encroach upon valuable family time. Interviews are also pretty dry and uninteresting to younger children with limited attention spans. So I needed a means of engaging the whole family, a method that is appealing to a range of demographics including younger kids and teenagers, making the activity fun, whilst still gathering robust data.


I developed a technique called the Self-Authored Video Interview (or SAVI) for this purpose. My peer reviewed article on this methodology located here. The SAVI is based on the established tradition of video ethnography, but is deployed more in the fashion of a design probe (see for example methods such as Cultural Probes and Technology Probes). I dropped off one camera per family along with instructions for what to do. Attached to each camera was a list of questions which I emphasised had to be answered by ALL family members. Instructions encouraged one family member to interview the others using these questions, appealing to parents to put children in charge of this task. The five questions (one per flip-card) were:

(1) Show us your last interaction with the eco-feedback

(2) What features you do like- why?

(3) What don’t you like about it- why?

(4) What has been happening recently, i.e. hot weather, visitors, holidays etc.

(5) What have you learned from it, how did you learned it or who did you learn it from?

On the sixth flip-card was an optional invitation for the whole family to participate in the “Steven Spielberg Challenge”. Here, each family was invited to make a short “mockumentary” about their energy use or eco-feedback. Suggestions for content included “outline the roles each family members plays in energy use in the household”, “Design your own alternative eco-feedback system” and other similarly playful scenarios. This open-ended and creative exercise complemented the more structured nature of the first five flip cards. We left the camera with each household for a period of 2 weeks and picked it up personally or asked the householder to return it to us by post.

OUTCOMES The SAVI's were useful in the practical sense of saving a great deal of time organising and conducting group interviews. But the value of the method extended far beyond this; the videos provided a unique insight into all sorts of taken-for-granted assumptions about how other family members considered their eco-feedback that would have been unlikely to surface in a standard interview format. Comments such as "Dad's electricity" illustrated some childrens' views that their dad is the owner and commander of the electricity in the house. We found spouses often referred to the eco-feedback interface in the same way as a Playstation or xBox; something that their spouse really liked playing with, but something they couldn't care less about. The (few) Steven Spielberg Challenges returned often centred upon power relationships over energy use, e.g. a sibling pushing her sister into the pool as punishment for dobbing her air conditioning use in to their dad, or teenager pretending to be a father figure berating others for wasting energy.

"You were using the heat lamps again!!"

A full description of the results and analysis is provided in the paper.


This example is illustrative of the importance of finding the right method for the job. SAVI's were highly useful as a means of engaging children and gather the opinions of each the family member on their house's eco-feedback system. However the method might not have been as suitable if the design brief was understanding attitudes about energy use in offices. Human-centred research is home to hundreds of innovative methods for eliciting information from people, engaging people and incorporating people in the design of technology. Yet it is vital to be able to choose the right method for the task, and, in the case of the SAVI- creating a new method by adapting existing ones. I would encourage any researchers wanting to better understand attitudes towards a specific aspect of technology use in the home to consider trialling this method!


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