The green machine – combining smart grid information with persuasion in a mobile device to persuade people to save energy


By Aaron Marcus

Finding a sustainable way of life is a 21st century global challenge. The “green” movement helped to increase people’s awareness of sustainability issues and propelled development of products to help decrease our ecological footprint. Smart grid applications enabling users to monitor their energy consumption are some of these innovative products.

However, most are targeted to the PC and don’t focus on innovative data visualisation. Communicating critical data helps build awareness, but does not result automatically in effecting behavioural changes. The question then shifts to how exactly to motivate, persuade, educate, and lead people to reduce their energy consumption. This article describes research, analysis, design, and evaluation of powerful ways to improve “green behaviour” by persuading and motivating people to reduce household energy consumption through a mobile phone application: the “Green Machine.” The author’s firm designed and tested a prototype based on behavioural change process analysis to persuade people to “go green.” This article explains the development of the Green Machine user interface, information design, and information visualisation.

Previously, electric meters in homes and businesses were devices viewed primarily by utility company service technicians. Smart grid developments today and efforts to conserve energy catapult energy data into the forefront of high technology innovation in information visualisation, social media, education, search engines, even games and entertainment.

Challenges to developers include the following: 

  • How can we design usable, useful, and engaging displays? 
  • How can the information be integrated appropriately into social networks to stimulate social participation? 
  • How can solutions be scaled up to involve not just a few viewers of information, but potentially thousands, or more? 
  • What are the appropriate metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance that user interfaces should provide? 
  • What are appropriate solutions for desktop vs. mobile access? 
  • What are good discovery techniques to enable people to find useful patterns in their energy usage? 
  • How can we encourage, or even persuade, people on the basis of this breadth and depth of information to conserve energy?

Many new techniques of social media are transforming society and might incorporate smart grid data: 

  • Communication: Blogs, micro-blogging, social networking, soc net aggregation, event logs/tracking 
  • Collaboration: wikis, social bookmarking (social tagging),social news, opinions, Yelp 
  • Multimedia: photo/video sharing, livecasting, audio/music sharing 
  • Reviews/opinions: product/business reviews, community Q+As
  • Entertainment: platforms, virtual worlds, game sharing

Prototypes of what might arise are found on the Internet, for example, in Google’s PowerMeter, a step in the right direction. However, as good as these developments are, they don’t go far enough. We learned 30 years ago that just showing people information is good, but not sufficient. At the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1978, I led an international team of skilled information visualisers to design a cross-cultural presentation about global energy interdependence intended to be shown to heads of state, professional viewers (economists, politicians, engineers), and the general public. Our charts, maps, and diagrams communicated without words, but failed to change the world. Even Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth,” took many years to gain fame and acceptance. What seems to be missing is persuasion.

We asked ourselves: how might we better persuade people to save energy? The Green Machine is our answer. We believe one of the most effective ways to reach people is to use mobile devices, which are used by three billion people worldwide. Mobile devices are ever smarter, faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, with built-in social networking. They are a primary communication and interaction platform for the future. What is needed is a way to show data, but also to change people’s behaviour. The Green Machine project seeks to accomplish both of these objectives.

Research has shown that with feedback, people can achieve 10% energy consumption reduction without a significant lifestyle change. In the USA, this amount is significant, equal to the total energy provided by wind and solar resources, about 113.9 billion kWh/year. President Obama has allocated more than $4 billion in smart grid funding to help change the context of energy monitoring and usage.

Most smart grid software development has focused on desktop personal computer applications not the use of mobile devices. In our Green Machine project, we took the mobile device platform as a given: The primary objective was to design a mobile device application with a user interface that helps people to reduce their household energy consumption. We selected a home consumer context to demonstrate in an easy to understand example how information design could be merged with persuasion design to change the user’s behaviour. The same principles can be re-applied to the business context.

For our scenario we assumed typical personas, or user profiles, of Mom, Dad, and the children, who might wish to see their home energy use status and engage with the social and information options available on their mobile device.


Table 1 – Five-step change behavioural process that affects the Green Machine design and catalyses specific detailed solutions

Five steps of behaviour changing process were incorporated (Table 1). This process included, for example: 

  • Rewards: When users log data, they can gain points for games or challenges. 
  • User centred design: The usable, useful, and appealing user interface improves satisfaction and promotes engagement. 
  • Motivation – usage and comparisons: Users are shown how everyday actions can influence the environment and the earth’s future 100 years ahead. Users also can see how much money they spend/save, how much CO2 they release, who is part of their group facing similar challenges, and how users compare with their family members, friends or neighbours. 
  • Motivation – games: Games provide challenges to consumers’ actions and thinking in reducing energy consumption and specific goal-setting encourages them to focus on progress and results. The principles of Fogg’s mobile persuasion theory and Cialdini’s science of persuasion are both put into practice. 
  • Learning – tips: Contextual tips that explain how to reduce energy, social advice about behaviour change, and social networks all contribute to effecting short term and long term behaviour changes. 
  • Learning – feedback: Visual feedback related to user established goals and actual practice helps users to reduce consumption, and encourages them to check in often and to share information with others.

Figures 1 to 4 show typical screens, with a consumption meter at the top as a constant reminder of the user’s performance. Customisable data charts appear, sometimes with multiple tracks to show competitors in recent time frames of one day, month or longer. A view into 100 years from now shows a “reasonable” estimate of what the earth will be like if people behave as the user does now.


Left – Figure 1 – Green Machine total energy use screen. The screen enables users to visualise their energy consumption in kWh, currency, and amount of CO2 release, and also shows goal setting insights and equivalent comparisons. The Calendar function and extra features will enable other kinds of comparisons to be made
Right – Figure 2 – Green Machine total energy use friends’ comparison

Left – Figure 3 – Green Machine Earth in 2200
Right – Figure 4 – Green Machine friend screen

Figure 5 – Green Machine total energy
use screen version 2

We tested the initial prototype designs with about 20 people aged 16-65, both men and women, and students, professionals, or general consumers. Most were quite positive about the Green Machine to be effective in motivating them and changing their behaviour. A surprising 35% felt the view of the world in 100 years was effective even though the news was gloomy based on current trends. We made improvements in icon design, layout, and terminology based on user feedback (Figure 5).

The Green Machine design proved sturdy in tests with potential users, and the revised version stands ready for further testing with multi-cultural users. The mental model and navigation can be built out further to account for shopping, travel, and other energy consuming activities outside the home (Table 2). The Green Machine is ready to turn over to companies or governmental sponsors of commercial products and services based on smart grid technology developments.

Even more important, the principles, and techniques are readily adapted to business contexts. Coupled with business databases, contexts, and users, the Green Machine for Business might provide another example of how to combine smart grid technology with information design and persuasion design for both desktop and mobile applications that effectively use smart grid data to change people’s energy conservation behaviour.


Table 2 – Green Machine information architecture

Bibliography available on request