User engagement is key to a positive energy behaviour change

Energy use in buildings depends upon the fabric of the building, the services within the building, the building users and the wider context. A significant influence comes from individual and social factors, such as norms of behaviour, the ability and agency for using energy systems in the building, and the users’ understanding of how energy systems work. This often means that energy use in buildings can vary dramatically from one building to the next; even between those of similar construction. Given that eTEACHER involves 12 different pilot buildings, including residential buildings, schools, health care centres and offices, located across three different European countries, with a range of different user types, the factors influencing energy use in each of these pilot buildings will differ greatly. Therefore, consideration of all these unique factors needs to be taken before implementing any energy use intervention.

Over the past year the eTEACHER project has carried out a number of social studies aimed at identifying the key behavioural factors influencing energy use in each of the eTEACHER pilot buildings. This involved collecting data on the building design and current energy systems in place, but also data on the users’ energy-related needs and whether these are being met; users’ understanding and use of energy controls and interfaces in practice and building users’ motivations towards change and their ideas for improvements within each building.

Behaviour change literature emphasises the need to design behaviour change interventions around specific behaviours undertaken by specific actors in a given context. Therefore, an important part of understanding more about the building users was to identify the best user groups, and the associated energy-related behaviours, to target with the eTEACHER interventions.

Open windows – Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

Broadly, the social studies looked to understand the issues affecting building users’ capability, opportunity and motivation towards changing energy-related behaviours. In particular, the context of behaviours (i.e. the “opportunity” to do it) in pilot buildings, as this can be a highly significant influence, the impact of which is often under-estimated. The social studies uncovered a range of building-specific issues, such as challenges of achieving thermal comfort in many of the buildings and common wasteful behaviours being exhibited such as leaving lighting, electronic appliances, heating/cooling systems on when not needed and inefficient use of windows and doors. This helped to create a categorisation of energy-related issues on which eTEACHER could focus on, across all of the pilot buildings: lighting use; thermal comfort; appliance use and engagement with the eTEACHER tool. User engagement is key for eTEACHER as it will ultimately determine the success of the final tool. As such, it is important that the eTEACHER tool is appealing to the building users and can fit with the current existing practices in each building.

Lamp – Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Research has shown that engagement with new technology is often linked with users’ perceptions of it: will this technology benefit them; will it make their life easier; make tasks quicker and make users’ understand things clearer? Since the eTEACHER project aims to develop an ICT-based tool which empowers building users to change their energy related behaviour, it was important to understand what building users’ wanted from an ICT-based tool. Workshops were held in all of the eTEACHER pilot buildings to consult building users in order to identify their current engagement with ICT and their interest in various approaches to engagement. These workshops led to conclusions on how to deliver the eTEACHER tool, including developing a single web-based app for all users (accessible via multiple devices) and using gamification principles to promote engagement rather than framing eTEACHER as a game for users to ‘play’. The resulting recommendations for the design of eTEACHER, also rely upon further user engagement. For example, app-based challenges may motivate behaviours to form daily habits to turn off appliances, but the specific wording of such challenges can benefit from testing with users. Continued engagement with building users throughout the project will help develop and implement a tool which works for the users across all pilot building, saving energy and empowering users.

The eTEACHER’s social studies have generated recommendations for the design and implementation of the eTEACHER tool. One tool which can be accessible on different platforms; focused on enabling users to change their current lighting use, thermal comfort and appliance use behaviours; facilitating communication between building users; customisable to users’ individual preferences (through layers of information) and using gamification elements instead of being a playable game. The project is now in the exciting depths of developing the eTEACHER tool based on the outputs of Year 1, and throughout this development the building users shall be consulted on different elements of the tool design, ensuring eTEACHER develops a tool which takes the building fabric, energy services and the building users all into consideration.

24 Jan 2019

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