Making sense of energy
: uncovering domestic energy consumption practices

  • Godfrey James Westcott

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

    Abstract

    Academic studies investigating the energy usage behaviour of domestic energy consumers typically use a feedback intervention, comprising electricity and gas consumption data, with the aim of reducing energy usage. But there is no consensus on the most effective method, nor on the efficacy of the intervention in terms of energy reductions, and there are large variations in energy savings being reported across different studies. The prevalent view seems to be that some feedback methods work for some consumers but not for others. The reason for this disparity is unclear.

    It is not clear that all consumers are the same in terms of their energy information requirements, and this heterogeneity could be one cause of the variability.

    This thesis argues that people are already active, sense-making, agents. They use whatever resources they have available to build an understanding of their energy consumption. They are not blank slates but already have self-developed knowledge about their energy, even in the absence of feedback informatics, and this affects how they engage with and make sense of energy information. Thus energy informatics should be designed to incorporate user agency, and encourage its development.

    The research objective was to identify individual differences, and then determine how those differences impacts the response to a uniform intervention which was created for this work.

    A field study of two groups of domestic energy consumers using a combination of semi-structured interviews, user-annotated ‘energy diaries’, and online real-time energy consumption information, was undertaken over an eighteen-month period.

    This case study set out to identify existing energy understandings and behaviours, using ethnographically-informed observation, and technology probes comprising a real-time electricity consumption display, and a bespoke real-time electricity and gas usage information system. Data collected was subjected to thematic analysis to investigate participants’ knowledge and understanding of their energy consumption.

    Why people engage with energy informatics and what sense they make of it depends on the individual. There is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ information representation, and the design of energy informatics should recognise that people have differing requirements. Feedback should facilitate appropriation by consumers with differing, and changing, requirements.

    This research informs the Human-Computer Interaction design space in energy feedback systems, and represents a significant shift in the way domestic energy informatics has been produced before now.

    The value of this thesis is that it explains why intervention results are heterogeneous. It approaches domestic energy interventions from a different angle, namely that consumers already have a good understanding of their energy consumption. The sense they make of their energy can be explicated in terms of their lifestyles, beliefs, attitudes, priorities, available resources, and existing tacit understandings. This, coupled with their motive for engaging with energy, means individuals have differing responses, and these differences explain why there is heterogeneity in intervention results.

    This research grounds the claim that interventions have different effects depending on the person. Thus, informatics which is designed into the context of human interaction with technology promotes user engagement and response to domestic energy interventions.
    Date of AwardDec 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorJohn Halloran (Supervisor), James Brusey (Supervisor) & Azadeh Montazami (Supervisor)

    Keywords

    • domestic energy
    • empirical case study
    • individual differences
    • 3rd Paradigm HCI
    • individuated design

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