Monday, May 3, 2010

Leveraging "The Human Factor"

I'm reading this great book called The Human Factor, by Kim Vicente recommended by a colleague. Vicente covers hundreds of issues related to modern technology mostly due to ignoring the "human factor." Some technology works just find technically if you only look at it from a "mechanistic" point of view, but when you add the human factor into the picture - physical constraints of the body, people's ability to juggle information, their psychological reaction to various stimuli, the technology can be a disaster.

I highly recommend this book if you're in the technology or design field. But what I personally found most compelling for the green movement were some of his examples on how to leverage human behavior to help the environment.
One great example was from a few of his grad students, Dave Kuk, Jon Cowley and Fred Beserve. They decided to create a technology that would encourage people to reduce energy, in particular, to turn off their laptop. Before they started on building their technology solution they looked carefully at WHY people don't turn off their computers on a regular basis, and came up with four reasons:
  1. People are impatient and don't want to wait while their computer boots up every time they use it
  2. They just forget to turn it off when they leave work
  3. Some people think it is bad for the computer to turn it off (this is wrong... turning off your computers on nights and weekends will give it three times the useful life vs. leaving it on all the time)
  4. Some people believe that screen savers conserve energy when not in use (this is not true, screens savers just keep the monitor picture tube from being damaged)
So Kul, et al decided to create what they called a "Power Pig." The Power Pig was basically a computer display that "equates electricity with overeating" - a powerful tool in the U.S. given our obsession with dieting. This tool is all about convincing people that consuming less energy equates to being trim and slim and attractive.

The top of their display was a pig that is fat or slim depending on individual energy use. The pig is fat if individual energy use is high compared to a baseline and slim if individual use is low. Power Pig does not let people see a slimmer pig until they actually change their behavior. The second part of the display is a horizontal bar that compares the individual user with the best energy conserver in the company, John Doe. John is the role model and the idea is to beat him. The third part of the display is another horizontal bar showing the general direction of company's energy efficiency as a whole - moving to the right equals an improvement, moving to the left means energy use per person is going up. The students felt this was important to illustrate because it demonstrates that if everyone changes their behavior, it can have an impact on the company performance of the whole. The final function at the bottom shows the person's daily efficiency level... basically a person's energy "grade."

What I love about this tool is that it's more than just a feedback "prompt" - it takes into consideration our specific biases and preconcieved notions about individual energy use, and addresses them one by one through technology and psychological tricks.

In case you're interested in reading more, go here.


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