Some weeks ago I was at Connectivity Week and had the pleasure of participating on one of their keynote panels. We were talking to a self-defined audience of 50+ hardcore engineers inventing smart meters, appliances, monitors, and infrastructure that can be leveraged by utility companies and others to invisibly reduce energy consumption. The panel brought together people who took a consumer perspective on these technologies.

I came to this conference to present our new research on how mainstream homeowners think about the environment, how they make decisions, and what might affect a change in their behavior. You can see the presentation here. Meeting the people was fun, and introduced me to this energized population creating the emerging technology to meet our energy challenges. Many of the products on display had no user interfaces at all. But that didn’t mean that they weren’t designing to change people’s lives.

Smart meters and tools and the associated Smart Grid are seeking to reduce energy consumption within buildings to help the utility flatten out its peaks. If we use energy more efficiently and evenly utilities avoid building new plants. But to do this means changing people’s behavior.

“It’s 3 pm and you are drowsy, so you want to go out for your Starbucks. If that cup of coffee cost $45, would you get one?” asked one presenter. I loved this because it made the issue real. If we charged a LOT for energy we would probably change our behavior. But as Michael Oldak from the Edison Electric Institute said, “We aren’t going to raise the rates in this country to the levels of Europe. The elderly, the poor, and the sheer level of increase in cost will keep us from doing something so dramatic.”

If we really changed laws to impact the cost of energy, maybe mainstream people would change. After all, Green IT is real because of economies of scale: actions like using virtual machines to reduce the number of servers a company needs does add up to big money. And replacing thousands of CFL’s (compact fluorescent lights), saving a few degrees on the temperature, and installing light sensor switches across a whole physical plant adds up to large savings. But for mainstream people in homes, as we found, the inconvenience to cost ratio drives most people to stick with convenience. The potential savings measured at best in $50 and $100 sometimes even $500 increments simply doesn’t jump the cost threshold that grabs awareness. In other words, saving money is not a good enough argument until the money is BIG money. And if it costs BIG money to achieve energy savings—well then, it won’t happen. They just won’t get that new furnace or won’t insulate.

Convenience in life is what matters: I’m home NOW so turn on the air, I need clean clothes NOW not when energy peaks are low. My need NOW offsets my thought of a few cents more for energy for this hour—such is the nature of the human being.

With Smart Grid technology utility companies are poised to step past the energy meter and come into your house—if you let them, of course. Technologists hope to get people to reduce energy without much direct human action and by creating devices that put my energy consumption right in my face. We have the technologies to do this—but will it work for people?

“Imagine this world,” I tell Sue, a young 26 year old friend of mine:

“All your appliances, your thermostat, and all your energy-using products talk this new technology language called Zigbee. The Smart Energy Meter on your house can talk to them and to the utility. When the utility sees that people are starting to use too much energy (which might cause a brownout) the Utility Watcher starts talking to everyone’s Smart Energy Meter.

“Did you set your thermometer at 68 instead of 74 in the summer? I’ll raise your temperature for a while.

“Are you doing laundry? I’ll turn off the heat and let it fluff for a while.

“Refrigerators running? I’ll shut them off 5 minutes in every hour.

“Washing the dishes? Maybe we’ll just turn that off until nighttime.

“Lights on for safety? No matter, let’s dim the lights.

“Radio, TV, music… well—you get the idea.

“Good, the Utility Watcher says, satisfied. I’ve reduced consumption 15% and that means we won’t exceed capacity.”

“WHAT!” Sue says. “THEY ARE GOING TO TURN OFF MY REFRIGERATOR! THEY ARE GOING TO TURN OFF MY LIGHTS? MY TV? What if I’m home? What if I need to get my laundry done to go out? What if it’s dark at the front door? They’d better give me a big HOME button to push that overrides it all!”

“Well,” I say, “you can control it and set preferences. You can also buy all these devices. You can have a decorator-designed device for your wall or table that gets red when you are spending lots of money or using lots of energy. Then you can jump up from your TV show and turn things off yourself.

“And Google has a plan. “How many of you know how much energy you consumed in the last 15 minutes?” asked Ed Lu from Google. “We are making an app so you can see your energy consumption real time. You will always know what you are consuming so you can plan your energy consumption activities for off-peak hours. Just like you manage your phone minutes or bank account, you’ll manage your energy. And you can have an iPhone app, of course, to turn things off remotely.”

“WHAT!” says Sue. “I’M NOT GOING TO RUN OUT TO SOME WEBSITE AND CHECK MY ENERGY EVERY 15 MINUTES! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING! But maybe turning up the heat 30 minutes before I get home would be cool.”

Sue does check her energy bill regularly, as do other mainstream users. Being cost-conscious, if it gets too high, she turns out more lights. “But I’m not thinking about energy all day long! Why would anyone think I want to think about energy all the time?” she says.

I love engineers and work with them every day of my life. They are great for inventing how to do cool things like getting all these appliances and devices to talk to each other. And for some odd reason my favorite hardware at the conference were these funky monitors from Regen you put on the top of buildings that help all the HVAC’s in that building coordinate, flattening peak usage building by building. Cool!

But real change happens when cool technology meets real people. The technology has to be stable enough and reliable enough for regular mainstream people to use. What I learned at the conference is that Smart Grid technology is ready. But that means it is time to start designing how these technologies can be put effectively into people’s lives.

Technology that works is the material of design—it is a tool of the designer. But alone, it is not sufficient. Designers need to understand what people are really doing, valuing, what affects their behavior and choices, and how they do their real tasks. Then we can figure out how best to fit this smart technology into people’s lives.

This week’s Wall Street Journal highlighted that the stimulus package is pushing the Smart Grid and appliances that can talk to it. So this technology is coming to your home now.

Connectivity Week taught me that it is time for some real user-centered design.