The following is adapted from Build What Matters.
At energy-efficiency startup Opower, a question that was constantly asked throughout product development was, “How well are we adhering to the design principles we defined at the outset?” If we weren’t doing so well in one category or had taken a step backward in another, we would prioritize an initiative to more closely match the principles we’d laid out.
Some companies develop design principles that are so generic that they may as well not be written at all, like, “Make the product easy to use.” This doesn’t help to drive decision-making, and in fact, it gives people license to take the product in many different directions at the same time because everyone has their own interpretation of what will make the product easy to use.
By contrast, Opower’s design principles were always based around the unique qualities of the customer experience we aimed to achieve. For example, one of the design principles in our document was, “Assume people don’t care.” Research had revealed that consumers spend about nine minutes a year thinking about their energy usage, so how could we drive behavior change when our consumers thought about the relevant issue so little?
That design principle drove us to create a product that would get the attention of that tiny sliver of their minds dedicated to energy usage, which was particularly important for us as a B2B2C company. If we couldn’t make consumers care about their energy usage, our product would never have been successful at delivering the collective energy savings to the utility companies who were paying for the product. We made sure everyone in the organization knew this design principle and took it into consideration.
Another design principle was, “Always lead with action.” The company was essentially an exercise in applied behavioral science, so we always had to think about how to drive people to change their behavior—by changing thermostat settings, turning off the lights more often, and so on. It wasn’t enough, then, to simply tell a customer, “You use 10 percent more energy than your neighbors.” We also included energy-saving tips in every report so customers could implement context-relevant changes.
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