Fixing the thermostat people problem

This weekend, I bought a new thermostat.  Not very exciting news, I know, but this wasn’t a regular old thermostat. I bought a nest thermostat, which is to say, I bought one of the most advanced (and most expensive) thermostats out there.  I’m a gadget person and an energy nerd, so this was a win-win for me.  nest was designed and built by folks in Silicon Valley, and its user interface is far better than your average stat.  Besides being pretty and expensive, nest can also essentially program itself, which is potentially the biggest development in thermostats in decades (exciting!).

To understand why a product like this is important, you have to consider the lowly thermostat’s history.  Programmable thermostats aren’t new; Honeywell managed to link a thermostat to an analog clock more than 100 years ago.  Digital thermostats, which are easier to use and more reliable, have been around for more than 20 years as well.  The problem with thermostats wasn’t technological. It was a user problem.  Even though programmable thermostats have been around for years, and even though they have been proven to save money, most people don’t use them as intended.  One study found that 45% of thermostats were set to “hold” a constant temperature (essentially turning them into a standard stat) and only 30% were actually programmed properly.

This is a common problem in the design world.  Brilliant products are developed by talented designers and engineers and released upon the real world, only to fall flat.  If you’re interested in learning a bit more about this, I recommend this Ted Talk by Timothy Prestero.  The title of his talk says it all: Design for people, not awards.  And to design for people, you have to consider the product in the context of their everyday lives. This includes behavioral tendencies and cultural influences.

The energy arena is no different than others in terms of design; what often looks like a people problem is usually a situation problem.  People bought or already had the right kind of thermostat, but the right thing to do (program it properly) wasn’t the easy thing to do.  So nest designed their thermostat to learn your preferences and program itself over time.  The people are the same, but the situation has changed and as a result nest claims 99% of their thermostats are programmed (obviously there’s some bias in those numbers, but it’s still impressive).

When you consider that heating and cooling accounts for about half the energy consumption in houses, and that a thermostat can save 20-30%, the implications for this are pretty big.  I predict that in a few years we’ll see most thermostats having Wi-fi and learning capabilities.  Until then, nest (and another brand called ecobee) are the only options in this space.


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