Applying Design Thinking to Interdisciplinary Research: Energy and Behavior

1 Jan

After some pivotal experiences in d.thinking (see my previous post) including d.school classes and workshops, I started applying what I had learned to my research, which centers on how to lower residential energy use via behavioral approaches. With two advisors and a group of other graduate students, I was embarking on a new study aimed at understanding how people use energy, what barriers they face to reducing their use, and how to overcome those barriers.

We began with needfinding – a broad study in which we asked people how they relate to their homes. We did not address energy directly. We asked about household matters such as repairs, maintenance, expenses, rooms, appliances, and so on. Our goal was to obtain information that would help us map energy onto other household activities and issues. For example, we sought to understand maintenance in the home (think pools, roof gutters, ovens) as a way to understand how energy management could be framed in a familiar way.

We came up with many How Might We statements in this first study, for instance, “How might we equate efficiency with ongoing home improvements that people feel good about?” These statements guided the user interface design team. In the next phase of the ethnography portion of our study, we sought to create a hybrid methodology using design and anthropology methods. Our goal was to come up with a streamlined interview protocol that would help us extract from interviewees their primary energy related actions, and barriers they would face to new, alternative, lower-energy actions. We came up with specific techniques from both design and anthropology traditions. Examples from design include the 5 why’s, and incorporating brainstorming or ideating into the interview. From anthropology we took rapport building using open-ended questions, and simulations or scenarios that would help us identify barriers. We iterated with prototype interview protocols for over a year and came up with 2 protocols – one for experts from whom we would obtain new ideas, and one for home owners and renters from whom we would learn about barriers to those new ideas.

In a field like behavioral sciences, where there is an established body of research, we found that design thinking fits well into the later stages of research, such as ideating, prototyping and iterating solutions, whether they are methods, intervention designs, or interview designs. Each discipline or set of disciplines can probably use design process at different stages.

In the process of integrating d.thinking with anthropological methods, and applying both to energy related behavior change, we also came up with a glossary of terms to help the energy folks communicate with the design folks, a database of all the bodies of literature and methods we consulted, and a mapping of our process with all its iterations. By combining d.thinking with other research knowledge and methods, we were able to come up with a rich set of new approaches to study energy use.

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