The Process Approach of Human-Building Interaction (HBI)

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog -- http://mncee.org/Innovation-Exchange/ie/

In the early nineties, I began developing interactive CD-ROMs to teach school age children about energy and environmental issues. We created games to teach these concepts. An essential step in our process was going into schools and testing the software with students. We would stand behind the students and watch over their shoulders as they played with our games. It was then that I had a first person account of the state of our childrens’ education. “Wait, you can’t do that!” “No, press that button! What is wrong with you!?!?” Evidently these kids had no idea how to play computer games. My design was right and they were all wrong.

User testing is humbling: as a developer you quickly learn that an effective experience requires an interface that the user understands and will navigate as intended. Software developers created human-computer interaction (HCI), a field that draws from programming, design, ethnography, education, and psychology to define the process to create this interface. How can we apply an approach based on usability to help people reduce their energy use in the buildings where they live and work?

Below is a Venn diagram of the domain that represents the human-building relationship.

venn-hbi-3.png

The occupants consume energy as they perform their daily activities. The buildings provide the infrastructure to support these activities. They intersect in the the realm we define as the human-building interaction, the interface between the occupants and the building’s physical space and the objects within it. Energy is consumed as occupants interact with the building to perform daily activities.

Energy professionals typically adopt either a technical approach or a behavioral approach to reduce energy use. The technical approach looks at the physical structure of the building and the objects within it and applies energy efficiency interventions to lower energy use. This includes energy retrofits like air-sealing, tuning the heating and cooling systems, or upgrading to energy-efficient lamps. It also includes the codes, standards, and ratings to drive higher adoption of energy efficient technologies. This would include programs like EnergyStar for appliances and LEED for buildings. 

energy-star.jpegleed-plaques3.jpg

Famed industrial designer Donald Norman states that “in everyday situations, behavior is determined by the combination of internal knowledge and external information and constraints.” The first efforts to change energy use behaviors used an educational approach, hoping providing information would increase knowledge and drive energy savings. Unfortunately, this approach did not lead to much success. Currently, behavioral approaches use methods from social psychology and behavioral economics to create cultural constraints such as social norms. Gamification provides intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to influence behavior.

efficiencies.jpg

A third approach is a process approach. Focusing on “how” the occupant interacts with the building and the products inside it can reveal systemic opportunities to affect energy savings. Much like HCI, human-building interaction (HBI) can reveal the assumptions, habits, and constraints that govern how we live and work in our buildings and help us design new ways that these interactions can use less energy.

Observation and understanding are important tools in this process approach. To apply the principles of usability to energy conservation and efficiency, you need to know how people actually live and work in the buildings: 

  • What are their experiences and expectations when they perform specific activities?
  • What are the cues they use to perform tasks and control devices?
  • What constraints or prompts guide them in performing a task?
  • What information do they need to receive during the task and when and how do they expect it?
  • Are there efficiencies to be gained by synthesizing tasks or systems?


This is not a new approach. At Toyota they call it genchi-genbutsu which means “go and see.” The purpose is to observe how work is actually done and gain insights on how to improve that process. I have a personal experience with the benefits of this user-centered approach. Several years ago we remodeled our small kitchen. I like to cook and my wife likes to bake. Our designer told us about kitchen work triangles: 


Work_triangle.jpg

Based on how we used our old kitchen and our goals for the remodel, she designed a kitchen with four work triangles, allowing us to easily cook together without getting in each other’s way. Our remodeled kitchen is total joy, all because the space is usable for us.

Much like HCI, HBI requires a multidisciplinary team to obtain the insights to design energy efficient products, services, and user experiences. As our appliances and devices are more and more controlled electronically, HCI design is gaining an increasing importance in our lives. Incorporating the design process of HCI into the design considerations for good HBI is essential as we add more and more technology into our lives. An approach based around HBI can help create seamless energy efficient systems that are aligned with how we live and work in buildings.

Related posts:

Behavior and Usability: At the Interface of Human-Building Interaction

in other words: Innovation and Design Thinking

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