September 15, 2017
I’m only Human – designing public services for our needs.
By: Niamh McKenna

Governments in many countries are urging us to install smart meters in our homes—in the belief that once we realise how much electricity we’re using it will improve our consumption. But studies have shown that it makes very little difference to us, with just around a 2 percent reduction in usage. So why is this initiative not delivering on the promise? I think the challenge is that the information that we get from these meters doesn’t really help us at our point of need–for example, when I’m frantically stuffing the washing machine with a family load, rushing to to get it switched on before I run out the door.

There are many behavioural studies looking at this issue and one of the recommendations is that utilities companies translate kWh usage into more meaningful data. However, I think that that is approaching it from the wrong angle. I’d recommend that companies need to be more “human-centred” in their entire design approach. So, imagine a world where the whole utility and appliance eco-systems were connected to respond to our "point in time" needs? Utility suppliers connect to smart meters and all I need to do is tell my washing machine when I need the wash done by—it will then work when is the best time to do it, subject to electricity & water supply. Futuristic? No—this kind of technology is absolutely possible – an IoT powered eco-system, connecting all the components and providers throughout the utilities chain. Then perhaps next we could start to tell appliances the outcomes we want rather than decide on the input parameters to set.

By designing a system, based entirely around human needs, we will also future-proof the services. If we focus on human requirements rather than the technology itself, then advances in technology (e.g. a wholescale move to solar looks very feasible) means that the system itself will adapt when the appliances are running rather than us needing to adjust our usage patterns.

This concept of human-centric design, rather than throwing new technology at us, should be at the core of how we design the future of public and health services.

I recently read about a victim of a terrible crime—which took place in a different part of the country to where she lived. When she tried to access the necessary health and social support services to assist her at this awful time, it became a process nightmare, because she kept getting referred from one part of the country to another. Ask yourself, how many times have we battled to make sense of government administration? Why do we have to follow process paths that reflect how things are done in the back-end rather than our needs as citizens? Let’s make the crucial move of putting our understanding of human behaviour at the heart of service design—and transform how we live our lives and access public services.

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