For years, we’ve heard utilities say “We need to become more customer-centric”
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November 8, 2017

An Eye-Opening Customer-First Experience: E Design 2020 NextGen Workshop

E Source hosted 50 utility innovators for the E Design 2020: NextGen Workshop from October 11 to 13, 2017. We designed this workshop to train utilities in the design-thinking approach to develop new customer-centric programs, services, and experiences for residential customers. For years, we’ve heard utilities say “We need to become more customer-centric,” and we believe design thinking will accomplish this goal.

As part of the E Source E Design 2020 initiative, E Source partnered with Egg Strategy to perform ethnographic research—designed to understand real people’s attitudes, beliefs, values, drivers, and actions toward energy—with more than 60 residential customers across North America. We studied seven topical areas: solar, low-income, connected homes, energy-efficiency, rate design, electric vehicles, and value-added services.

We designed a screening process to ensure that participants were passionate and articulate about the topical areas they were selected for in order to gain “extreme” viewpoints. These customer perspectives help shed light into their workarounds, viewpoints, and underlying motivations, which serve as inspiration for utilities to develop new ways to meet customers’ needs.

Workshop Day One: Building Empathy and Understanding Problems

Participants spent the first day building empathy for their customers to understand their problems, placing themselves in their customers’ shoes through a series of individual and group work, and pulling insights from our research.

Graphic of a family

These insights dig beyond the surface, looking at people’s values around each topical area, their emotions, aspirations, and motivations. After our participants learned how emotional and value-oriented energy is for customers, we had them develop a customer point of view, making sure to leave their utility perspective behind. Here’s a sample: “Kathy cares about her family and, as a stay-at-home mom, spends a lot of time in her house. She’s open to new ways to reduce her energy costs (including shutting off appliances) but not if it makes her home uncomfortable, takes a lot of time on her part, and is hard to understand.” Creating a “point of view” isn’t easy, as participants quickly found out. Many cited their struggles with keeping the point of view customer-centric and not subconsciously replacing it with a utility perspective.

Teams then worked on developing “How might we” questions, to frame the problem in a way that opens up a range of solutions to explore. This was a brand new approach for most workshop participants and one they immediately latched onto. Participants were amazed at how powerful a tool “How might we” is and were excited to bring it back and disseminate it amongst their colleagues.

Sample “How Might We” Questions

  • How might we offer options for people to lower their CO2 footprint and allow them to demonstrate their actions and commitments publicly?
  • How might we craft a rewarding ritual around the monthly action of paying a bill?
  • How might we reimagine the electric-vehicle charging experience to be more socially rewarding and fun?

Generally, utilities take an analytical approach to problem-solving: see a problem, rely on expertise and prior assumptions, and jump to a solution. This analytical approach misses nearly all contextual information surrounding the problem itself, resulting in a narrowly defined solution. Humans are far more complex than the analytical approach acknowledges. Design thinking takes a more abstract approach to problem-solving, studying contextual information to develop a deep understanding of the problem, resulting in a range of solutions to explore. This focus on studying customers’ problems and not jumping to solutions was a unique and challenging approach for participants.

Workshop Day Two: Brainstorming and Developing Solutions

We used the “Yes, and … ” technique on the second day to begin working toward solutions. Instead of playing devil’s advocate and saying “Yes, that’s a good idea, but have you thought about … ?” they said “Yes, great idea, and what if we … ” to remove boundaries and encourage creativity. Here’s a snippet of some novel solutions:

  • Pimp My Charging Station. Community-oriented electric-vehicle (EV) charging stations placed in high-traffic locations where community groups can meet. With food trucks and a coffee shop, free Wi-Fi, opportunities to test EVs, colorful LED art displays, and numerous other on-site amenities, these charging stations increase the visibility of EVs, charging stations, and the community benefit they deliver.
  • Eco-Champ. The solar topical group discovered that many people believe going solar is an easy, tangible, and visible first step toward sustainability. They’re proud of going solar and love having conversations with neighbors and their communities about their solar panels. The Eco-Champ concept engages this “ambassador” feeling many solar owners embrace through a gamification and rewards system that drives deeper energy education beyond solar (such as energy efficiency), encourages positive energy actions from solar owners, motivates them to inspire others to take positive actions, and provides the social recognition that many desire.

Workshop Day Three: Bringing Home Solutions

Day three brought each team’s ideal solution to reality. We tasked everyone with whittling down their big-picture concepts into something they could bring home and implement.

Man explaining charts

One attendee is going back to their utility and reaching out to major players in the connected home space to proactively start up a partnership conversation.

Another is bringing back a prototype sketch of a simple rates “choice architecture” that their customers can use to select the rate structure (named in customer-friendly terminology) that best aligns with their lifestyle.

And a third is bringing back the concept of an energy-efficiency “thank you” rewards program that awards the energy-saving actions of its customers while also recognizing and reinforcing everyday actions they want their customers to take.

Next Steps

We’re helping participants push their new ideas through their utilities’ inner workings and disseminate them to a broader group. The goal is for participants to test these new concepts with real residential customers and incorporate them into customer portfolios.

The E Design 2020: NextGen Workshop challenged participants to leave their utility-first perspective behind and truly focus on customer needs, opening up participants’ eyes to how emotional and value-oriented energy is for their customers. Incorporating program design elements to address these emotional factors engages people higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which should result in more attractive and “sticky” offerings. All of this took place while training participants in the design-thinking process so that they can bring it home and become evangelists and practitioners.

To learn more about design thinking and how we’re using it to help our utility partners develop the utility customer portfolio of the future, watch our web conference recording: The Innovation Imperative: Designing for the New Energy Consumer (available for utility members).

About the Author



Senior Director

Adam Maxwell conceptualizes, develops, and implements new products for the utility industry and adjacent markets, and comanages the E Source E Design 2020 initiative and Solar Strategy Service. New products include research services, software products, market research studies, and demand-side management (DSM) pilots. He also performs corporate strategy for existing E Source products and markets. A subject matter expert in utility DSM and solar programs, he has worked in a consultative role with North American utilities for seven years, providing them with actionable insights to develop DSM and solar strategies and optimize their energy-efficiency, demand-response, and solar programs; marketing; and communications. Adam was previously the director of Research Inquiry, running a team of seven researchers to answer on-demand inquiries from E Source members. He was also the senior product manager for the E Source Demand-Side Management Service, developing the research agenda to keep E Source at the forefront of DSM thought-leadership and providing consultative DSM services to utilities. Adam has a BA in psychology from Wesleyan University and is a certified scrum product owner.

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Contributing Authors

Head of Human-Centered Product Strategy

Adam Maxwell designs, develops, and implements new products for the electric and gas utility industry, with a focus on human behaviors and design...