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UX research is vital to energy transitions

Digital technologies will play a large part in our transition away from fossil fuels. We need UX researchers at the forefront of this energy revolution.

7 minute read

There is a phrase from an academic paper that has lived in my mind rent-free since my master’s degree in digital anthropology nearly half a decade ago. Most people get songs stuck in their heads—for me, it’s niche philosophical takeaways from PDFs. 

This is the phrase: “When is an infrastructure?”

It is simple and jarring, a poetic summons to reconsider an impenetrable word: infrastructure. Not what, but when. This phrase comes from a 1996 paper written by Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder in Information Systems Research. Two-and-a-half decades later, their foresight and broad understanding of how online communities are built into our daily lives and businesses as infrastructure still delight and surprise. 

We are now a little past the brink of a defining era for energy, with massive infrastructural, technological, and social changes afoot—much of which will be digitally mediated. The political will and technological capability for energy transitions are beginning to coincide, and we are witnessing entire industries emerge around this transition. As an anthropologist and UXR, the first question I’m wont to ask is: what does this mean for people? Perhaps it’s trite to argue for our own profession, but I don’t mind preaching to the choir. Still, my thesis is that we, as UXRs, designers, product managers, and social scientists, have an essential role to play in helping businesses and institutions navigate this transition. Because it’s never just about the infrastructure, it’s the people who interact with it. A beehive doesn’t build itself.

So—when is an infrastructure? 

The academic duo lists a few defining moments for how software and communities morph into infrastructures. And this is where the magic happens:

  • “Infrastructure is learned as part of membership”—not just built but learned and reiterated by the people who use it. This forecast into the importance of membership is spot on. Take the fierce debates between Apple and Android users. Are you just a user, or are you a member of a community?

  • “Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice,” and here the authors start talking about fluctuating electricity demands—I’m returning to this later because it’s relevant to the point I am going to make about electricity consumption habits.

And this third is my favorite: “Infrastructure becomes visible upon breakdown.”

This phrase whispers itself in my mind each time something goes wrong. When the supermarket shelves were laid bare at the beginning of the pandemic, each month when I get my alarming electricity bill, when I got locked out of my PayPal account last week because it was hooked up to my teenage email address. Suddenly the infrastructures taken for granted are not only visible but physically and emotionally tangible, the source and subject of moments of incredible frustration.

What happens when systems stop working the way that we expect them to? Hopefully, though not necessarily, we change our behavior. 

When did users start caring about energy infrastructure?

As a digital anthropologist, I spent the past three years tailing climate and sustainability activists in the UK and Norway. I witnessed how digital technologies helped transform underlying beliefs and understandings of sustainability challenges facing society were transforming. Flitting seamlessly between varying social media apps, activists used the context of the city to stage virtually streamed theatrical protests, ultimately transforming how many people, politicians included, talk about climate change. The demonstrations undeniably sparked new and broad-reaching narratives about the climate.

In the meantime, top-down ideas in academia, policy, and industry have emerged. One example is that of a circular economy. Ideas and policies for leveraging design practices and consumer behavior to create resource loops and reuse raw materials are gaining traction in many sectors, including those within the digital sphere.

Several circular economy apps and platforms in the UK and Scandinavia have surfaced for reusing and redistributing waste, particularly within the building and textile sectors. And in April this year, the UK government released its energy security strategy paper. While the government has committed to more oil in the near future, there are significant commitments to roll out other energy sources: offshore wind, solar, hydrogen, and nuclear.

Similarly, EVs are high on the UK’s agenda, along with zero emissions air and maritime technology. Far from perfect, these rollouts are fraught with tensions, massive trade-offs, and risk exacerbating social injustices. Nonetheless, change is underway.

Visible changes

It’s quite something to drive through the suburbs in London and start to see solar panels on people’s rooftops. These new energy interventions look strange but are something we will inevitably get used to and eventually hardly notice once they are in smooth working order. Very visible infrastructure, particularly onshore wind, has already been the cause of outrage for some communities, while others have jumped at the opportunity to build renewable energy cooperatives. The scientific consensus is that society cannot continue to run on fossil fuels. Still—the ruptures caused by these new energy infrastructures appear alien and affect different communities in varying ways.

In particular, we can expect new behaviors right down to the level of the individual as energy systems transform. For instance, there is the possibility that people will begin to trade renewable energy using cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. This is called peer-to-peer energy trading, where households produce and store their own energy at a small scale—in industry and academia, this is called prosumption. This topic is worth a whole other blog post, but I use this example to illustrate the digital infrastructures that might find their way into the average users’ homes and hands sooner than we think.

And other changes are pending too. The way we interact with other resources besides energy is shifting. For example, people might change to a vegan diet and so change the way they shop online and search for recipes. They might decide to shop second-hand using an app, or perhaps they will learn to sew through an online community ed-tech platform.

Now we know that an app or consumer-facing concept that fails to place the user at its center causes unnecessarily painful uptake. The challenge is not just to build new green-sounding apps but to help people understand these changing values and technological norms and, in turn, understand how consumer values are also transforming across cultures.

The strengths of the UXR

The context for doing business is changing rapidly. The pandemic and climate change have already challenged the cultural cognitive scripts we live by. Further, the policy landscape in which companies operate is transforming. There are many challenges to be addressed and mediated by digital technologies—from coordinating city planning for more circular urban environments to rolling out new energy infrastructure for disparate energy communities around the world. 

Everywhere, the local contexts for these transformations will present unique challenges, especially for uniformly designed sustainability solutions built by global companies. Like Star and Ruhleder wrote all those years ago—infrastructure is learned and made culturally relevant by its members. 

What’s more, people have the opportunity to have a greater say in how we design these infrastructures. We have methods and technology to make communication between companies, governments, and citizens much more of a two-way street. We can’t achieve an energy transformation of this scale without the user’s trust, nor will it be possible without access to excellent online education, regardless of whether the technological capability and political will are there. This is where user research plays a valuable role: in its ability to understand people’s ever-changing needs, beliefs, frustrations, and contexts. We must listen.

UXRs and applied social scientists are in an excellent position. They understand the need to balance stakeholder and business requirements with those of the user and customer. Now, we need these skills to take us beyond the happy lands of theory and into the thorny realm of the practical. The businesses that nail this transition will be those willing to take honest feedback from designers or researchers when a product isn’t meeting a user’s need. 

So when is an excellent time for even more user researchers and social scientists to engage with the people and organizations creating the tech for change? Now.

About the contributors
Eleanor Johnson
Founder , Flowers Consults
Digital anthropologist and solar-powered poet.
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