It's hard to care about energy usage. Especially in an office environment where an individual's impact is hidden by the collective. Also, most people don't understand what the @#&$%! kWh really means. 

Inspired by our amazing ability to understand nonverbal information, I designed an energy monitor without numbers where the main mode of communication is through empathy for a tiny protagonist.

Figure - energy without numbers

using empathy to reduce energy usage

We have worked on our fair share of energy related projects at IDEO. We know it a tricky problem for many reasons. A while back, we installed an energy monitoring system from a company called Agilewaves in our office as we’re trying to get greener ourselves. This system stores data on our electricity, water, and natural gas usage. The system’s interface has been displayed frequently on our lobby TV. As part of a white space project, we decided to explore custom visualisations to see if we could reduce the studio energy use.

The concept is simple. Every day a new layer is added in-front of the previous day. The layer is added over the course of 24 hours so that it starts from the left edge of the screen and goes to the right edge.

In the examples above, you can see that the water consumption and below, in pink, the electricity consumption.

The mountain climber far below is scaling Monday to Friday and gets a bit of a rest on weekends.

The height of the hill or wave indicate the level of consumption. As you can see, the consumption pattern for our electricity consumption is quite predictable. The water consumption is less so (and also less accurate since I did not get a chance to confirm how the real data looks like).

Each scene has a protagonist who makes the journey across the screen and is intended to be animated in place (like the three bikers below).

If the energy consumption is on the way up, the biker and the surfer have to work hard uphill/up-wave. If the consumption is trending downwards, the biker can coast downhill and the surfer can ride the wave.

The idea being that you can imagine yourself in their shoes and empathise with the protagonists and want to help them out.

Have a look at the three bikers above. Can you feel how the middle guy is struggling? And how enjoyable the ride is for the guy going downhill? It’s easy to put ourselves in the position of the three bikers and feel empathy for them.

It has been claimed that as much as 95% of our communication is nonverbal. As the old saying goes, it's not what you say it's how you say it.

Nonverbal communication includes among other things, body language, gesture, posture, facial expression and eye contact. Aspects of the voice such as pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation and stress is also included in the definition of nonverbal. Note that verbal communication is not synonymous with oral communication.

Inspired by our amazing ability to understand nonverbal information and the simple fact that nobody knows what the @#&$%! kWh really means, I decided to ditched as many of the numbers and as much text as possible.

Later, when showing the concepts around the office, most people did not even reflect on their absence. I wanted to communicate through other means than numbers but still preserve some of the utility of numbers that allows people to understand how much energy is being used and changes over time.

There are some truly beautiful info-graphics out there that show our use of energy but they can be hard to ‘read’ and they are not the type of displays you find useful to look at day after day.

Below, see the original energy display with a classic dashboard design.


• Design an energy display for an office environment

Time and team

• An office white-space project 
• An individual project


This was fun. The lack of client in this situation allowed me to take the concept further outside the box that we have the luxury of doing on regular projects.

This project made me think a lot about how we can use empathy of digital objects to prompt behaviours.

A brilliant example here is the shaking icons on the iPhone's home screen when you're in edit mode, re-arranging them. There is no way anybody would leave the icon in such a disturbing state.