Our Thinking

How to engage and motivate millions of customers: introducing Opower’s five Design Principles

  • By Deena Rosen
  • April 30, 2013

Opower is trying to change the world. Such an undertaking leads to interesting, complex product design challenges. Our goal is to change people’s behavior in a measurable, lasting way around energy consumption — a topic which the average person thinks about for only 9 minutes a year. And our global scale means that we have to design for many audiences, across diverse communication channels: mobile, web, email, landline phone, and good old-fashioned snail mail.

Today we’re unveiling our Opower Design Principles. They help us articulate what it means to build a product the Opower way. While our challenges are unique, we hope other companies and designers can learn from our approach and apply our principles, outlined below, to their own world-changing endeavors. We also invite you to check out further details at our Design Principles site, which we launched today.

Principle 1: Design for how people actually behave

Why? Our goal is to drive measurable energy savings, which requires behavior change. Opower’s business model is unique in that our bottom line is directly tied to the amount of behavior change we can drive. As behavioral experts, we understand well what motivates people to take action, most of which would directly contradict what users would tell you in an interview. As designers, we leverage proven behavior-changing techniques (e.g. social proof, commitments, loss language), and we balance user research results with behavioral science knowledge.

Principle 2: Assume people don’t care

Why? Energy just isn’t that interesting. So we need to accept the burden of relevance: “boring until proven otherwise.” Designing for energy is very different than designing for people’s finances or health – areas people have strong emotional ties to already. Energy is cheap, especially in the United States, and saving a few dollars each month isn’t compelling enough to make people care. To capture interest, we deliver data-driven insights that are relevant, useful, and personalized; we follow visual and hierarchical guidelines to aid comprehension.

Example: Always pair data with meaningful insight.

Data for data’s sake isn’t interesting – people need to be shown what it means, and why it is important. Highlighting which devices use the most energy in your home, and showing how to save in those areas is one of the ways we can make a graph meaningful.

Principle 3: Always lead to action

Why? We need to think beyond traditional product metrics and make it as easy as possible for people to take action outside of our products. Like other software companies, we care about open rates, click-throughs, and conversion rates, but only if they empower people to save energy and engage with their utility company. We ensure that users always have a clear next step to take, right now. Every recommendation we make is in practice bound to run up against roadblocks, which are different for everyone. We take the time to understand those roadblocks so we can proactively eliminate them.

Example: Anticipate and eliminate barriers.


It’s easy to forget even the simplest ways to save energy, like switching off lights or turning down the thermostat when leaving home. By understanding all of the steps required to follow through with an action, we can help people avoid common obstacles to saving. These door hangers remind people to adjust their thermostat when they’d often forget to.

Principle 4: Aim for a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand

Why? Behavior change takes time, and our products fit into an existing long-term utility relationship. Motivating people through judgment or shame could be quite effective in the short-term, but leads to unhappy users over time. We strike a balance between eliciting emotion and not burning bridges. We carefully consider a user’s experience over the life of our program to ensure people are presented with realistic goals, encouragement, and rewards for their progress.

Principle 5: Build for everyone…who receives a utility bill

Why? Our products reach all types of people through all types of mediums. Many product companies have the luxury of an easily-defined set of users to design for. But at Opower, we’re designing for every person, all over the world, who receives a utility bill.

One of our most impactful products is an energy report mailed to people’s homes. Designing for paper is something the advertising and direct marketing worlds have done for years, but is not as standard for software companies. In addition to adopting cutting-edge practices in mobile and web design, we’ve also become experts in designing for the paper channel. We’re constantly calculating which messages work best on each channel and how designs need to adapt for each one.

Example: Design for all types of energy users.

Our paper energy reports reach people regardless of computer or smartphone access.

Our Design Principles site includes additional examples of our design philosophy and how we apply these principles to our ongoing product innovations. We see our approach as being able to influence behavior-change design in many other areas, from fitness to food to finances, and we’re excited to be a part of the conversation.

And in the spirit of Principle #3…


About Our Thinking

Our Thinking is just that: it’s the place to find out what’s going on right now in the Opower universe. We discuss current perspectives, opinions, ideas, achievements, and events in the burgeoning fields of energy information and utility customer experience.