Rise of the autopilot consumer

UPDATE: Dispatches from the Canvas8 HQ

In 2015, one of the greatest opportunities within consumer behaviour is for brands to grow by building innovations that allow consumers to seize control by letting it go.

At a recent event — Smart Lives: Our relationship with energy and technology — Ian Rose, professional services director from PassivSystems demonstrated some technology that does exactly that; a smart energy system that buys energy when it’s cheap and stores it, so consumers can keep the heating on at peak times.

All people need to do is install a heat pump, and the system ‘runs itself’, saving them up to 38% on bills. It’s ingenious, but what’s missing, Rose conceded, is consumer acceptance. He didn’t see this coming — surely everyone wants to save money!? — but since trialling the idea with 120 people over the past year, the innovation has faced resistance. Some concluded that if consumers really understood how these things worked and how much they could save, they’d love them.

But it’s not that simple. Saving money is great, but not if it means making a change. People are designed to get used to things, so changing behaviours comes with a significant cognitive cost. You have to engage your brain, and this must be balanced by a monetary reward. Consumers will never comprehend how such systems work — or ever need to — no matter how much education is available.

Is blind faith really the best policy when it comes to picking an energy tariff?

Rose gave the example of how people use thermostats as an on-off switch rather than for temperature control. This is exactly how people want utilities to work; without having to think about them. Claire Maugham, director of policy and communications from Smart Energy GB — the organisation responsible for rolling out smart energy meters across the UK — added to this picture. In her research — UCL report into consumers and time of use tariffs — she explores which energy tariffs are more appealing; those that offer more control? Or less control?

A tariff called ‘direct load control’ was the most popular — tariffs where your heating is operated remotely by an energy company. This immediately felt counter-intuitive. Scan any newspaper and you’ll see research showing overwhelming distrust towards energy companies — five in six consumers don’t feel they act in people’s best interests. Yet they’re happy with energy companies deciding when to switch on and off their heating with almost blind faith.

Why? As researchers of human behaviour, we call this ‘living on autopilot’ — and it’s set to become an increasingly powerful opportunity for those ready to seize it. The promise is to free consumers to get on with their life by offering a service that proactively manages their day-to-day duties and obligations; the old ‘set it and forget it’ model.

This is about relinquishing control, letting a ‘trusted’ third party do the hard work. The suspicious reader might see this as mindless consumption at a time when consumer choices feel more important than ever, but what’s often overlooked in these systems is the override feature — customers can ‘take the wheel’ whenever they want. Yet it presents a strange paradox for smart energy; to engage people with a promise of disengagement.

Read more like this at Canvas8.com

Written by Sam Shaw, head of insight at Canvas8

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