Good Design Saves Energy; Bad Thermostat Design Is Throwing It Away

honeywell ad dreyfuss

In 1941 Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss produced the first round Honeywell thermostat. According to the description from a Cooper Hewitt exhibition,

"By 1953, the thermostat was refined into its now-familiar form, referred to simply as the Round. Its low price and ability to fit most situations has made the Round one of Dreyfuss's most successful designs. His continuing emphasis on ease of use and maintenance, clarity in form and function, and concern for end-use helped make Honeywell a leader in the field of controls both domestic and industrial environments."

It was simple and easy to use. Yet today, according to Katie Fehrenbacher at GigaOm, the energy savings promised by programmable thermostats are being lost because they "are almost as much of a nightmare to figure out as confounding DVRs, and confusing TV remote controls."

luxproducts thermostat complexity image

Image credit Luxproducts

Katie points to work by Alan Meier: Usability of Residential Thermostats: Preliminary Investigations, that looked at thermostat use and writes:

The majority of users operated programmable thermostats manually (ie not programming them) and almost 90 percent of survey participants said they rarely or never adjusted the thermostat to set a program.

She finds that data disturbing, noting:

If consumers aren't interested enough to even learn the basics of how to save energy via an already installed programmable thermostat, it's going to be a long road ahead for any energy-saving consumer-facing technology

I could not find the exact report that Katie references, but did find Thermostat Interface and Usability: A Survey From September, 2010, By Alan Meier. From its abstract, my emphasis:

Recent studies have found that as many as 50 percent of residential programmable thermostats are in permanent "hold" status. Other evaluations found that homes with programmable thermostats consumed more energy than those relying on manual thermostats. Occupants find thermostats cryptic and baffling to operate because manufacturers often rely on obscure, and sometimes even contradictory, terms, symbols, procedures, and icons. It appears that many people are unable to fully exploit even the basic features in today's programmable thermostats, such as setting heating and cooling schedules.

He concludes that savings from the thermostats is less than predicted and may even result in increased energy use.

Anecdotal information points to widespread user difficulties with programmable thermostats.... User complaints culled from the open literature cover misconceptions about energy use, the thermostats themselves, the operating manuals, and barriers to using programmable thermostats. ...users complained about the thermostats themselves, they noted in particular their complexity, small size of buttons and writing, confusing terms and symbols, and the steps needed to program the devices.

This is just silly. Look at what happened when Steve Jobs and Apple design VP Jonathan took on the MP3 player, which was complicated and difficult to use, and introduced the iPod. The designers combined an intuitive, simple interface with solid software backup to revolutionize the industry. Henry Dreyfuss is gone, but where is the Jonathan Ive of thermostat design?

Image credit at top: Richard Kuchinsky at Core77

Related Content on