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Applying Design Thinking to Sustainable Energy

In 1883 young Antoni Gaudi accepted the order from Maximo Diaz de Quijano, a distant relative of Spanish royal family, to design a summer house in Comillas in northern Spain. This order resulted in an incredibly modern villa, for that time, named “El Capricho” or “The Caprice”. Built in new architectural language of Art Nouveau, it was a stunning combination of iron, brick, and pottery, displaying both Spanish and Moorish influences.

However, the most unique thing in El Capricho’s design is that Gaudi considered the house as an organic whole where the host’s daily activity evolves with the movement of the sun. The bedroom and bathroom are located in the east where the sun rises, and as the sun moves towards to the west, it first tracks over the office, then later over the dining room and sitting rooms that were a hub for evening activities.



This whole concept of having the inhabitant of the house follow the sun all along his daily activities is a great example of a design method that puts human experience in the center of everything else.

Antoni Gaudi became known as one of the greatest architects in the history of modern design. His creative genius literally changed the face of architecture and building technology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Throughout his life, Gaudi was constantly experimenting with structures, forms, materials, and colors, but he had never lost focus of human experience and the organization of such experience in his buildings.

A century later, another man revolutionized high-tech industry using the similar principles. By putting a user at the center of design process, Steve Jobs led the innovation of one of the most usable consumer electronic products ever. Jobs once famously said:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs felt that design should be linked to making products intuitively easy to use. As a result, today even kids can use Apples’ phones and touchpads with gestures similar to their natural behavior. Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer reveals a story that shows how much Apple’s founder cared about human experience:

“Jobs was stirred by a story, which he forwarded to me, by Michael Noer on Noer was reading a science fiction novel on his iPad while staying at a dairy farm in a rural area north of Bogotá, Colombia, when a poor six-year-old boy who cleaned the stables came up to him. Curious, he handed him the device. With no instruction, and never having seen a computer before, the boy started using it intuitively. He began swiping the screen, launching apps, playing a pinball game. “Steve Jobs has designed a powerful computer that an illiterate six-year-old can use without instruction,” Noer wrote. “If that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is.”

Design thinking

The human centric approach used by Antoni Gaudi in architecture and Steve Jobs in product development can be embodied in the concept of design thinking. The core of design thinking is people – end users who will be living in new houses, using new gadgets or doing whatever else it could be. This approach brings the focus on understanding human life, motivation and experience. It puts human needs, capabilities and behavior at the first place, and then applies technical and design tools to accommodate those needs and ways of behaving.

From the business perspective, design thinking can be viewed as a human-centered method for creative problem solving and innovation. It approaches problem solving from the end users’ point of view and enables to identify the needs that users aren’t even conscious of and not able to articulate.   As the result, design thinking enables creation of products and services that resonate more deeply with people. Tim Brown, founder of the leading design consultancy IDEO defines design thinking as:

“A discipline that uses a designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with which is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Design thinking method is scalable and can be applied incrementally to improve existing ideas (such as how a service is delivered or how a product performs for the user), or it can be applied radically to create disruptive solutions that meet customers’ needs in entirely new ways.

Design thinking and sustainable energy

However, could design thinking approach be applied universally? For instance, could companies apply design thinking in addressing such important issues as sustainable energy and climate change? One can argue that despite the success of design thinking approach in phones and tablets development, it has little use when it comes to dealing with energy and climate problems. At first sight, it is not obvious how human-centric approach could be applied in such standardized and regulated sector, as energy. However, if we go deeper, we can find that design thinking provides a way to improve existing technologies and create new products and services in such fields as renewable energy, clean water, energy efficiency and other sectors related to sustainable energy systems.

Energy consumption

Consider energy consumption in buildings. According to IEA, about 40% of primary energy consumption in most of developed countries falls on residential and commercial buildings. If we want to lessen the threat of climate change, we need to strive for greater reductions in energy use in our homes and offices. The actual demand for energy during the use phase largely depends on the way people consume energy in daily practice. The human element drives the use of heating, cooling, lighting, as well as operation of different electrical devices. To reduce energy consumption in buildings, we need to motivate people to safe energy and also provide them with means of energy-efficient action.

In such a situation, a programmable thermostat would seem to be an easy and simple way to achieve those savings. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, energy savings on heating and cooling of as much as 10% can be attained per year by turning the thermostat setting back 4-5°C (7°-10°F) for 8 hours a day from its normal setting. At the same time, the research held in 2010 at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found out that nearly 90% of homeowners rarely or never used their programmable thermostat to set a weekend or weekday program. Half of the homes had the thermostat set on continuous hold, meaning that no savings from setback were obtained. One of the study’s most important conclusions was the need to improve the user interface of programmable thermostats. That means that the human element in energy consumption is not just a behavioral issue, but it is also a design issue.

In 2011 Nest Labs, co-founded a year before by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, introduced Nest Learning Thermostat, which immediately had a huge success. By 2013 the company was selling 40,000 to 50,000 of thermostats per month and in January 2014 in was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion. So, what is the secret of Nest Thermostat?

Here’s Nest thermostat’s story: Tony Fadell, a former Senior Vice President at Apple, was building a super energy-efficient house when he came across a problem:

“When it came to the heating and cooling system, I discovered there was your thermostat that controls 50-60% of your energy costs every year – and no one knows how to use them and they’re ugly and frustrating.’’

“To save any energy using a thermostat, you had to program them. And it turned out that it was so complicated — like programming a VCR from the 1980s — that literally only 10-11% of people in the U.S. would ever program their thermostat even once to save energy.”

Fadell soon invited Matt Rogers, a software engineer who worked on the iPod and the first iPhone. He describes the next step in their design process:

“It started as our frustration and the more we talked to other people, the more we heard their frustration. That was the tipping point.”

“We brought in experts, interviewed contractors, and conducted meticulous research. We traveled and took pictures of people’s homes, their thermostat, and how it was installed. We built a library of ugly thermostats around the country.”

“We installed every thermostat we could at our own homes to learn the frustrations that people have, the installation experience, everything. Thermostats had these switches on them that read “heat/cool/auto/off” and “fan/auto/on.” What does “fan/auto” versus “fan/on” even mean? How does a normal consumer understand these things?”

Finally, a new type of thermostat was created. Tony Fadell describes how they used what they learned to improve the thermostat:

“So instead of saying: “let’s just make its easier to program,” we believe there should be a better way. So, literally, we watch your usage, or the device itself, the algorithm, watches your usage: you turn it up in the morning, you turn it down when you go away, you turn it up in the evening when you come home, you turn it down when you go to sleep. We watch those patterns over the weekdays and the weekends, and through this learning algorithm that we call “Autoschedule,” it creates a schedule for you. And our huge set of customers out there have proven to us that 99% of those devices have schedules that save energy, as opposed to 11% before.”

“Another difference is: sometimes you don’t always know when you’re going to be home or you’re going to be out and you don’t turn down your thermostat. We actually have built sensors into the product itself that recognize when you’re not at home and turn it down to an energy saving setting that you pre-specify.”

“Then there’s a third type of thing that we’ve done differently: we control the heating and cooling differently to make it more efficient. So in the case of air conditioning, we have a feature called “Airwave” which can save 30% of run time very easily with no change in comfort whatsoever.”


A story behind Nest thermostat is a great example of how design thinking can be applied in solving energy efficiency problems. The founders of Nest Labs started design process by putting themselves into the shoes of thermostats’ users. They found out what was going wrong with existing thermostats, why people didn’t use them, what features they should add in their product, and how different it should be. Nest Labs didn’t develop a new breakthrough technology – they rather brought existing technology into a product that customers wanted to use. As the result, the company was able to successfully create a programmable thermostat that provides actual energy savings to their customers.

Energy supply

Applying design thinking approach, Nest Labs has facilitated adoption of energy-efficiency behavior on energy consumption side. However, how could human-centered approach be applied to energy supply? In the developed countries consumers already have access to pervasive, convenient and reliable energy infrastructure, while the governments are massively subsidizing adoption of renewable energy technologies. So, a new energy technology, which is sustainable, reliable, less expensive or/and better performing, will be organically integrated into the grid and used by consumers. But everything changes when we go rural regions in India, Tanzania, and other developing countries with no electrical infrastructure or appliances. It is difficult to imagine, but over 1.5 people in the world still lack electricity.

Deploying sustainable solutions in developing countries requires mostly human-centered innovations, rather than technological ones. Catering to the needs of the poor population is not just about scaling down products and services to make it cheaper. Due to the extreme living conditions in these regions – low spending power, poor infrastructure, little or no education – companies need to completely rethink design of their products and services. For that, companies need to engage with locals, understand their concerns and limitations, and design such products that could be used in such circumstances.

One company that has effectively employed design thinking to solving a critical energy issue in developing countries is d.light. The company’s mission is to “enable households without reliable electricity to attain the same quality of life as those with electricity.” D.light’s story started when its founders took a design thinking class at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (otherwise known as the “”) in 2006. Titled Design for Extreme Affordability, the objective of the course was to bring together graduate students of various fields to create comprehensive solutions for the world’s poor. By immersing themselves in the lives of rural villagers, the founders of d.light quickly realized that kerosene lamps, despite their widespread usage, had numerous downsides— the recurring cost of using them was significant, they were a key cause of indoor air pollution and fires, and they were not bright enough for children to study effectively by. These insights led to the goal of bringing clean, safe and bright light to every household—a market that consists of up to 1.5 billion individuals.



Today d.light provides a created range of modular products from desk lights and portable lanterns to solar home systems that power radios and mobile phones. Through over a dozen field offices and four distribution hubs in Africa, China, South Asia and the United States, d.light has sold 10 million solar light and power products in nearly 60 countries, improving the lives of nearly 30 million people. Company’s core value of customer-centricity is a key factor behind their success and drives everything from product design to manufacturing to distribution.

Design thinking framework

Design thinking can play an important role in addressing complex problems, including sustainable energy and climate change. Applying design thinking can help companies transform the way they develop their products, services and even business models. However, how is design thinking applied in practice? It is obvious that there could be no standardized model for design thinking. Each industry and user group has its own particularities that can influence design process. Still, there are several basic practices that are common to practically all design thinking processes. These practices have become the core of the design thinking framework developed at at Stanford University. This framework consists of the following five steps:

1. Empathize

Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. It is our effort to understand the way people do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them. To empathize, we:

– Observe. View users and their behavior in the context of their lives.

– Engage. Interact with and interview users through both scheduled and short ‘intercept’ encounters.

– Immerse. Experience what your user experiences.

Why empathize

The problems we are trying to solve are rarely our own—they are those of particular users. In order to design for users, we must build empathy for who they are and what is important to them.

Watching what people do and how they interact with their environment gives us clues about what they think and feel. It also helps to learn about what they need. By watching people we can capture physical manifestations of their experiences, what they do and say. This will allow to interpret intangible meaning of those experiences in order to uncover insights. These insights will lead to the innovative solutions. The best solutions come out of the best insights into human behavior. But learning to recognize those insights is harder than we might think. Why? Because our minds automatically filter out a lot of information in ways we aren’t even aware of. In order to be empathic, we need to learn to see things “with a fresh set of eyes”.

Engaging with people directly reveals a tremendous amount of information about the way they think and the values they hold. The stories that people tell and the things that people say they do—even if they are different from what they actually do—are strong indicators of their deeply held beliefs about the way the world is. Good designs are built on a solid understanding of these kinds of beliefs and values.

In addition to speaking with and observing users, we need to have personal experience in the design space ourselves. For this, we need to find (or create if necessary) experiences to immerse ourselves in order to better understand the situation that users are in, and for which we are designing.

2. Define

The define mode is when we unpack and synthesize our empathy findings into compelling needs and insights, and scope a specific and meaningful challenge. Two goals of the define mode are to develop a deep understanding of users and the design space and, based on that understanding, to come up with an actionable problem statement: a point of view. This point of view should be a guiding statement that focuses on specific users, and insights and needs that we uncovered during the empathize mode.

Why define

The define mode is critical to the design process because it explicitly expresses the problem we are striving to address through our efforts. In order to be truly generative, we must first craft a specific and compelling problem statement to use as a solution-generation springboard.

3. Ideate

Ideate is the mode during design process in which we focus on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes—it is a mode of “flaring” rather than “focus.” We should step beyond the obvious. The goal of ideation is to explore a wide solution space – both a large quantity of ideas and a diversity among those ideas. From this vast depository of ideas we can build prototypes to test with users.

Why Ideate

We ideate in order to make a transition from identifying problems into exploring solutions for users.

4. Prototype

Prototyping is getting ideas and explorations out of your head and into the physical world. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form – be it a wall of post-it notes, a role-playing activity, a space, an object, an interface, or even a storyboard. Prototypes are most successful when people (the design team, the user, and others) can experience and interact with them. Learning from those interactions can help drive deeper empathy, as well as shape successful solutions. Ideally is to bias toward something a user can experience. Walking someone through a scenario with a storyboard is good, but having them role-play through a physical environment that was created will likely bring out more emotions and responses from that person.

Why prototype

Traditionally prototyping is thought of as a way to test functionality. But prototyping is used for many reasons, including these (non-mutually-exclusive) categories:

-Empathy gaining: Prototyping is a tool to deepen your understanding of the design space and your user, even at a pre-solution phase of your project.

-Exploration: Build to think. Develop multiple solution options.

-Testing: Create prototypes (and develop the context) to test and refine solutions with users.

-Inspiration: Inspire others (teammates, clients, customers, investors) by showing your vision.

5. Test

Testing is the chance to refine our solutions and make them better. The test mode is another iterative mode in which we place our low-resolution artifacts in the appropriate context of the user’s life. Ideally we need to test within a real context of the user’s life. For a physical object, ask people to take it with them and use it within their normal routines. For an experience, try to create a scenario in a location that would capture the real situation. If testing a prototype in situ is not possible, frame a more realistic situation by having users take on a role or task when approaching the prototype.

“Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong”.

Why test

– To refine our prototypes and solutions. Testing informs the next iterations of prototypes. Sometimes this means going back to the drawing board.

– To learn more about user. Testing is another opportunity to build empathy through observation and engagement—it often yields unexpected insights.

– To test and refine our point of view. Sometimes testing reveals that not only the solution right, but also that we have failed to frame the problem correctly.

N.B. The complete framework explaining in more detail the application of each step of design thinking and the transition from one step to another is described in’s Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE.

Great products  don’t just happen

Deep understanding of users, their needs, aspirations and concerns is a key for developing products and services that will impact people’s lives, experience and behavior. At the same time, engineers developing new technologies often ignore the human element of the problem. There is a common opinion among technical specialists that their role as problem solvers is limited to the technological, and not the social level. However, great products and services are not created only because of new technological development. They are equally coming from understanding of various contexts surrounding the product and the users’ interaction with it. That’s why human-centered approach to innovation allows companies to develop holistic solutions that take into account all aspects of a specific problem. Putting design thinking at the front end of products or services development provides the way towards solving the most complex and multifaceted issues. Without a doubt, design thinking is an effective skill from which any company can benefit.



  1. school – Hasso Plattner Institute of Design “Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE”, Stanford University;
  2. Shen, Lester (2015) “Human-Building Interaction (HBI): Design Thinking and Energy Efficiency”;
  3. Koh, Sean. Design Thinking: A Culture of Innovation. (2012). Social Space. , 30-33. Social Space.

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