My thesis investigates a prepaid electricity service in India and how customers in four rural Indian villages relate to and interact with the smart meters in their home. The service is facilitated by Boond Engineering, a private energy social enterprise that designs and produces solar-powered electricity products and services for energy-deprived regions of India. While Boond is a for-profit company they have a strong social mission.

Design research fieldwork

In late 2016 I conducted design research in India’s Uttar Pradesh State. The main objective of the research was to gain a better understanding of the daily lives of Boond’s customers and their relationship to Boond’s electricity service. The service is facilitated by a meter that uses dynamic pricing to manage customer’s use of electricity, as such, investigating the meters was also important.

I spent 10 days in the field, interviewing and observing people in their homes, analysing data and making and testing quick prototypes. With the generous support of my sponsor, Aalto New Global and my thesis advisor, I designed and planned the research methodology, sourced and hired in-country research assistance and led the research activities.

What I discovered

From the research I gained insights into how electricity fits into participants’ overall energy use, how they read the meters, understand their spending and the value of electricity in their lives. The findings from the fieldwork and complimentary secondary research presented two opportunities for design: delegating meter communication to the mobile phone and shifting kerosene consumption to electricity.

Textual non-literacy impacts metering

Early on in the fieldwork I noticed that participants had challenges reading the meters (except for ‘balance’, which people are accustomed to from prepaid phones). It wasn’t clear what the reason for this was, but I suspected it was partly related to literacy and partly to do with naming and appearance of text on the LCD display.

meter display showing price levels

I made a quick prototype of an electricity meter to investigate how customers use the meters and understand the cost of electricity. I used the prototype to explore how participants read Hindi to see if it might improve readability and be a more effective display language. The prototype was also used to find out how icons could be used in place of text.

I used my phone as a display for energy use information screens in Hindi, and positioned it in the window of the cardboard prototype (made from a cereal box I found). A graphic on the front of the meter showed a pictograph, made up from a series of icons arranged as an equation, to convey pricing levels P1 and P3. I found the names of the pricing levels problematic but left them unchanged for the sake of consistency.

discussing the prototype with participant

The results were that participants struggled to understand some of the Hindi words and their relation to the numbers. The pictographs were difficult to decipher. I realised that there were two reasons for this: firstly, the concepts were too complicated to express in icons (illustrations or Isotypes are more apt for this application), and secondly, the icons I chose were from my own visual language, not those of the participants.

Next time I would collaborate with participants on the prototypes to find textual and visual language that is meaningful to them.

The protoyping experience left a strong impression on me. The experience revealed some of the barriers that textual non-literacy presents[1] to the adoption of the meters. It also provided insights into how a mobile phone could help to lower some of the barriers to metering.

Kerosene is still an option

There have been many positive outcomes from solar electricity services, one of which is a significant reduction in kerosene use. However, despite the bright, clean light that the Boond’s service provides, roughly a third of the participants I met continued to use kerosene for supplemental lighting. This could be due to the kerosene subsidy, which encourages use, and to established daily routines. Historically, people have relied on kerosene as a primary source of light, therefore, it may take time for some households to transition to electricity.

kerosene lamp burns at night in a village in India

I identified a couple of critical insights into why participants use kerosene lighting. Firstly, kerosene lamps can be transported to areas of the home that don’t have electricity. Participants used lamps in well-ventilated areas such as the rooftop, stairway or outdoor kitchen. Secondly, the lamps provide ambient lighting. The light from the LED bulbs is very bright, ideal for supporting tasks like cooking and studying. However, bright light isn’t always needed, for example when socialising outdoors or for making a home feel secure on a dark night. If kerosene is cheaper (per lamp hour) to burn than a lightbulb, and bright light isn’t needed, this makes kerosene the better choice in some contexts.

The Balak family are an interesting example of extreme kerosene use. They allocate a larger budget for kerosene than for electricity. They switch on electric light for cooking, eating and homework for an hour a night, between 6:30-8 pm. Then, they switch off the light and burn two or three kerosene lamps for the remainder of the evening (for outdoor chores and socialising). Occasionally, they switch on lights to find supplies in the storage room or to check in on sleeping children. The sketch below visualises my understanding of the Balak’s energy use along a timeline. Electricity use is shown in blue, and kerosene in red.

sketch of a family energy use in the evening

While burning three kerosene lamps costs a little less than powering a single light bulb, the three lamps provide a much lower quality and intensity of light. Also, there are considerable health and safety risks associated with burning kerosene, these risks are the main reason for quitting kerosene use altogether.

Yet, despite this impressive electricity service, why do people continue to burn kerosene?

Making energy spending decisions

Results from my analysis showed that participants make measured strategic decisions about when to use kerosene and not electricity. Cost and suitability to the task factored in heavily to decisions. Participants weren’t confident about electricity prices or how much they spend per month, however, they knew how much they spend per month on kerosene.

Why this might be? I have a few hunches. Let’s start with kerosene. It is a fuel that people are accustomed to, it is tangible and sold by volume, so it is quantifiable. Also, it is purchased once or twice a month and the price is clearly defined by vendors (although market price kerosene does fluctuate). In this scenario, the factoring of the cost of kerosene is initiatated and rationalised by the individual.

Boond’s 60w prepaid electricity meter

On the other hand, prepaid electricity is a new service, people aren’t yet accustomed to it (at the time of research, operational for 2-8 weeks). Electricity as an energy is intangible which makes its consumption challenging to monitor. In addition to this challenge, electricity credits are purchased in small incremental payments, usually on a weekly basis, which may make tracking spending difficult for some. Different bulbs and appliances consume varying amounts of energy and prices fluctuate depending on supply and demand.

For electricity, the measuring of consumption and the calculating of cost is delegated to a meter. The communication between the company and the customer is conducted by a technical object. The design of the object, how it communicates information, how it informs its role to users is crucial to establishing the rules, prices and costs of electricity.

Due to many factors including cost, the technical feasibility of the prepaid meter was prioritised over other functions. This presents an opportunity for design to change how energy consumption is currently communicated. One solution could be to delegate the metering to another device that affords richer communication. The mobile phone is a likely candidate because they are widely used in the rural India. That said, issues such as literacy, phone sharing and womens’ exclusion from the devices need to be considered in the solution.

My thesis work is ongoing.

1. I refer to Jan Chipchase’s discussion on literacy: “The term 'textually non-literate' reflects that there are many ways to define literacy. For example, task-literacy can be the ability to complete a particular task, computer-literacy the ability to make basic use of a computer.” I acknowledge that, like Chipchase, “non-literacy is not caused by lack of ability but rather by lack of opportunities for learning”.