Pulse Energy On Re-Educating Your Market

Interviewer: Haig Armen, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Design + Dynamic Media
Interviewees: Kara Pecknold, MAA 2009 graduate from the design stream, & Chris Stone, principal of SeaStone Designs.

The Back Story

What does energy consumption look like? Or, for that matter, what does energy conservation look like? If you’ve ridden in a Prius™ taxi, you might have seen a dashboard display as a response to these questions. If you haven’t, then the concept is likely an abstraction. Or, if you’ve participated in any of the Earth Hour Campaigns, you’re likely able to visualize what turning off the power for an hour looks like; an action that is both a symbolic and practical act of energy literacy.

So what is energy literacy? What can we learn from our buildings in terms of how they are managed? How do we achieve energy effectiveness and efficiencies in the artificial world where the built environment consumes 75% of the world’s electricity while emitting 33% of all greenhouse gases? What do the leading clean-technology companies have to offer facility managers in the way of solutions?

Figure 1. Participatory workshop, Fall 2010

Pulse™ is both the name of a company and a powerful web-based, energy management software for facility or operation managers, and employees in commercial and institutional settings.  Pulse™ monitors, displays and analyzes energy consumption per square foot per day, per week, and per month. The system is also designed to compare individual buildings against high performers and industry standards.  The software collects data from a building’s meter and sends real time data to Pulse™, which can then parse the data into a number of ways to achieve efficiencies of between 15 to 25 per cent. “The success of Pulse™ Energy’s monitoring technology rests on the supposition that, if people can see their energy usage in real time, then they will want to reduce it because they’ve come to realize how easy it is to save money” (Saxifrage, 2011). A high profile example was their Venue Energy Tracker used by VANOC and BC Hydro to enable energy savings of 10 – 20 % at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

As a world leader in clean energy technology, Pulse™ promotes literacy through energy webinars and newsletters. However, as CEO Helliwell has stated  “the biggest hurdle …(he says)…is capturing the attention of senior management to address the energy efficiency of their buildings” (McCarthy, 2011).

Against this backdrop, the University, in partnership with Olivelife Creative [Kara Pecknold], and Lift Studios [Haig Armen and Chris Stone], developed a design research participatory workshop to orient Pulse™ stakeholders to the opportunity of integrating design research practices into their entrepreneurial portfolio. At the outset the goals were: “to develop a practice of research with Pulses™’ clients to ensure that the software was providing the requisite tools needed for energy management teams, and to gain some insights into the overall customer experience to guide future software developments” (Pecknold & Stone, 2010).

To create a common working language for stakeholders, energy management roles were grouped by affinities into one of three categories: DECISION MAKER, KNOWLEDGE WORKER, and/or ACTION WORKER, presented in Venn diagram format. A triangle was used to represent the organization and was superimposed onto the Venn diagram.

What follows is a conversation between the facilitators of the workshop as they discuss the challenges and the opportunities of trying to integrate design research into an organizational culture, a culture looking to advance energy literacy globally at the residential and commercial levels.

The Conversation

I’m Kara Pecknold, graduate of Emily Carr University’s masters program; I graduated in  2009 from the design stream. My practice involves design research and teaching. I have developed a course on teaching people how to look at social change and how to apply design process to that. I teach non-designers about design, about how designers think and how it applies to business or design in critical social scenarios.

My name is Chris Stone, principal of SeaStone Designs. I was Director of User Experience at Lift Studios when the Pulse™ Energy project came up. Prior to that I was the Senior Interaction Designer at Pulse Energy. Pulse Energy is a Vancouver-based company that’s been around for about 3 years now; it provides software for visualizing energy consumption in commercial and institutional buildings like UBC campus. Their goal is to help people understand how buildings behave, to track any anomalies, and to proactively address them.

We’d identified that design research was a discipline that needed to be injected into the overall thinking process and product management at Pulse™. Kara was brought in to create a framework for not only applying the short term effect of design research, but also for creating a repeatable process by which design research could be woven into the core of the company’s decision-making processes.

Pulse™ had done a lot of market research on identifying viable opportunities to validate the business model in terms of core values and clients, and in terms of risks and benefits. The challenge was to think in terms of sharing a vocabulary, and documentation, and technology. You have to understand what the real infrastructure looks like before you can build any software. As deBono  (2010[CM1] ) might observe when wearing the Black Hat from his Six Thinking Hats® technique (the logical negative response), proposing a business anthropology or ethnographic research strategy to a client can present a difficult terrain to navigate. Often clients assume that these strategies add to the bottom line when in fact, over time, the return on investment is realized when monetized as part of the business plan.

We went through a timeline of objectives. We wanted to cover the internal, and I, as an outsider, really needed to truly understand energy, energy consumption and the system. So that, in and of itself, was a learning process, and so was processing the data gathered from internal interviews.

We also commandeered a room with lots of walls—Post-it® notes and sharpies were purchased. We started brainstorming, drawing out our thoughts, and visualizing the design challenge.

In starting our process with Pulse™ I’d put together a presentation of my background and what we were proposing as a real asset to the company. Skepticism was vocalized quite clearly in that first meeting; I wasn’t from the software sector and wasn’t building software, so how could I possibly understand what they needed?

Largely what we do in User Experience, Interaction Design and Service Design is a rigorous human-centred methodology that is not driven by subject matter. That is the benefit of being in design research: not being tied to any core subject matter because if you are, you become biased. Of course, the bias in Interaction Design is always the end user.

Figure 2. Participatory workshop, Fall 2010

Deciding on Tools and Methodology

For our initial internal interview phase, I developed a set of common questions and a few unique questions in collaboration with Chris to understand the field to then develop a methodology to apply to the client. You simply can’t avoid that stage; you can’t just toss a methodology out there.

We quickly identified that there wasn’t a common understanding of the energy field language, and so we tried to capture that in the internal interview process with key stakeholders.Our core methods were the interview process and context mapping or theming feedback using coloured Post-its® and pens. Through an iterative cycle of mapping we started noticing patterns and themes.

This kind of methodology development is the fuzzy front end in design, where you prefigure a methodology to figure out next steps such as: What is the best way to connect to such a diverse client base?

For the workshop we had to identify all the potential clients so we worked with the sales team to identify the background of each one. We next organized them by sector: healthcare, education, commerce or industrial. We wanted to have as broad a spectrum as possible to arrive at a telling set of data to inform the development of personas and mental models.

Defining the problem space took the greatest amount of effort. That gap between what you think “it” is and what “it” ends up being is one of the most difficult spaces to navigate. It cannot be quantified. Further, it is very hard for clients to wait for an “ah ah” moment because it’s the messiest of times; it’s cumbersome and it doesn’t feel tangible.

There is actually two stages to synthesis. There’s the research and synthesis that has to happen before you even begin to define the audience and the most appropriate methods to meet their needs. Then there’s the synthesis that happens once you’ve actually executed the methods. You reflect back; it’s a full cycle.

Figure 3. Participatory workshop, Fall 2010

Iterative Visualizing –Looking for the Optimum Pulse Fit

Having a repeatable framework was key; a basic Venn diagram was laid over top of a triangle. Each point of the triangle showed a place in the system.

It was a simple triad of decision maker [executive], knowledge worker [manager] and action worker [employee]. These are the people who are issuing directives or implementing actions to respond to a particular facet of the system, or who respond to energy anomalies such as a boiler breaking or the HVAC system running out of control.

Stakeholders were given coloured  Post-its® to identify themselves in the system rather than having us assign them to a category such as “you’re an energy manager and you’re an operations person.” It was more of a facilitation exercise than it was co-design.  However, once they were able to self identify it got them immediately engaged in the process.

In the Flow

We were searching for whatever it was that made up their infrastructure: shared vocabulary, frequently engaged technology (computer – email – mobile phone), types of documents that would get exchanged, and, most importantly, the people involved. The exercise prior to that had them establishing all their goals as individuals and as an organization, and prioritizing them in terms of importance, and then across time or frequency as markers for specific information.

Our goal was to unearth how Pulse™ operated as a learning organization, as an environment that’s interconnected. We were looking for statements that supported that. However,  a lot of the statements that came up were from the second level discussion questions. These turned out to be almost more useful than our primary questions.

If design research is only housed within an academic setting and it sits on paper, that’s fine, that’s one aspect of it. But what really has a lot of impact is when you connect design research to industry.

There’s an emerging interest and buzz being generated around Design Research. However, there is often a sense of disappointment on the part of clients when it is explained to them. It is not a product; it is a process.

We weren’t synthesizing and going “here’s what you can do to the software,” because we didn’t have enough content. We ended up changing gears to “here’s a case-study and here’s a toolkit” because our real motivation was to say “the only real way that this is going to work for your company is to create a sense of value around Design Research.” And the best way we know to do that is to say, “now repeat what we just did with other clients.” We presented the work and some of the people listening to our presentation were nodding “Yes,” almost like a sign of relief, going “I’ve always thought this and now you’ve validated it.”

As a team, we persevered in a very challenging situation: we had to come up with a very compelling deliverable that changed the way people were thinking about this problem. We were aiming to change the culture of the company around thinking more deeply about their decision-making processes, how they were selling the product, positioning it, designing, and distributing it.


Learning and Leading Change

For me the experience was satisfying because I felt that not only were we doing design research about software, we were also doing design research about a company in the hope of embedding the value of design research into their business model.

Since the workshop, we’ve had some conversations with people at Pulse™ asking us “Would you teach me how to do this?” For me the satisfaction is that someone on the interaction or development team would want to keep going because that is what ultimately impacts the design. That WAS the design solution.

The crown jewel for this entire thing for me was when someone came up to me and said “I don’t see how as a company we can move forward without this being at the centre of our decision-making about our product.”



  • [1] Saxifrage, C. (2011). David Helliwell’s clean tech sweet spot. In Earth Matters, Retrieved April 4, 2011 from http://www. Vancouverobserver.com/blogs/arthmatters/2011/02/27…
  • [2] McCarthy, Shawn. (2011). The man who greens the games. In the Globe & Mail’s National Business Section, Retrieved April 4, 2011 from http://www.pulseenergy.com/news/globe-mail-profiles-pulse-energy…
  • [3] The deBono  Group . (2010). The deBono group – Six Thinking Hats. Retrieved April 4, 2011 from http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php
  • [4] Pecknold, Kara and Stone, Chris. (2010). Innovation session: participatory workshop structure/flow. In Pulse Energy Design Research Pilot, Vancouver: Pulse™ Energy

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