Trinity College engineers are working on methods to better understand the role of energy labels in promoting sustainable choices using a novel eye-tracking analysis approach. Dr William Brazil reports
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Researchers in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) are currently working on methods to better understand the role that energy labels can play in promoting sustainable choices using a novel eye-tracking analysis approach.

Energy labels are required by EU Directives to be provided with a wide range of goods and are designed to make consumers aware of the environmental impact associated with the options open to them. These labels are also intended to encourage consumers to purchase goods that use less energy and water, and therefore, are less resource intensive in their operation.

The researching and production of energy labels places a resource burden upon the appliance manufacturers, and it is therefore important that the information they provide is being taken account by consumers when making their purchasing decisions.

As an increasing amount of emphasis in the field of sustainability is being placed upon ‘soft’ measures relating to human behaviour change, rather than solely on ‘hard’ engineering solutions, there is a greater need to understand these behaviours and motivations. This is especially true in the area of home-energy use.

Research emerging from fields such as behavioural economics shows that the way people make choices is often very complex and that these choices are based upon a large number of factors that are often not straightforward or intuitive.

If we are to ensure the greater levels of adoption of less resource intensive technologies, and to reduce our ecological footprints, we need to gain a greater level of understanding of what motivates people when it comes to purchasing energy consuming goods such as household appliances.

As part of this project, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, TCD researchers are utilising eye-tracking technology to gain an insight into the role that such labels play in consumers’ choices. Eye-tracking gives researchers the ability to see what the consumer sees, as they take in the information presented to them, and this helps us to better understand what affects these decisions.

Eye-tracking technology experiments


During eye-tracking experiments, study participants sit in front of a view screen, are shown a number of images and are asked to complete choice tasks based on the information they see. A bar placed beneath the screen emits near infrared light that is reflected off participants’ pupils.

Using the accompanying calibration software, it is then possible to build up a map of where their attention has been focused. For this research, the team is looking at how energy information competes with other factors, such as unit prices and user reviews, for consumers’ attention when gathering information about appliances.

Fig: 1 Choice Scenario

Fig: 1 Choice scenario

This experiment is designed as a simplification of the type of information that consumers may encounter and that is provided by online retailers. Fig 1 shows one of the choice experiments where participants were asked to imagine they were selecting a new washing machine. This image shows the results of the eye-tracking analysis, in terms of a heat map representing where they focused their attention.

In addition to heat maps, the eye-tracking software can also produce scan paths showing the path of the eye across the image as the participant assesses the information. The path displayed in Fig 2 shows how complex these movements are for a task that took on average less than ten seconds to complete.

It can be seen how the participant’s attention quickly moves across the image, checking and re-checking the information before making their choice.

Fig 2: Scan paths

Fig 2: Scan paths

This research looks at both the role of energy labels when they are presented with other information in choice scenarios, as well examining the aspects of the labels themselves. These labels present an excellent opportunity to provide consumers with more information about the environmental impacts of their choices, and to nudge them towards more sustainable decisions, but not all information is given the same amount of attention.

Label designers choose to highlight certain impacts over others, by outlining them in coloured scales on bold text. Fig 3 shows the results of an analysis of the elements of a label, in the form of a ‘burn-through’ heat map, where the areas that receive the most amount of focus are the most transparent.

Research aims and results


fig-3-burn-through-heat-map

Fig 3: Burn through heat map

One of the primary aims of this research is to see if current policy is effective, specifically whether energy labels are achieving what they set out to do by making consumers more aware of the unseen environmental impacts of their retail choices.

Preliminary results appear to show that these labels are at least effective at bringing environmental information and energy issues into consumers thought processes.

While decision making is always a complex process, and will likely vary from person to person, depending on their individual situation, it is hoped that this research will yield insights into how consumers interact with environmental and energy information, and highlight ways of making it more relevant to them.

While eye-tracking has been around for a number of decades, recent advances in the mass production of components means that this technology is no longer the preserve of specialist institutions, and is becoming increasingly used in areas as diverse as sustainability, online marketing, and road safety.

With advances in smart metering and the increasing need to provide people with feedback on their consumption of resources, be it water, energy, or emissions, this technology provides a tool to help design better methods of communication.

If you are interested in this project or the use of eye-tracking technology, we would be happy to discuss it with you further. If you wish to get in touch, please email Dr William Brazil at wbrazil@tcd.ie.

Authors:
Dr William Brazil is a postdoctoral researcher in Trinity College Dublin. He is currently the lead researcher on a project entitled ‘Current Status and Potential Role of Eco Labels in Informing Environmentally Friendly Purchases and Behaviours’. His research interests are sustainability, choice modelling and low-carbon transitions.

Dr Brian Caulfield is an associate professor in civil engineering at Trinity College Dublin. He currently leads a number of projects, which examine sustainable transport options, intelligent transport systems, carbon pricing and renewable energy. He is author on over 100 publications on a wide range of transportation topics.

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Researchers in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) are currently working on methods to better understand the role that energy labels can play in promoting sustainable choices using a novel eye-tracking analysis approach. Energy labels are required by EU Directives to be provided...