Tendril creates software tools that plug into existing home thermostats to help people manage their energy usage and costs. They were interested in rolling out a new product line that would appeal to the average, non-techie homeowner, and approached EchoUser to build some user personas for the product team. Before talking to a single customer, I set up a range of internal team interviews to accomplish a few things: 

  • Educate the team on what exactly personas are and how they're meant to be used. Personas can get a bad rap for being "fluffy" and designed more to motivate sales and marketing teams than inform product decisions. They also get stale very quickly, so a proper personas program must account for the fact that they need to be living documents - teams need to own them and modify them on an ongoing basis as new data become available. The Tendril personas were to be grounded in actual research, and would serve as guides for product and engineering teams when they didn't have access to real users (which was most of the time). 


  • Find out what problems the new product line was intended to solve. This was certainly helpful context for me, but more importantly it created a range of topics to explore and validate during user interviews. 


By working with the sales team, we got access to 20-some prospects who had agreed to be interviewed about their energy usage and habits. We managed to get good coverage on the East and West coasts, and I conducted about 16 interviews over the phone and Skype, following a script and range of questions we had defined during the earlier stages of the project. I mapped each interviewee on the spectrums of behavior we had identified, and if new a new spectrum came up I made sure to include it in future interviews.

The in-home interviews were where we gathered the most insights, as it was much easier to dig more deeply into specific themes - and actually being able to see how people went about saving energy (or not!) was very helpful. Some main insights included:

  • Good intentions = bad behavior. In numerous cases, self-described "greenies" who were passionate about saving energy were in actual fact quite wasteful. One father, after proudly showing me a few CFLs he had installed, walked me by 2 televisions on in the background with nobody watching them, and a door wide open with the AC blasting.
  • But pride = a good motivator. As a team, Tendril had underestimated how much pride people take in doing small things to save the planet. Whether it's shaving $5 off an electricity bill, or installing a few CFLs, these little acts could be used as catalysts and drivers for more involved behaviors (like installing a solar roof, for example).
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As with many businesses built on gathering data, Premise also has a significant customer-facing business intelligence (BI) product. We worked closely with our customers to figure out what data mattered to them - this was harder than it sounds because they had never encountered data this timely, as government figures are typically released every quarter (not daily or weekly). Working from basic wireframes, we quickly interated to build a live, usable product for testing.

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We started with a real time index for Nigeria, mapping daily food prices throughout the country. Using our data, Standard Chartered Bank discovered that official inflation figures were incorrect, which helped them adjust their investment approach in the region. In a different case, Unilever tapped our network to capture share-of-shelf data that helped them uncover how they were faring relative their competitors in local stores.



Working with bottom-of-the-pyramid users, many earning less than $5/day, made for interesting challenges. For example, we needed to design a product that supported upward of 2 dozen device types and screen sizes, in addition to 4 versions of Android OS simultaneously. Further, because phone signal is spotty in much of rural Africa and Asia, we had to adapt our data gathering flows to allow users to capture photos offline with a view to uploading them later. 

We also worked with customers on human development issues, including a Google project for mapping rural electrification in Kenya, and a WHO project in Liberia in the wake of the Ebola outbreak to capture hospital bed availability in and around Monrovia (and the corresponding impact on infection numbers). Building an app to handle to many different users and scenarios made for interesting work!

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