Columnists: Alan Meier, LBNL

Published on: 28 Feb 2012

Deconstructing folk labels for energy savings

You’ve almost certainly seen them: a yellow post-it on the thermostat or a brief note scribbled near the boiler controls, or perhaps a dog-eared card taped to the clothes washer.  These are reminders to ourselves (or visitors) about how to operate the device.  I call them “folk labels” so as to distinguish them from “official labels” such as the Euro energy labels, Energy Star, or other information provided by the manufacturer.

I have observed unusual folk labels in homes and offices around the world. They cover many topics but energy-related aspects certainly rank high on the list. Thermostats seem to be the most frequent targets of folk labels (at least regarding their operation).  For example, many hotels find it necessary to supplement the regular interface with a folk label like “for heat turn red switch to ‘heat’ “.  Some of the labels are unintentionally funny. A hotel in Korea used little pictures of chili peppers to designate “more heat” on the room thermostats because South Asian visitors understand that image more easily than a fractured English or Korean explanation.  In other situations, the folk label is needed because the controls are completely opaque.  One of my favorites was, “To override motion sensor, flick switch rapidly 5 times”.

Folk labels are just as important to auditors and other energy efficiency professionals as to the occupants because they are signals of problematic operation and a clue that energy is being wasted.  Thus an energy auditor should be especially attentive when encountering folk labels. Do the occupants truly understand how to operate that thermostat or is the folk label describing an energy-inefficient workaround?  The designers of appliance controls should also monitor the appearance of folk labels on their products.  In many cases, a folk label is evidence of a design failure.  I noticed that some commercial lighting controls get “folk-labeled” because they lack essential information like “off” or “this is a light switch”!

Folk labels have shown that the presence of motion sensors or external controls is particularly vexing to users.  My colleagues and I observed numerous labels advising users not to fiddle with a switch because the light was controlled by a motion sensor.  We need a new universal symbol to alert people that a light, fan, or other device is controlled by something more than that switch.

As appliances get smarter and control more aspects of their operation, the interface with users becomes more–not less–important.  A frustrated user will disable the most energy-efficient settings in order to get the desired results without reading a manual or spending 10 minutes re-learning the procedure.  There is something truly ironic when folk labels are needed to operate “smart” thermostats, lighting systems, or appliances.

I would like to ask your help in assembling more examples of folk labels.  Please e-mail me your photographs (or even sketches) at . I will create a library so that we can all view and learn from them.   Perhaps you will see the fruits of this compilation at the next eceee summer study!

I would like to acknowledge and credit my colleagues, Jessica Granderson, Therese Peffer, Cecilia Aragon, Gari Kloss, Marco Pritoni, and Daniel Perry for their contributions to the ideas expressed above.  Jessica Granderson, in particular, has transformed these casual observations into sensible categories; these are described in our presentation at the  2011 Behavior and Climate Change Conference (BECC), Folk Labeling: After-Market Graffiti to Fix Broken Usability


Folk label 1

Folk label on a light switch in a Japanese office telling occupants to leave that switch on. The label was added during the summer 2011 electricity crisis.  Credit: Alan Meier.

Folk label 2

Folk labels on a lighting control for a lecture room in a research building.  The labels appear to have been created from post-its that had been pre-printed with “Please sign here”.  Curiously, users found these labels confusing and then wrote “on” and “off” (seen faintly).  This is an example of two layers of folk labeling.  Credit: Gari Kloss.

Folk label 3

Folk label on a photocopy machine.  The photocopy machine’s user interface failed to clearly explain its power management behavior, forcing the users to provide their own instructions.  Credit: Gari Kloss.


The views expressed in this column are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of eceee or any of its members.

Other columns by Alan Meier