Behavior Design Tech: A deeper dive with Opower

RGHealth and @Opower team (View on

The Center for Total Health (@kptotalhealth) was visited this week by a team from the Columbia University Schools of Business and Medicine, as well as a team from Opower (@Opower) to do a deeper dive into behavior design in health care, learning from Opower’s success.

A few tidbits about what those success points are:

  • The Opower mailings, which I learned arrive separately from utility bills, have an 80 % open rate. Usually in health care, a 6 % open rate is considered excellent.
  • Opower now has contracts with 80+ utilities, with access to 50% of the energy usage data of all homes in the United States
  • They regularly do randomized controlled tests to determine the best language and approach to support the desired behavior modification – to reduce energy use – this can include “join language,” “loss language,” and the “pretty person on the cover” phenomenon
  • It’s estimated that 20% of residential energy use can be saved through behavior change – the current rate using this approach is 2%
  • And speaking of saving…the 350 employees of Opower collectively help save the equivalent of a Hoover Dam operating for 1 year, or more energy savings than all but 3 renewable energy companies – not bad!

Sprinkled in all of this is the knowledge and awareness that health care generally does not use these techniques for simple behaviors, like obtaining preventive care, for example. This is what the RG Health team was exploring with experts from Kaiser Permanente’s Innovation Consultancy (@kpinnovation), Kaiser Permanente Healthworks, and our world famous My Health Manager team, that produces and our brand new mobile app (Updated Kaiser Permanente Flagship App Makes Managing Health Care on the go Faster, Easier and More Accessible | Kaiser Permanente News Center).

It’s part of the journey of total health to uncover any and all things that could improve not just medical care, but health generally, and to host the conversations that help us learn how to do that.

I am always interested in the history of how things come together as well. We learned that Opower started out as a company named “Positive Energy,” that contracted with Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to create a carbon calculator, while having dreams for bigger impact. There are some clues to the birth of Positive Energy on the Internet, including a non-functional YouTube video :(, and a story about Opower signing the first 20 Utilities.

I think it’s important to document the birth of new things – no one seems to remember to do that until they’re already born. Everyone starts somewhere! With that in mind, we grabbed a shot of RGHealth in front of the walking wall, and the obligatory Google Glass (@ProjectGlass) shot that everyone gets when they come to the Center for Total Health. Always something new to learn, because our members expect that we’re working to improve their health, always, and in all ways.

If you want to learn more and couldn’t be with us, I recommend this presentation given at the excellent Action Design Meetup in Washington, DC : Action Design – Opower’s 5 Principles of Designing For Action: ADDC May 2013.


Ted Eytan, MD