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A UI To Make You Fall In Love With Conserving Water

Using less water means caring about it–every day. Clever design can help.

California’s drought is officially over. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop conserving water. In fact, the drought brought water conservation to the top of people’s minds in a new way, both in California and across the country. And with the extreme weather that comes with climate change, conserving water is as important as ever.

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But what’s the best way to cut back on water usage? A good start might be understanding just how much water you’re actually using on a day-to-day basis. That’s what the water conservation smart sensor Well is meant to do. Designed and engineered by the firms Matter and Mindtribe, Well is a prototype system of sensors that you hook up to some or all of your water lines, depending on how precisely you want to know about your water consumption. Each sensor, powered by a mini turbine that generates enough electricity to power its computer and wifi, beams water consumption data to a backend server, which sends the information to an app on your phone and to a slick UI on the Well system’s showerhead.

According to a 2016 report by the Water Research Foundation, the biggest sources of water consumption in the home are toilets and showers, with faucets not far behind. Well sensors were designed for easy installation beneath kitchen and bathroom sinks and behind toilets, and a specially designed Well shower head measures water consumption in the bathroom. Then, the system uses information about where you live, the number residents and bathrooms in your home, and the estimated amount of water someone should consume for a shower to provide you with a daily water goal.

[Image: courtesy Matter x Mindtribe]
The system’s user experience is based on a simple idea: You start “full,” and the interface shows you “draining” based on how much water you’ve used throughout the day through simple color indicators. In the app, that manifests at the beginning of the day as a full-screen landscape of serene, blue mountains rising above animated azure waves. As you use more and more water, the waves become smaller and smaller and the landscape transitions into an orange, desert-like mountain range.

[Photo: courtesy Matter x Mindtribe]
“We wanted this immediate impact, so you don’t need to see a number to see where you were,” says Justin Porcano, project lead at Matter. “It suggests a broader picture. It’s not just about you saving water. It has a global impact.”

There’s a similar conceit behind the interface of the shower head. On the base of the device, a panel of LEDs slowly turns orange when you’ve used 80% of your water goal for the day. Above the LEDs, there’s an “eco” button that reduces the amount of flow to the showerhead, which you can press if you’re dangerously in the orange–a smart piece of UI design that would enable users to actually change their behaviors in the moment. On top of that, the shower head itself is magnetic, rather than attaching to a clunky bracket. It’s a clever way to make it easier for users to make micro adjustments during showers.

“Showering is enjoyable, we didn’t want to apply pressure to someone taking a shower or make them feel like time was running out,” Porcano says. “You want to establish a visual and physical relationship rather than something that lives on an app, especially if you’re trying to improve yourself in real time.”

[Photo: courtesy Matter x Mindtribe]
The system’s app can toggle between showing you how much water you’ve saved per week, and how much money you’ve saved per week, depending on your priorities. It will also show you how much you’ve saved along with all other Well users–giving what may seem like incremental changes a greater sense of importance.

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Well is still in the prototype stage, and both Matter and Mindtribe want to bring it to production through either crowdfunding or investment. Ultimately, they’re hoping to be the Nest of water conservation, though now that the drought is finally over, they’ll have to convince people to give up their long showers.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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