How understanding the user journey for heat pump adoption will generate innovation

Heat pumps are a central tool in the decarbonisation of home heating – currently responsible for around 15 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions. But for most householders, getting one installed is notoriously difficult. We partnered with Energy Saving Trust to learn what the process of getting a heat pump is like for people and identify where innovation can make the process easier.

James lives in a five bedroom, historic farmhouse heated by liquified petroleum gas (LPG). Upcoming home renovations alongside a desire to lower his environmental impact led him to consider replacing his boiler with a heat pump. He contacted a few installers, who quoted between £22,000 and £46,000 for the work. This far exceeded his expectations and budget. The negative press surrounding government grants discouraged him from applying for any financial support: “The Green Homes Grant had such a bad reputation I wouldn't even touch it.” As a result, he gave up on a heat pump and is exploring other routes to lowering his environmental footprint, such as battery storage and solar.

Such stories are not uncommon, rendering the already very small pool of households actively seeking a heat pump installation even smaller. Getting a heat pump entails considerable research, bewildering technical details, and the challenge of finding an installer that feels trustworthy and is available.

However, for many of the UK’s households, heat pumps will be the solution to decarbonising home heating. The government is aiming for 600,000 installations per year by 2028 but with only 35,000 heat pumps installed in 2019, meeting these targets will require huge changes to the householder user journey, affecting the way heat pumps are sold, financed and installed.

Our approach to exploring the heat pump installation journey

To understand how people navigate the process of getting a heat pump, we spoke to 15 owner occupiers who’d recently installed a heat pump, six heat pump installers, and five industry experts about their background, knowledge, motivations and experience of the heat pump installation process. These interviews were enlightening and allowed us to identify the steps involved in the heat pump installation process and map out the installation journey for both households and heat pump installers. We set out three distinct phases for householders: the awareness and preparation stage, the main user journey where householders have regular contact with installers, and finally, installation and daily use. The user journey, pictured below, can be explored in detail on our Miro board where there are also instructions to download a high-resolution image.

Diagram of heat pump installation journey

Initially, we had sought to identify pain points along the installation journey, where householders face barriers that might make them less inclined to continue. Our aim was to use those pain points as target sites for innovation. Make those points less painful, we hypothesised, and more people might move through the process successfully.

However, our research with householders showed that those who successfully completed the installation journey were happy to make a considerable effort to get their heat pump installed, and tended to battle through challenges to get the outcome they sought. As one determined householder said, only somewhat tongue in cheek, “the pain will go away”. There were some points of drop off, which we marked on the installation journey, but these were largely points where a householder had no option but to give up their install, a bit like James’ experience where the cost was just too prohibitive.

Where next?

Less than 1 per cent of home heating installations per year are heat pumps. The rest are largely made up of boilers burning fossil fuels like gas and LPG and by direct electric heating. Thus, according to Rogers’ model of the innovation adoption lifecycle, we are still firmly in the innovator phase. Current heat pump adopters, the Innovators, are a group willing to persevere through challenges and to take risks to get the newest innovations that meet their needs and desires. Innovators pave the way for the Early Adopters who will follow them, helping mature the market and allowing suppliers to develop methods and approaches. This was a hard lesson in not trying to run before we can walk. Increasing heat pump uptake now, we realised, isn’t about smoothing the journey for everyday the majority of householders yet. Rather, it’s about making the journey for Innovators less complicated in order that more of them can pass along that journey and reach its conclusion.

This image shows Rogers' curve of innovation uptake. It show that uptake is slow at first, with the Innovator group making up the first 2.5% of adoptors, and speeds up as you move into early adopters (the next 13.5%).

The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers. With successive groups of consumers adopting the new technology (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level. The blue curve is broken into sections of adopters. (Source: Wikipedia)

Our fieldwork with householders and our interviews with installers and industry experts pointed to a need for improved information. The knowledge gathering step is an important one. Following Rogers again, Innovators are a group who tend to be willing to do knowledge gathering in order to get the newest, novel technologies. However, the heat pump offer is complex and, because of this, many people drop off at the knowledge gathering stage. The technology isn’t yet mature enough to remove the information gathering phase entirely. But, for the next cohort of would-be Innovators, we’re interested to find what could be done to make information easier to access and more digestible.

As our project moves forward, we will be exploring the information gathering process at the beginning of the installation journey in more detail. In the coming weeks we’ll be recruiting participants interested in heat pump installations and set them heat pump related information gathering tasks. Using a combination of screen recording and follow up interviews, we want to find answers to questions like: ‘what’s the most difficult information to find?’, or ‘what information is most crucial in deciding to go forward with a heat pump installation?’. This research will help us to generate innovations that improve that information landscape.

We like to work in the open and are looking forward to sharing the results as we find them.


Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Codrina Cretu

Senior Analyst, A Sustainable Future mission

Codrina is a mission analyst for Nesta's 'A Sustainable Future' mission team.

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Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Oliver Zanetti

Mission Manager, A Sustainable Future mission

Oliver is a Mission Manager for the Sustainable Future mission team.

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