Monthly archives of “September 2006


Thanks to everyone who’s got in touch over the last few weeks with examples and interesting angles on the areas discussed on this site, and my apologies for having not yet replied to everyone. The response to the sudden increase in eyeballs and linkage (even if Technorati’s record/rating of this site seems to be somewhat broken!) thanks to a > Things magazine > Metafilter + Kottke + Design Observer + Resarch + Joshua Schachter + many others link-chain has been fantastic, and much appreciated.

An important (and fascinating) potentially long-term lightweight transport design project has also been gathering pace for me recently so time spent blogging here’s been reduced a bit, but rest assured I’ll get round to posting many fascinating examples and some great insights from readers over the next week or so, as well as a couple of book reviews.

Speed control designed to help the user

A keyboard with a customisable extended character pad that I modelled back in 2000 - this was done in an early 1990s UNIX version of AutoCAD, and it shows!

Something with an interesting ‘forcing function’ story has been right in front of me all this time: the QWERTY keyboard, developed by Christopher Sholes and then Remington, with the intention of controlling the user’s behaviour. Until typists became proficient with the QWERTY system, the non-alphabetical layout with deliberate, if arbitrary, separation of common letters allowed the maximum typing speed to be slowed to something approaching writing speed, which reduced the amount of keys sticking and thus benefited both the manufacturer (less product failure, fewer complaints) and the customer (less product failure, less irritation). It also locked users who learned on a Remington QWERTY typewriter into staying with that system (and manufacturer, at least until the patents expired).

Whether or not QWERTY is a real example of market failure (in the sense that it’s an ‘inefficient’ system which nevertheless came to dominate, through self-reinforcing path-dependence, network effects, lock-in, etc), it’s an interesting design example of a commonplace architecture of control where the control function has long become obsolete as the configuration becomes the default way of designing the product.

Would designers today dare to create anything so deliberately idiosyncratic (even if clever) for mass consumption? (Systems that have evolved collaboratively to create complex, powerful results, such as UNIX, probably don’t count here.) The individualistic interfaces of some 1990s modelling software (e.g. Alias StudioTools, Form Z, Lightwave) which required a significant learning investment, were presumably designed with making the user experience easier “once you got used to it” (hence not really architectures of control) but have increasingly fallen by the wayside as the ‘standard’ GUI model has become so commonplace.

Today’s architecture of control is more likely to be something more robust against the user’s adaptation: if for some reason it was desirable to limit the speed at which users typed today, it’s more likely we’d have a keyboard which limited the rate of text input electronically, with a buffer and deliberate delay and no way for the user to learn to get round the system. Indeed, it would probably report the user if he or she tried to do so. Judging by the evidence of the approaches to control through DRM, such a wilfully obstructive design seems more likely.

Returning to the idea of slowing down users for their own benefit, as commenter ‘Apertome’ points out on Squublog:

“One way in which some such designs [i.e. architectures of control] can be GOOD is when mountain biking – a lot of times, they’ll put a tight curve before an obstacle to force you to slow down.”

Note how this is a somewhat different practice to deliberately reducing visibility at junctions: using a bend to slow down a rider before an obstacle does not impede riders who are already travelling at a lower speed, while it makes the higher-speed riders slow down and hence keeps them safe, whereas wilfully removing sightlines at roundabouts would seem in many cases to work to the detriment of drivers who like to assess the road ahead well before the junction, and force all to stop instead.

‘Secret alarm becomes dance track’

The Mosquito sound has been mixed (sort of) into a dance track:

“…the sound is being used in a dance track, Buzzin’, with secret melodies only young ears can hear.

Simon Morris from Compound Security said: “Following the success of the ringtone, a lot of people were asking us to do a bit more, so we got together with the producers Melodi and they came up with a full-length track.

“It has two harmonies – one that everyone can hear and one that only young people can hear.

“But it works well together or separate,” he added.”

There’s a clip linked from the BBC story, or here directly (WMV format). Can’t say the “secret melodies” are especially exciting (and yes, I can hear it!) but I suppose it’s a clever idea. There could be some interesting steganographic possibilities, and indeed it could be used for ‘cheating in tests’ as Jason Thomas puts it here.

This is the same Simon Morris who’s quoted in an earlier BBC story as saying that teenagers (in general) don’t have a right “to congregate for no specific purpose”, so it’s interesting to see him getting involved with young peoples’ music. Nevertheless, I can see the dilemma that Compound Security are in: they’ve created something designed to be unpleasant for teenagers, but are also capitalising on its potential appeal to teenagers. It’s clever, if rather inconsistent branding practice.

Countercontrol: blind pilots


In a recent post, I discussed a Spiked article by Josie Appleton which included the following quote:

“Police in Weston-super-Mare have been shining bright halogen lights from helicopters on to youths gathered in parks and other public places. The light temporarily blinds them, and is intended to ‘move them on’, in the words of one Weston police officer.”

A friend, reading this, simply uttered a single word: “Mirror”.

What’d happen then? Is the risk of a blinded pilot and a crashed helicopter really worth it?

Or perhaps it’s the state, and by extension Avon & Somerset Police (in this case), who are the real blind pilots, attempting to ‘guide’ society in this way? If not blind, they’re certainly short-sighted.

Shaping behaviour at the Design Council

RED talk, Design Council. Photo by Kate Andrews
Photo by Kate Andrews

I’ve blogged before mentioning the work of the UK Design Council’s RED research arm, which applies ‘design thinking’ to redevelop and create public services appropriate for societal changes right now and in the years to come. The previous post was specifically about Jennie Winhall’s ‘Is design political?’ essay, but I’ve kept in touch with RED’s work and was very interested to attend RED’s Open House last Friday, along with Katrin Svabo Bech and Kate Andrews.

The presentation, by Jennie Winhall, Chris Vanstone* and Matthew Horne, introduced the Kitchen Cabinet (democratic engagement) and Activmobs projects, along with a brief discussion of the concept of shaping behaviour through design, which is of course of significant pertinence to the ‘architectures of control’ idea (as it is indeed to captology).

(Sadly, there was apparently not time to give any more than a cursory treatment of RED’s Transformation Design concept [PDF link, 193 kb], which re-casts design thinking as the cross-disciplinary approach for problem-solving in a great variety of disciplines. The paper leads with a great quote from Charles Eames: “More than 30 years ago, Charles Eames, the American multidisciplinary designer, was asked, ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’”. I was especially looking forward to a discussion on transformation design, as my hunch is that many of us who’ve chosen to go into design (and engineering) have realised and appreciated this for a long time – indeed, it may even be the reason why we went into it: a desire to acquire the tools to shape, change and improve the world – but that by expressing it explicitly, RED has a great chance to win the understanding of a political establishment and general public who still often equate design with styling and little more. But I digress…)

Jennie Winhall’s discussion of shaping behaviour through design was a clear exposition of the principle that empowering people to change their own behaviour ought to be more preferable than forcing them to change their behaviour externally. Traditional policy-making fails in this context: it is easier to put in CCTV than to solve the underlying casuses of crime; it is easier to fund more obesity treatment than it is to tackle poor diet in the first place (the phrase ‘symptom doctor’ was not used, but it might have been). Describing the idea of manipulating behaviour through design as being slightly ‘sinister’, Jennie noted that it has been used in a commercial context for many years (it was one of those talks where I was almost bursting to interrupt with actual examples discussed on this website, though I didn’t!), but, as Oxford’s Lucy Kimbell pointed out, there is not necessarily an easy way to apply the techniques in a field where the aims are less well-defined (“social good” as opposed to “money”):

“But the outcomes of public service designs are complex. RED sees value in making use of design methods used in Marks & Spencer, for example, to make the consuming experience “compelling and desirable” and applying them to public service contexts. In the M&S context, the use of these methods may well have a clear, measurable business objective: increasing sales, for example – and even here design practitioners may well struggle with framing the design problem, communicating with the client, and measuring the value of the design process and artefacts. How much harder it is to define and agree goals for public services or public goods?”

Looking at the politically motivated examples of architectures of control which I’ve examined over the last couple of years, I’d say a significant percentage of them are designed with the goal of stamping out a particular type of behaviour, usually classed as anti-social and usually extremely contentious: this really is social engineering. The success of skateboarding ‘deterrents’ is measured by how few children skateboard in an area. The success of the Mosquito is measured by how few children congregate in an area. The success of park benches with central armrests is measured by how there are no longer people lying down on them. The “woollier” behaviour-shaping architectures of control, such as Square Eyes or the Entertrainer are very much edging towards captology, and perhaps these examples are closer to RED’s field of experience.

WorldChanging also has a discussion of the RED Open House presentation.

*Speaking to us individually, Chris Vanstone used “stick, carrot or speedometer” as a way of classifying design methods for behavioural change, and I think this is worthy of a separate post, as this is an extremely insightful way of looking at these issues from an interaction design point of view.

Round-up of some control examples

Some examples I’ve come across over the last few days:

Designing out functionality: Verizon

Squub on Squublog, mentions a case of a product’s features being deliberately disabled with some intent (though it’s not clear exactly what benefit Verizon would get from doing this – does anyone have any ideas?):

“When I bought my Verizon 6700 Pocket PC “phone”, the operating system was “enhanced” so that the thing could be used as a phone OR a wi-fi device, but not both at the same time. In other words, if I turned on the wi-fi, the phone wouldn’t ring if anyone tried to call me. There’s a registry hack that disabled that feature… or re-enabled the intended functionality… or whatever.”

The thinking behind adding control

Over on Metafilter, ‘onhazier’ talks about some of the rationale behind designing restrictive control into software:

“I work for a software company where we continually ask if a control is necessary. We actually debate “What is the harm of letting the client do XXXX?” Sometimes, we determine there is no harm and do not restrict the choices available to the client. At other times, we have to restrict the choices to make sure our software complies with various laws or industry standards. There are many reasons for implementing controls in software such as keeping a client out of a loop or guiding them through a process in a user friendly manner.”

This is a useful insight, and parallels the same kinds of thought process that engineers and designers often go through when designing safety or mistake-proofing forcing functions into products. These are architectures of control intended (at least) to be useful or beneficial to the user, or to the community as a whole (often contentious, e.g. skateboard ‘deterrents’).

But, as can be seen from the analysis of examples (and the diagram – both of which need quite a bit of updating), there are also many design examples where the intentions behind the control are not in favour of the user, but instead the design is driven by political, or more usually, purely commercially exploitative strategy.

Viral control

Medialoper has a great piece on Microsoft’s Zune ‘viral DRM’:

“Zune will intentionally infect your music with the DRM virus before passing it along to one of your friends. After three listens the poor song dies a horrible DRM enabled death… Microsoft will undoubtedly claim this limitation is designed to support artists and prevent piracy. There’s just one problem… While it may come as a surprise to Microsoft and the major labels, independent musicians frequently promote their music by posting unencrypted mp3 files on their websites in hopes of finding an audience… [and] it appears that Zune’s viral approach to DRM is in violation of all of Creative Commons licenses. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes before someone actually challenges Microsoft on this.

What happens if someone tries to protect a CC-licensed work with digital rights management (DRM) tools?

If a person uses DRM tools to restrict any of the rights granted in the license, that person violates the license. All of our licenses prohibit licensees from “distributing the Work with any technological measures that control access or use of the Work in a manner inconsistent with the terms of this License Agreement.”
Creative Commons FAQ

It’s not clear whether this ignorance/overriding of Creative Commons provisions is deliberate (and strategic – to prevent artists who choose CC licensing from gradually dominating the Zune network?) or just incompetent/lazy: Medialoper quotes Microsoft’s Cesar Menendez:

“There currently isn’t a way to sniff out what you are sending, so we wrap it all up in DRM. We can’t tell if you are sending a song from a known band or your own home recording so we default to the safety of encoding.”

Even if “the safety of encoding” means violating an express intent by the originator of the content?

Frustrating interactions

In some cases, the line between user frustration due to deliberate control and awkward or poor interaction architecture is a blurred one – for example, Matías e-mailed me details of a change to the way iTunes allows users to organise their files:

“I believe that the new iTunes store is a good example of increasing control of the users’ behavior. In the previous version (6.something) all your files ended up together at the library, and you could choose how to organize them, listen to them, etcetera, with pretty much absolute freedom (for example, if you sorted your files by the date you added them, you could play a combination of mp3s of your favorite free music alternating with podcast of your choice). Now, if you listed to music is just music (or whatever you put in an mp3), if podcasts is, podcasts is, and so forth. Unless you spend your (apparently) worthless time creating a playlist, no more freedom for you on iTunes.”

It’s not clear what the intentions would be behind this kind of design change – is there any commercial motivation in Apple’s choice to restrict users’ behaviour in this case, or is this just an example of an irritating alteration to the method of interaction?