Design with Intent

I’ve recently been doing a vast amount of reading (and writing a brief paper) on architectures of control-type strategies and precedents, from lots of different fields, as a precursor to planning the first practical parts of my PhD research, and in trying to classify and categorise different approaches, I’ve once again had to think about defining exactly what it is I’m investigating.

‘Architectures of control’ is a powerful label, and fits well (I think) with the original definition I applied to it, but on a more abstract level, these kinds of strategies – whether the ‘control’ is persuasion, coercion, stick, carrot, or something else – are all about intent on the part of the designer (as noted by ‘Silverman’ in a comment here). All the strategies involve design intended to result in certain user behaviour. The designer/engineer/planner, or his/her masters (corporate or political) have particular behavioural outcomes in mind for the interaction between user and product/system/environment (whether or not those intended outcomes actually occur is another matter). So, I considered Design with Intent (DwI) to encompass, more succinctly, the scope of my research. As such, I’ve added the phrase to the blog’s title; the ‘Architectures of Control’ part will remain in addition. Previous name change discussions raised some very interesting points about the merits and implications of different terminology.

Close-up of new header image.

The blog itself will also be changing a bit. If you’re reading directly rather than via RSS, you’ll have seen the new header image (larger version above), which attempts to symbolise both the architectural and the technological by inserting a building onto PCB-like tracks and pads: product and building design can very much be components of intentionally engineered behavioural systems, which is to some extent the message the blog’s trying to put across. I’ve loosely modelled the building in the image on the heavily Brutalist Brunel University Lecture Centre, by Richard Sheppard, most famous from its appearance as the Ludovico Centre in A Clockwork Orange. Many Brutalist (and Modernist) structures strike me as being very much like scaled-up consumer products set into a larger landscape (possibly why they seem to appeal more to designers and engineers than to the general public); what better to represent the idea of product architecture than actual architecture which resembles a product, or even an electronic component? It even has pins in the right place.

You might also notice that I’ve relegated the ‘Fulminate‘ posts to their own position in the sidebar – from now on, they won’t directly appear in the main body of the homepage, though if you click on the logo you can see them all, at (which is really just The main reasons for moving them are that a) not being about architectures of control, they tended to distract from the main focus of the blog, and potentially confuse new readers, b) they’re generally (so far) about things such as freelancing or Runnymede which are of interest to a different set of readers and c) if I want to develop Fulminate further as a blog, it will be neater standing slightly separated. The idea of having everything thrown together in the same blog seemed good at the time but in practice it irritated me a little too much. Hey, it’s just the annual re-branding.

My aim is to maintain this blog more consistently in 2008, and make it useful as an archive of DwI examples, techniques and approaches, as well as chronicling my PhD research and (hopefully) helping engage other designers and technologists interested in this area. In that vein I really do hope to reply to e-mails more quickly, engage further with commenters, and so on, as well as rewriting much of the introductory material linked from the sidebar so that it’s more up-to-date and benefits from examples that have come to light over the past couple of years, as well as actually explaining my current research. Now that I’ve got something more closely approximating a ‘normal’ working week, as opposed to the arbitrary hours that freelancing entails, it ought to be possible to keep up this website in a timely and regular manner. We’ll see.

I believe in mirror-queues

Meagan Call has written a very interesting piece examining the technique used in some (women’s) public restrooms* of moving the mirrors to the wall near the entrance/exit, rather than behind the sinks as might be expected (and is usually found in mens’ facilities), to lessen queueing and speed up throughflow:

No mirrors behind the sinks: photo by Meagan CallMirrors by exit instead: photo by Meagan Call

Women often linger, using the excess water from their recently scrubbed hands to squish, flatten, and fluff their hair. I’ve seen women who don’t bother to wash their hands bend over the sinks to play with their hair or re-touch makeup. And of course, some women go into the restroom for the sole purpose of looking into the mirror. No mirror equals less congestion, people washing their hands can get to the sinks more easily, and will leave more quickly.

Moving the mirror near the doors is actually an intelligent solution… by moving the mirrors away from the water, primping is less desirable. In addition, by placing it in the pathway of the door, people are more likely to feel foolish and in the way, and are therefore more likely to pass by quickly. The open space does not invite people to stay and look in the mirror.

Meagan’s analysis is spot-on – this is a clever technique which is subtle enough not to be noticed by the majority of users, but which nevertheless shapes their behaviour. The agenda is one of social benefit (for the greater good of the other users, reducing congestion) rather than explicitly commercial (in the context of the service area where the facilities are located), but it presumably has the effect of reducing complaints, hence increasing customer satisfaction even if only marginally.

We’ve looked before at some of the issues around mirrors in a retail environment, but in a confirmation/corollary of Meagan’s thoughts, I’ll end with two pertinent quotes:

Stand and watch what happens at any reflective surface – we preen like chimps, men and women alike… Mirrors slow shoppers in their tracks, a very good idea for whatever merchandise happens to be in the vicinity.

Paco Underhill, Why We Buy.

A large hotel in an American city received many complaints about the slowness of its elevators. It installed mirrors next to the elevator doors. The complaints ended.

Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace



Photos from Meagan Call.

Destroy everything you touch

The sandpaper cover of Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

We can’t help but be familiar with the concept of ‘malicious code’ in the context of computer security and programming, but in general the idea of products or technology which, as they’re used, sabotage or degrade the performance of a ‘rival’, is intriguing and not well-explored. Scott Craver’s Underhanded C contest is a fascinating example from the ‘white hat’ side of the fence; Microsoft’s use of deliberately targeted style sheets on to degrade Opera’s performance is another; and the CIA’s alleged planting of software bugs in Russian pipeline control software is a third. The Sony DRM rootkit might also fall into this category (as would this!)

But on a much more concrete level, we have this playful example: Memoires by Guy Debord, psychogeographer and Situationist, was originally published with a rough sandpaper cover:

Memoires was written, or rather assembled, by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn in 1957. Debord himself often referred to Memoires as an anti-book, and the original edition was bound in sandpaper, that it might destroy other books. The text is entirely composed of fragments taken from other texts: photographs, advertisements, comic strips, poetry, novels, philosophy, pornography, architectural diagrams, newspapers, military histories, wood block engravings, travel books, etc. Each page presents a collage of such materials connected or effaced by Jorn’s structures portantes, lines or amorphous painted shapes that mediate the relationships between the fragments.

(from an article by David Banash)

Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

And from this article by Christian Nolle:

The book is most famous for its sandpaper cover. An auto-destruction feature that enabled it to damage not only the book it might be standing next to in the bookshelf, but also the person who would be reading it. An anti-book to destroy all other books.

Permild writes: “Long had he [Jorn] asked me, if I couldn’t find a unconventional material for the book cover. Preferably some sticky asphalt or perhaps glass wool. Kiddingly, he wanted, that by looking at people, you should be able to tell whether or not they had had the book in their hands. He acquiesced by my [Permild’s] final suggestion: sandpaper (flint) nr. 2: ‘Fine. Can you imagine the result when the book lies on a blank polished mahogany table, or when it’s inserted or taken out of the bookshelf. It plans shavings of the neighbours desert goat [?]’.

In all the literature that I have located, Debord is the person who is refered to as the inventor of the sandpaper cover. However, as it turns out Debord had nothing to do with it… Permild continues, «Asger loved – as he often expressed it, to place small time controlled bombs». This was certainly a bomb. A bomb invented by the printer, whose job is normally of a technical nature. The sandpaper cover was a really good idea, but practically it never managed to practice what it preached. It did, however, make its readers conscious about handling it or where to place it.

One the other hand, Memoires placed itself on a shelf among precious object, something to be handled with great care… The American Hakem Bey did something similar in the 1970s. In homage to Guy Debord, Bey made a book with sandpaper on the inside. This way he rendered the book into auto-destruct mode if you would ever dare to read it. A potential bomb to go off if you would open it. Memoires, on other hand is a bomb, not a potential bomb. No matter how you would handle it, there was always the danger that it could damage your precious collection of 1920s French poetry.

The photos above come from this French eBay listing – the copy on sale reached €3,810.

Full, tilt

Balancing bowls. Image from Royal VKB websiteJan Hoekstra’s Balancing Bowls for Royal VKB (via Boing Boing) are an interesting ‘portion control/guidance’ solution – as Cory Doctorow puts it:

The tilt is tiny, all of 3 degrees, and the net effect is very satisfying — you gradually add snacks to the “light” side until it makes a soft and very definite *click* as it falls.

This kind of ‘very mild persuasion’ example is a great demonstration of how a simple physical property can be used to inform the user – the conventional modern solution in this area might be to monitor users’ behaviour, e.g. by weighing the amount of food put into the bowl, and then display it electronically, with an indication of whether a pre-set portion size has been exceeded. But these bowls simply tilt, with no electronics or moving parts (other than the bowl itself) necessary. It’s an elegant poka-yoke style solution.

Portion perception (and unit bias) is a fascinating area – we’ve looked briefly at it a few times – but I hope to explore it in more detail in due course, along with a review of Dr Brian Wansink‘s Mindless Eating – in a post about how cognitive biases could be used in designing behavioural change.

Do you really need to print that?

Do you really need to print that?
Do you really need to print that?

This is not difficult to do, once you know how. Of course, it’s not terribly useful, since a) most people don’t read the display on a printer unless an error occurs, or b) you’re only likely to see it once you’ve already sent something to print.

Is this kind of very, very weak persuasion – actually worthwhile? From a user’s point of view, it’s less intrusive than, say, a dialogue box that asks “Are you sure you want to print that? Think of the environment” every time you try to print something (which would become deeply irritating for many users), but when applied thoughtfully, as (in a different area of paper consumption) in Pete Kazanjy’s These Come From Trees initiative, or even in various e-mail footers* (below), there may actually be some worthwhile influence on user behaviour. It’s not ‘micropersuasion’ in Steve Rubel’s sense, exactly, but there is some commonality.

Please consider the environment

I’m thinking that addressing the choices users make when they decide to print (or not print) a document or email could be an interesting specific example to investigate as part of my research, once I get to the stage of user trials. How effective are the different strategies in actually reducing paper/energy/toner/fuser/ink consumption and waste generation? Would better use of ‘Printer-friendly’ style sheets for webpages save a lot of unnecessary reprints due to cut-off words and broken layouts? Should, say, two pages per sheet become the default when a dicument goes above a certain number of pages? Should users be warned if widows (not so much orphans) are going to increase the number of sheets needed, or should the leading be automatically adjusted (by default) to prevent this? What happens if we make it easier to avoid printing banner ads and other junk? What happens if we make the paper tray smaller so the user is reminded of just how much paper he/she is getting through? What happens if we include a display showing the cost (financially) of the toner/ink, paper and electricity so far each day, or for each user? What happens if we ration paper for each user and allow him or her to ‘trade’ with other users? What happens if we give users a ‘reward’ for reaching targets of reducing printer usage, month-on-month? And so on. (The HP MOPy Fish – cited in B J Fogg’s Persuasive Technology – is an example of the opposite intention: a system designed to encourage users to print more, by rewarding them.)

Printing is an interesting area, since it allows the possibility of testing out both software and hardware tactics for causing behaviour change, which I’m keen to do.