Monthly archives of “May 2007

Runnymede Memorial: Part 1


This post is the start of a series that will only be of interest to a few readers, but it’s about a subject that means a lot to me, and about a place which, in one way or another, has had an impact on design, and design education, in the UK and beyond. Brunel University has just sold its Runnymede campus to Oracle Residential, part of the Epsom-based Oracle Group, a property and investment company.
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Process friction


Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah kindly sent me a link to this article by Ben Hyde:

I once had a web product that failed big-time. A major contributor to that failure was tedium of getting new users through the sign-up process. Each screen they had to step triggered the lost of 10 to 20% of the users. Reducing the friction of that process was key to survival. It is a thousand times easier to get a cell phone or a credit card than it is to get a passport or a learner’s permit. That wasn’t the case two decades ago.

Public health experts have done a lot of work over the decades to create barrier between the public and dangerous items and to lower barriers to access to constructive ones. So we make it harder to get liquor, and easier to get condoms. Traffic calming techniques are another example of engineering that makes makes a system run more slowly.

I find these attempts to shift the temperature of entire systems fascinating. This is at the heart of what you’re doing when you write standards, but it’s entirely scale free… In the sphere of internet identity it is particularly puzzling how two countervailing forces are at work. One trying to raise the friction and one trying to lower it. Privacy and security advocates are attempting to lower the temp and increase the friction. On the other hand there are those who seek in the solution to the internet identity problem a way to raise the temperature and lower the friction. That more rather than less transactions would take place.

The idea of ‘process friction’ which is especially pertinent as applied to architectures of control. Simply, if you design a process to be difficult to carry out, fewer people will complete it, since – just as with frictional forces in a mechanical system – energy (whether real or metaphorical) is lost by the user at each stage.

This is perhaps obvious, but is a good way to think about systems which are designed to prevent users carrying out certain tasks which might otherwise be easy – from copying music or video files, to sleeping on a park bench. Just as friction (brakes) can stop or slow down a car which would naturally roll down a hill under the force of gravity, so friction (DRM, or other architectures of control) attempts to stop or slow down the tendency for information to be copied, or for people to do what they do naturally. Sometimes the intention is actually to stop the proscribed behaviour (e.g. an anti-sit device); other times the intention is to force users to slow down or think about what they’re doing.

From a designer’s point of view, there are far more examples where reducing friction in a process is more important than introducing it deliberately. In a sense, is this what usability is?. Affordances are more valuable than disaffordances, hence the comparative rarity of architectures of control in design, but also why they stand out so much as frustrating or irritating.

The term cognitive friction is more specific than general ‘process friction’, but still very much relevant – as explained on the Cognitive Friction blog:

Cognitive Friction is a term first used by Alan Cooper in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum, where he defines it like this:

“It is the resistance encountered by a human intellect when it engages with a complex system of rules that change as the problem permutes.”

In other words, when our tools manifest complex behaviour that does not fit our expectations, the result can be very frustrating.

Going back to the Ben Hyde article, the use of the temperature descriptions is interesting – he equates cooling with increasing the friction, making it more difficult to get things done (similarly to the idea of chilling effects), whereas my instinctive reaction would be the opposite (heat is often energy lost due to friction, hence a ‘hot’ system, rather than a cold system, is one more likely to have excessive friction in it – I see many architectures of control as, essentially, wasting human effort and creating entropy).

But I can see the other view equally well: after all, lubricating oils work better when warmed to reduce their viscosity, and ‘cold welds’ are an important subject of tribological research. Perhaps the best way to look at it is that, just as getting into a shower that’s too hot or too cold is uncomfortable, so a system which is not at the expected ‘temperature’ is also uncomfortable for the user.

More thoughts on the Eaton MEM BC3, CFLs and Power Factor

Light bulbs

UPDATE: See this more recent post for information and photos of how to get a 2-pin bulb to fit in a BC3 fitting.

BC3 reactions

The post looking at the Eaton MEM BC3 system, a couple of months ago, has become something of a reference for UK householders and renters trying to work out why they can’t fit a normal 2-pin bayonet compact fluorescent (or other bulb) in the light fittings of their new house or flat – or so I assume from some of the search strings in the server logs.

Some comments from readers highlight the frustration and inconvenience caused by the 3-pin system – and in these cases it’s people trying to use CFLs in the fittings. They’re trying to be energy-efficient, trying to comply with government advice indeed, yet a combination of ill-thought-out regulations and a razor-blade-style commercial lock-in architecture of control is preventing their success. As an example of ‘reducing the environmental impact of products by using design to change user behaviour‘, the BC3 seems to be a poorly thought-out initiative.

MEM BC3 compared with standard 2-pin bayonet CFL

Increasing CFL uptake

Elsewhere, on the subject of CFLs, Duncan Drennan of The Art of Engineering blog has a very informative post looking at aspects of the CFL argument, such as comparing colour rendering indices, which are less often addressed in media articles on the subject. As Duncan makes clear – even including a spreadsheet to calculate the savings – the monetary arguments in terms of electricity saved are probably a more direct way to persuade many people than using environmental arguments.

Duncan also mentions the higher-end CFLs such as the Osram Dulux Superstar (which has a quicker start-up time to full brightness than standard CFLs). Along with CFLs which are shaped more like conventional incandescent bulbs (such as the version of the Osram Duluxstar, third from left in the first photo below), or even with more interesting forms, such as the concepts by Dutch designer Jacob de Baan (second image below), these surely have the potential to convert more householders to CFLs: the standard 3 U-tube design is rather ugly.

Some types of CFL compared with a 150W incandescent
Bulbs by Jacob de Baan
Above: Some types of CFL (from left: Tesco Value, GE Elegance and Osram Duluxstar) lined up next to a burned-out incandescent bulb. Note that the Osram Duluxstar – basically a standard 3 U-tube CFL with a bulb-shaped cover – is taller than even the 150W incandescent, due to the space taken up by the ballast, and this extra length can be a problem when using CFLs in existing light fixtures, shades, etc. Some companies, such as Sylvania with its Mini-Lynx Ambience range, have addressed this by making CFLs with shorter tubes and ballast such that the whole thing is the same size as a standard incandescent bulb. Below: Three CFL concepts by Jacob de Baan. Apologies for the scan quality (the images are from The Eco-Design Handbook, 2004 edition, by Alastair Fuad-Luke).

Power Factor

A rarely mentioned issue with CFLs which I realised recently (courtesy of a letter by Andrew Porter in The Engineer, a UK journal), is that of power factor. Not having studied electricity generation for some time, this is something I’d shoved to the back of my mind, but essentially it results from the phase shift between voltage and current caused by a reactive (capactive or inductive) load as opposed to a purely reactive one, and means that the actual power supplied by the power station (in volt-amps) will be greater than that indicated by simply looking at the wattage (in watts), where reactive loads are involved.

A normal incandescent filament bulb is an almost entirely resistive load, and the voltage and current will be in phase (hence a power factor of 1). But a CFL – with a significant proportion of capacitive load due to the ballast – will have a much lower power factor, perhaps only 0.5. This means that a ’15W’ CFL actually requires 30VA from the power station – which the private customer will not pay for directly, since home electricity meters only measure watts, but it is still equivalent to needing to supply double the power. That increase in necessary generation can’t be ignored: the consumer will pay for it one way or another.

Rod Elliott has a detailed examination of why the power factor should certainly be taken into account when looking at CFLs in a policy context and it’s very much worth reading for a better understanding of the issue. While fluorescent lighting ballasts with high power factors (0.95+) are available (in industrial situations, a large customer will often have to pay for the actual VA drawn by large reactive loads, such as motors), they are unlikely to be incorporated any time soon into mass-produced cheap CFLs. Elliott suggests that because fluorescent lighting is so often left on continuously (partly because of the belief that it will last longer if not switched on-and-off), in conjunction with the power factor issue, mass adoption of CFLs may actually increase the electricity used.

I don’t know to what extent policy-makers have taken the power factors of cheap CFLs into account when planning mass conversion initiatives, but in the long run, it would seem that LED home lighting (without a power factor issue), perhaps with DC ring-mains to prevent the need for multiple transformer/rectifiers, is a better solution than total adoption of CFLs.


Image from Infinity Squared blog Alexander Freitas of the Infinity Squared blog notes the difficulties with frustrating tear-strips on packaging, and, comparing an easier-to-open pack from one manufacturer with a difficult tearstrip from another, suggests (somewhat along the lines of ‘Forcing functions designed to increase product consumption‘), that the company’s thought process may be something like:

We will make packaging that a consumer will lose patience trying to open, and so will get a knife, destroy the packaging, and have to eat all those big cookies in one go. We will be rich.

As he also notes, patent issues may be responsible for some of the different variants of tearstrips used (some more effective than others), but I really would be very interested to know whether the ‘McVitie’s technique‘ (below) – whereby the tear-strip is positioned a long way down the packet – is genuinely intended to encourage greater consumption, or just to make it easier to grip the packet while pulling the strip.

McVitie's technique

Chairman of the bored

Chair for unwanted visitors

This blog often looks at methods for preventing people sitting down comfortably, usually in public space, from actual benches designed for this purpose, to features of walls and ledges which treat people like pigeons.

How often is the complete lack of seats a deliberate strategy? Seth Godin, in a post looking at different strategies for running meetings, suggests something interesting:

I think most of the time, most meetings should be held without chairs. People standing up think more quickly and get distracted less often. And the meetings don’t last as long.

That probably does ‘work’ as part of a strategy to speed up meetings, but – crucially – only if there is a mechanism for the participants to end the meeting. Whoever is leading the meeting (if anyone is) also needs to be standing up and experiencing just the same as everyone else. Otherwise there’s the tendency for the stand-up meetings to be characterised by a lot of people not thinking more quickly, but merely irritated, shifting their weight from leg to leg, and wishing they weren’t there. I think we’ve all been to meetings like that, both seated and standing.

Is the ‘chair-less meeting’ a commonly used deliberate tactic? Can it be used to get people to agree to things because of their discomfort and desire to get away quickly?

Image: ‘Chair for unwanted visitors’ – photo by David Weightman from a set shot for Good Thinking: Brunel Design, 2004.


archiPWNED by Scott Nusinow
Image from archiPWNED portfolio entry (PDF)

Scott Nusinow, one of Cory Doctorow’s students in his University of Southern California class, ‘PWNED: Everyone on Campus is a Copyright Criminal‘, carried out an architectural concept project for the design of a Los Angeles library. He’s specifically addressed ‘architectures of control’ in the contexts of encouraging the public to use the library in an era where “the printed word… is marching towards obsolescence” and encouraging pedestrians to use the retail facilities on the same site (“by seeking to create a “positive feedback loop” of activity by funneling people towards the retail.”)

Scott’s full portfolio entry (PDF) has some interesting commentary, sketches, renderings and models. (As an aside, there’s something about architectural models that’s always fascinated me, and images such as the one above – even the surveillant pose of the figure in the window – evoke an odd mixture of Ballardian and Randian influences.)

I know there are some architecture graduates, students and enthusiasts who read this blog, but not knowing enough, myself, about the subject, I’d be very interested to know: To what extent are notions of control and behaviour-shaping taught as part of architectural training? This series of discussion board posts suggest that the issue is definitely there for architecture students, but is it framed as a conscious, positive process (e.g. “funnel the pedestrians past the shops”), a reactionary one (e.g. “use pebbled paving to make it painful for hippies to congregate“), or as something else entirely?