How this research will be moving forward

A new course for the research

UPDATE: This 2-page PDF (produced summer 2008) introduces the research

I’ve taken the plunge, and will be starting a PhD in September at Brunel University, Uxbridge, in the School of Engineering & Design.

The chosen subject incorporates both a formal investigation and review of certain architectures of control in design, and practical application of them for what I see as a worthwhile purpose: reducing the environmental impact of consumer products. This is an area which has come up quite a few times on the blog and in my previous research, and which I feel is both timely and worthy of a detailed treatment. The initial official title of the research is Reducing the environmental impact of products by using design to change user behaviour, and I’ve quoted a slightly shortened version of my brief tentative proposal below:


Much research has concentrated on reducing the environmental impact of consumer products through improving manufacturing methods, efficiency of operation, and end-of-life processes. Attention is also being turned to changing consumers’ behaviour to the same end, through public education, policy and taxation emphasis – and product design methods, on which this study will focus.

Various techniques allow the characteristics of a product’s use phase to be influenced in favour of increased sustainability or reduced environmental impact. In purely technological terms, increased efficiency of operation is clearly a major goal, yet it may also be equally – and independently – important to reduce or otherwise to alter the period or manner of the product’s use, and that means changing users’ behaviour. Methods of achieving this, by using design techniques, range from ‘hard’ coercive constraints (technology which ‘refuses’ to be operated in a certain manner) to ‘softer’ psychological constraints which encourage or guide the consumer to use the product in a different way. The field lies at the intersection of technology and human factors, with the limits of any approach’s impact being determined by both technological and interaction design issues.

The study

This study will, in the first phase, review and characterise existing and novel design- and technology-led approaches to changing users’ behaviour to reduce the environmental impact of products. Donald Norman’s concepts of forcing functions and behaviour-shaping constraints, Shigeo Shingo’s poka-yoke methods, and B.J. Fogg’s ‘captology’ research at Stanford are pertinent here as starting points, since while these have been developed in the contexts of interaction design, manufacturing engineering and computer science respectively, there is significant potential to apply similar thinking with environmental considerations in mind; as far as the author is aware, this has not previously been done systematically.

A few specific technological approaches include: use of interlocks to ensure users make decisions or perform actions in the ‘right’ order when the ‘wrong’ order can be detrimental environmentally; sensors to shut down functionality when a product is not being used (e.g. motion-detection for lighting); sensors which prevent unnecessary energy use (e.g. a vehicle throttle which prevents over-revving when stationary); and the use of designed-in obsolescence to produce ‘optimum environmental lifetime’ products which expire at predetermined lifetimes, perhaps even using active disassembly techniques.

The second phase will involve testing-out of selected approaches through user trials and simulated trials of a number of functional product prototypes incorporating the behaviour constraints to determine levels of actual environmental benefit, and establish the technological and human factors affecting the ‘real-world’ applicability of these. Comparing life-cycle analyses of existing products’ use phases with those of the prototypes will allow a quantitative assessment of the benefits of different techniques in these contexts.

For example (illustrative only): A lot of electricity is wasted due to over-filling of electric kettles – a trial might compare prototypes ranging from the ‘soft’ constraint of a kettle with clearer visual/audio indications of fill level (prominent ‘x cups of water’ display) or financial implications of the energy use (‘Boiling this amount of water will cost you x pence’), through a kettle with a requirement to pre-select the water fill-level before filling (hence forcing the user to think about what he or she is doing), to a more extreme constraint of a kettle which will only boil one cup of water at a time – rapidly, but ensuring there can be no over-filling. Analysing the results of user trials of a range of prototypes such as these, and comparing with the energy usage of a conventional kettle, would allow actual energy savings to be quantified, and the limits of efficacy due to human factors (e.g. user frustration or misunderstanding) to be established. (The kettle examples described here are simplistic but this is the sort of approach intended.)

Another aim is to develop a ‘toolkit’ of tested design approaches, with relative efficacies and pertinent issues specified, to be of use to designers and engineers looking to create more environmentally friendly products. The outcome here would be an accessible publication (a short book, eBook and/or presentation, separate from the thesis) illustrating and detailing the techniques, made available to companies and students. It is hoped that government eco-design initiatives may also be interested in the practical implications of the work.


The author studied Industrial Design Engineering at Brunel from 2000-4, and did a (taught) Cambridge-MIT Institute Master’s in Technology Policy from 2004-5. He has since worked in freelance design engineering and product design for a number of clients including, currently, Sir Clive Sinclair. His Master’s dissertation (and ongoing independent research in this area) investigated ‘architectures of control’: intentionally controlling user behaviour, mainly for political and commercial reasons, in a variety of fields, especially the built environment and digital rights. This forms a useful background to the proposed study.

Contribution to knowledge

The aim of the study will be to address these questions, reformulated as appropriate: How can users’ behaviour be changed, through redesign of products, to reduce environmental impact? Which methods are most suitable for specific situations? How significant are the impact reductions, and what technology and human factors issues affect the implementations? It is hoped that the process of investigating and answering these questions, together with an outcome synthesising the practical applications (the ‘toolkit’ described above), in addition to the thesis, will constitute an original, distinct and useful contribution to knowledge.

I’m excited: this gives me a fantastic opportunity to develop and extend the architectures of control research into what I consider to be a positive area (rather than the generally distasteful social engineering/’security’/designed-in-compliance/economic lock-in), which was otherwise going to be very difficult. I’m very lucky, thanks to the efforts of my supervisor, to have a studentship, which effectively means that this PhD is a job in environmentally sensitive design research, at one of the best technological design institutions in the UK.

I’ll continue to chart and examine all architectures of control via this blog, of course, but will now have the backing of some academic credibility – and resources – which should allow a more rigorous level of analysis, and exposure to expertise, precedents and inspirations.

The decision to go for a PhD wasn’t taken lightly; deciding how to progress professionally is something which has been taxing me for some time, alongside the challenges of freelance work (one reason why this blog has suffered over the last few months). I’m aware that it is not going to be easy, by any means (Tom Coates’ article – and the appended comments – and Rich Watts’ blog, for example, were very helpful in this regard), but it’s a long time since a project has excited me as much as this one, and I take that as a very positive sign.

Why Brunel? It’s where I did my undergraduate degree (although at the Runnymede campus, very different to Uxbridge), and many of the same staff, research strengths and commercial partnerships remain or have further developed. The university has greatly expanded the promotion of engineering and design and, as a future part of the University of London, seems a lot more confident about itself. While I very much enjoyed my time at Cambridge doing my Master’s, and it sparked my academic interest in architectures of control (specifically, in Frank Field’s lectures, both in person and via MIT videolink), I want (using my background) to develop the subject in a design context, which Cambridge does not offer in the same way.

The success of this blog in attracting some amazing, insightful comments (from what I can assume are amazing, insightful readers) has also given me a lot more confidence that taking this research further is not just worthwhile, but something I really must do, and I’m very grateful to all who’ve helped along the way so far.

The next post will review some of the ‘environmental architectures of control’ examples (both real and suggested) which I already have on my list, from this blog and elsewhere. Other than that, my girlfriend and I are off to Dublin for a few days’ break, and I’ve pledged not to take any work with me, physically or mentally, so let’s hope the spam filter can take care of the blog until next week!