Monthly archives of “May 2008

“Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)

Image from Your Local Guardian website

Adrian Short let me know about something going on in Sutton, Surrey, at the same time both fundamentally pathetic and indicative of the mindset of many public authorities in ‘dealing with’ emergent behaviour:

An area in Rosehill, known locally as “the steps”, is to be re-designed to stop young people sitting there.

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it.

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

It’s well worth reading the readers’ comments, since – to many people’s apparent shock – Emma, a ‘young person’, actually read the article and responded with her thoughts and concerns, spurring the debate into what seems to be a microcosm of the attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and paranoia that define modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people’. The councillor quoted above responded too – near the bottom of the page – and Adrian’s demolition of his ‘understanding’ of young people is direct and eloquent:

One thing young people and older people have in common is a desire to be left alone to do their own thing, provided that they are not causing trouble to others. People like Emma and her friends are not. They do not want to be told that they can go to one place but not another. They do not want to be cajoled, corralled and organised by the state — they get enough of that at school. They certainly do not want to be disadvantaged as a group because those in charge — you — are unable to deal appropriately with a tiny minority of troublemakers in their midst.

EDIT: Adrian sends me a link to the council’s proposal [PDF, 55 kb] which contains a few real gems – as he puts it:

I really have no idea how they can write things like this with a straight face:

“It is normal practice to provide handrails to assist pedestrians. However, these have purposely been omitted from the proposals, as they could provide loiterers with something to lean against.”

and then,

“The scheme will cater for all sections of the local community.”


links for 2008-05-30

links for 2008-05-29

Un-hiding an affordance

Steps in Dawlish, Devon

Steps in Dawlish, Devon

These (pretty shallow) steps in Dawlish, Devon, have been labelled as such, presumably because without this, some visitors wouldn’t notice, and would run, cycle or wheelchair down them and hurt themselves or others. Painting a white line along the edge is a common way of improving visibility of steps, but actual labelling is fairly unusual.

There is some argument that having to label an affordance in this way, rather than it being self-evident (e.g. by making the steps deeper, or putting a handrail, or something), is ‘bad design’, but I’m not sure one way or the other: from a utilitarian point of view, enormous labelling, however ‘ugly’, is probably a surer bet than providing subtle ‘cues’. Nevertheless, the poka-yoke approach would be to design out the problem entirely: make the whole thing a full-width ramp like the section at the side.

A diagram in Bill Gaver‘s classic paper ‘Technology Affordances‘ [PDF, 647 kb] sets out very clearly the importance of an affordance being perceived as such by a user:

From 'Technology Affordances' , William Gaver

In this case we have a hidden affordance (not deliberately hidden) which has been un-hidden by the label – similar to (though not as funny as) the ‘This is a Mop Sink‘ example from Michael Darnell’s fantastic

This is a Mop Sink (image from

User-Centred Design for Sustainable Behaviour

Image from

TU Delft’s Renee Wever and Jasper van Kuijk (who runs the insightful Uselog product usability blog), together with NTNU’s Casper Boks, have produced a very interesting paper, ‘User-Centred Design for Sustainable Behaviour’ [PDF, 400 kb] for the International Journal of Sustainable Engineering (indeed, probably in the same edition as my own paper addressing many similar ideas.)

It’s great to find more people investigating this same area of using design to guide more sustainable user behaviour, both from the point of view of validation (i.e. I’m not barking up completely the wrong tree) and because it helps add additional perspectives and research to the pot. Wever, van Kuijk and Boks’ classification of different strategies may be useful, too, in helping me structure my own taxonomy:

We provide a typology of four user-centered design strategies for inducing sustainable behavior.

* Functionality matching: adapt a product better to the actual use by consumers and thereby try to minimize negative side effects;
* Eco-feedback: the user is presented with specific information on the impact of his or her current behavior, and it is left to the user to relate this information to his or her own behaviour, and adapt this behaviour, or not;
* Scripting: creating obstacles for unsustainable use, or making sustainable behaviour so easy, it is performed almost without thinking about it;
* Forced functionality: making products adapt automatically to changing circumstances, or to design-in strong obstacles to prevent unsustainable behaviour.

That’s a simpler and possibly clearer way of dividing it up than the designer-centric approach I’ve been taking (e.g. see this series of posts), though my method aims to apply to all using-design-to-shape-behaviour problems, including, but going beyond, ecodesign.

I’m heartened to read this in the paper:

An overview of the available design strategies is missing, as is a clear approach for choosing the right strategy for a given product.

That’s very much part of what I’m trying to achieve.

I’ll certainly keep an eye on what the guys from Delft and NTNU do next!