Clearing the tabs

Test

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What’s the deal with angled steps?

Angled StepsIt’s a simple question, really, to any readers with experience in urban planning and specifying architectural features: what is the reasoning behind positioning steps at an angle such as this set (left and below) leading down to the Queen’s Walk near London Bridge station?

Obviously one reason is to connect two walkways that are offset slightly where there is no space to have a perpendicular set of steps, but are they ever used strategically? They’re much more difficult to run down or up than conventionally perpendicular steps, which would seem like it might help constrain escaping thieves, or make it less likely that people will be able to run from one walkway to another without slowing down and watching their step.

Like the configuration of spiral staircases in mediaeval castles to favour a defender running down the steps anticlockwise, holding a sword in his right hand, over the attacker running up to meet him (e.g. as described here), the way that town marketplaces were often built with pinch points at each end to make it more difficult for animals (or thieves) to escape, or even the ‘enforced reverence’ effect of the very steep steps at Ta Keo in Cambodia, are angled steps and staircases ever specified deliberately with this intent?

Angled Steps

The first time I thought of this was confronting these steps (below) leading from the shopping centre next to Waverley Station in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: they seemed purpose-built to slow fleeing shoplifters, but I did consider that it might just be my tendency to see everything with a ‘Design with Intent’ bias – a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results!

What’s your angle on the steps?

Angled Steps

Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence’:

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

Staggering insight

Staggered crossing in Bath

I’ve mentioned a few times, perhaps more often in presentations than on the blog, the fact that guidelines for the design of pedestrian crossings in the UK [PDF] recommend that where a crossing is staggered, pedestrians should be routed so that they have to face traffic, thus increasing the likelihood of noticing oncoming cars, and indeed of oncoming drivers noticing the pedestrians:

5.2.5 Staggered crossings on two-way roads should have a left handed stagger so that pedestrians on the central refuge are guided to face the approaching traffic stream.

When I gave this example of Design with Intent at Lancaster, the discussion – led, I think, by Lucy Suchman and Patricia Clough – turned to how this arrangement inevitably formalised and reinforced the embedded hegemony of the motor car in society, and so on: that the motorist is privileged over the pedestrian and the pedestrian must submit by watching out for cars, rather than the other way around.

Now, all that is arguably true – I had seen this example as merely a clever, sensible way to use design to influence user behaviour for safety, for everyone’s benefit (both pedestrians and drivers) without it costing any more than, say, a crossing staggered the opposite way round – but this is, maybe, the nature of this whole field of Design with Intent: lots of disciplines potentially have perspectives on it and what it means. What a traffic engineer or an ergonomist or a mistake-proofer sees as a safety measure, a sociologist may see as a designed-in power relation. What Microsoft saw as a tool for helping users was seen as patronising and annoying (at least by the most vociferous users). It’s all interesting, because it all broadens the number of interpretations and considerations applied to everything, and – if I’m honest – force me to think on more levels about every example.

Multiple lenses are helpful to designers otherwise stuck at whatever focal length the client’s prescribed.

Back to the crossings, though: the above crossing in Bath is a bit unusual in how it’s arranged with so many control panels for pedestrians. But in general, with simple Pelican and Puffin crossings in the UK, there is a design feature even more obvious, which only struck me* the same day I photographed the above crossing in Bath: the pedestrian signal control panel is usually also to the right of where pedestrians stand waiting to cross, i.e. (with UK driving on the left), in order to press the button, pedestrians have to turn to face the oncoming traffic.

The guidelines actually mention this as helping people with poor vision, but it would seem that it really assists all users, even if only slightly. It means you can watch the traffic as you decide whether or not you actually need to press the button, and will be more likely to be standing in a position where you can see the oncoming traffic at the point when you walk out into the road.

5.1.7 To assist blind and partially sighted pedestrians, as they approach the crossing, the primary push button/indicator panel should normally be located on the right hand side. The alignment should encourage them to face oncoming vehicles. The centre of the push button should be between 1.0 and 1.1 metres above the footway level.

This is the sort of ‘hidden’ intentional, strategic design detailing which fascinates me. It is obvious, it is quotidian, but it’s also thoughtful.

Staggered crossing in Bath

*Looking back through my notebooks, I see that someone actually mentioned this to me at a seminar at Sheffield Hallam in September 2007 but I forgot about it: many thanks to whoever it was, and I should be better at reading through my notes next time!