frog design on Design with Intent

Robert Fabricant of frog design — with whom I had a great discussion a couple of weeks ago in London — has an insightful new article up at frog’s Design Mind, titled, oddly enough, ‘Design with Intent: how designers can influence behaviour’ — which tackles the question of how, and whether, designers can and should see their work as being directed towards behaviour change, and the power that design can have in this kind of application.

It builds on a trend evident in frog’s own work in this field, most notably the Project Masiluleke initiative (which seems to have been incredibly successful in behaviour change terms), as well as a theme Robert’s identified talking to a range of practitioners as well as young designers: “We’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behaviour from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement.”

The recognition of this nascent trend echoes some of the themes of transformation design — a manifesto developed by Hilary Cottam’s former RED team at the Design Council — and also fits well into what’s increasingly called social design, or socially conscious design — a broad, diverse movement of designers from many disciplines, from service design to architecture, who are applying their expertise to social problems from healthcare to environment to education to communication. With the mantra that ‘we cannot not change the world’, groups such as Design21 and Project H Design, along with alert chroniclers such as Kate Andrews, are inspiring designers to see the potential that there is for ‘impact through direct social engagement’: taking on the mantle of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller, motivated by the realisation that design can be more than ‘the high pitched scream of consumer selling‘, more than simply reactive. Nevertheless, Robert’s focus on influencing people’s behaviour (much as I’ve tried to make clear with my own work on Design with Intent over the last few years), is an explicit emerging theme in itself, and catching the interest of forward-looking organisations such as the RSA.


User centred design, constraint and reality

One of the issues Robert discusses is a question I’ve put to the audience in a number of presentations recently — fundamentally, is it still ‘User-Centred Design’ when the designer’s aim is to change users’ behaviour rather than accommodating it? As he puts it, “we influence behaviour and social practice from a distance through the products and services that we create based on our research and understanding of behaviour. We place users at the centre and develop products and services to support them. With UCD, designers are encouraged not to impose their own values on the experience.” Thus, “committing to direct behaviour design [my italics] would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centred design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”

Now, ‘direct behaviour design’ as a concept is redolent of determinism in architecture, or the more extreme end of behaviourism, where people (users / inhabitants / subjects) are seen as, effectively, components in a designed system which will respond to their environment / products / conditioning in a known, predictable way, and can thus be directed to behave in particular ways by changing the design of the system. It privileges the architect, the designer, the planner, the hidden persuader, the controller as a kind of director of behaviour, standing on the top floor observing what he’s wrought down below.

I’ll acknowledge that, in a less extreme form, this is often the intent (if not necessarily the result) behind much design for behaviour change (hence my definition for Design with Intent: ‘design that’s intended to influence, or result in, certain user behaviour’). But in practice, people don’t, most of the time, behave as predictably as this. Our behaviour — as Kurt Lewin, James Gibson, Albert Bandura, Don Norman, Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and a whole line of psychologists from different fields have made clear — is a (vector) function of our physical environment (and how we perceive and understand it), our social environment (and how we perceive and understand it) and our cognitive decision processes about what to do in response to our perceptions and understanding, working within a bounded rationality that (most of the time) works pretty well. If we perceive that a design is trying to get us to behave in a way we don’t want, we display reactance to it. This is going to happen when you constrain people against pursuing a goal: even the concept of ‘direct behaviour design’ itself is likely to provoke some reactance from you, the reader. Go on: you felt slightly irritated by it, didn’t you?*

SIM Card poka-yoke

In some fields, of course, design’s aim really is to constrain and direct behaviour absolutely — e.g. “safety critical systems, like air traffic control or medical monitors, where the cost of failure [due to user behaviour] is never acceptable” (from Cairns & Cox, p.16). But decades of ergonomics, human factors and HCI research suggests that errorproofing works best when it helps the user achieve the goal he or she already has in mind. It constrains our behaviour, but it also makes it easier to avoid errors we don’t want. We don’t mind not being able to run the microwave oven with the door open (even though we resented seatbelt interlocks). We don’t mind being only being able to put a SIM card in one way round. The design constraint doesn’t conflict with our goal: it helps us achieve it. (It would be interesting to know of cases in Japanese vs. Western manufacturing industry where employees resented the introduction of poka-yoke measures — were there any? What were the specific measures that irritated?)

Returning to UCD, then, I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour. Some of the most insightful current work on influencing user behaviour, from people such as Ed Elias at Bath and Tang Tang at Loughborough [PPT], starts with achieving a deeper understanding of user behaviour with existing products and systems, to identify better how to improve the design; it seems as though companies such as Onzo are also taking this approach.

Is design ever neutral?

Robert also makes the point that “every [design] decision we make exerts an influence of some kind, whether intended or not”. This argument parallels one of the defences made by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to criticism of their libertarian paternalism concept: however you design a system, whatever choices you decide to give users, you inevitably frame understanding and influence behaviour. Even not making a design decision at all influences behaviour.

staggered crossing

If you put chairs round a table, people will sit down. You might see it as supporting your users’ goals — they want to be able to sit down — but by providing the chairs, you’ve influenced their behaviour. (Compare Seth Godin’s ‘no chair meetings’.) If you constrain people to three options, they will pick one of the three. If you give them 500 options, they won’t find it easy to choose well. If you give them no options, they can’t make a choice, but might not realise that they’ve been denied it. And so on. (This is sometimes referred to as ‘choice editing’, a phrase which provokes substantial reactance!) If you design a pedestrian crossing to guide pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers, you’ve privileged drivers over pedestrians and reinforced the hegemony of the motor car. If you don’t, you’ve shown contempt for pedestrians’ needs. Richard Buchanan and Johan Redström have both also dealt with this aspect of ‘design as rhetoric’, while Kristina Niedderer’s ‘performative objects’ intended to increase user mindfulness of the interactions occurring.

Thaler and Sunstein’s argument (heavily paraphrased, and transposed from economics to design) is that as every decision we make about designing a system will necessarily influence user behaviour, we might as well try and put some thought into influencing the behaviour that’s going to be best for users (and society)**. And that again, to me, seems to come within the scope of user-centred design. It’s certainly putting the user — and his or her behaviour — at the centre of the design process. But then to a large extent — as Robert’s argued before — all (interaction) design is about behaviour. And perhaps all design is really interaction design (or ought to be considered as such during at least part of the process).

Persuasion, catalyst and performance design

Robert identifies three broad themes in using design to influence behaviour – persuasion design, catalyst design and performance design. ‘Persuasion design’ correlates very closely with the work on persuasive technology and persuasive design which has grown over the past decade, from B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford to a world-wide collaboration of researchers and practitioners – including designers and psychologists – meeting at the Persuasive conferences (2010’s will be in Copenhagen), of which I’m proud to be a very small part. Robert firmly includes behavioural economics and choice architecture in his description of Persuasion Design, which is something that (so far at least) has not received an explicit treatment in the persuasive technology literature, although individual cognitive biases and heuristics have of course been invoked. I think I’d respectfully argue that choice architecture as discussed in an economic context doesn’t really care too much about persuasion itself: it aims to influence behaviours, but doesn’t explicitly see changing attitudes as part of that, which is very much part of persuasion.

‘Catalyst design’ is a great term – I’m not sure (other than as the name of lots and lots of small consultancies) whether it has any precedent in the design literature or whether Robert coined it himself (something Fergus Bisset asked me the other day on reading the article). On first sight, catalyst design sounds as though it might be identical with Buckminster Fuller’s trimtab metaphor – a small component added to a system which initiates or enables a much larger change to happen more easily (what I’ve tried to think of as ‘enabling behaviour‘). However, Robert broadens the discussion beyond this idea to talk about participatory and open design with users (such as Jan Chipchase‘s work – or, if we’re looking further back, Christopher Alexander and his team’s groundbreaking Oregon Experiment). In this sense, the designer is the catalyst, facilitating innovation and behaviour change. User-led innovation is a massive, and growing, field, with examples of both completely ground-up development (with no ‘designer as catalyst’ involved) and programmes where a designer or external expert can, through engaging with people who use and work with a system, really help transform it (Clare Brass’s SEED Foundation’s HiRise project comes to mind here). But it isn’t often spoken about explicitly in terms of behaviour change, so it’s interesting to see Robert present it in this context.

Finally, ‘performance design’, as Robert explains it, involves designers performing in some way, becoming immersed in the lives of the people for whom they are designing. From a behaviour change perspective, empathising with users’ mental models, understanding what motivates users during a decision-making process, and why certain choices are made (or not made), must make it easier to identify where and how to intervene to influence behaviour successfully.

Implications for designers working on behaviour change

It’s fantastic to see high-profile, influential design companies such as frog explicitly recognising the opportunities and possibilities that designers have to influence user behaviour for social benefit. The more this is out in the open as a defined trend, a way of thinking, the more examples we’ll have of real-life thinking along these lines, embodied in a whole wave of products and services which (potentially) help users, and help society solve problems with a significant behavioural component. (And, more to the point, give us a degree of evidence about which techniques actually work, in which contexts, with which users, and why – there are some great examples around at present, both concepts and real products – e.g. as collated here by Debra Lilley – but as yet we just don’t have a great body of evidence to base design decisions on.) It will also allow us, as users, to become more familiar with the tactics used to influence our behaviour, so we can actively understand the thinking that’s gone into the systems around us, and choose to reject or opt out of things which aren’t working in our best interests.

The ‘behavioural layer’ (credit to James Box of Clearleft for this term) is something designers need to get to grips with – even knowing where to start when you’re faced with a design problem involving influencing behaviour is something we don’t currently have a very good idea about. With my Design with Intent toolkit work, I’m trying to help this bit of the process a bit, alongside a lot of people interested, on many levels, in how design influences behaviour. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how frog and other consultancies develop expertise and competence in this field, how they choose to recruit the kind of people who are already becoming experts in it – and how they sell that expertise to clients and governments.

Update: Robert responds – The ‘Ethnography Defense’

Dan Lockton, Design with Intent / Brunel University, June 2009

*TU Eindhoven’s Maaike Roubroeks used this technique to great effect in her Persuasive 2009 presentation.
**The debate comes over who decides – and how – what’s ‘best’ for users and for society. Governments don’t necessarily have a good track record on this; neither do a lot of companies.


  1. Great overview! For me, the really interesting thing is the ethical bit – i.e not design for behaviour change per se, but design for good behaviour change, and of course all the complexity that comes with deciding what is good and right, not just what is easiest to use (which is essentially an objective challenge). Another interesting dimension is reach – interaction/internets/tubes designers can increasingly reach a vast audience of potential ‘changees’, and as Peter Parker knows, with great power comes great responsibility. When your designs can affect hundreds of thousands of people, small changes can ripple through the system and affect behaviour in lots of unexpected ways. For a banal example see Twitter’s mistakes around changing @ reply structures. ReadWriteWeb had a nice piece after that on how Twitter’s designers and engineers don’t really reflect the reality of Twitters users, and how that may have affected their design decision making:

  2. Dan

    Those are some good points Nick – I definitely didn’t give the ethical aspects enough treatment here (despite being very much interested in them).

    Part of me does fear that a massive increase in the use of design to influence behaviour will lead to a lot more cynical, ‘users-are-stupid’ examples (or designers becoming part of some nanny-state apparatus that we’re really not suited to) – or even a kind of retreat from debate of the kind that Martyn Perks argues Nudge-type thinking will lead to, as users come to rely on design/policy to guide us to behave ‘correctly’ in everything.

    Even if the intent is benign, for some definition of benign (and it won’t always be), as you say, the impact on millions of people’s lives by small design changes can be massive. It’s perhaps going to be difficult to embed the need to think about those impacts, and take responsibility for them, into designers’ processes, especially for cases where no-one really knows what the impacts will be.

    On the other hand, though, B J Fogg has argued (paraphrased) that the very fact that a tiny change to, say, the Facebook home page or Twitter’s @reply process can alter the way millions of people interact with it, just like that, and that we can measure & track the behaviour change exactly in a way that just isn’t possible with physical, non-networked products, allows this kind of service to become the ultimate real-time mass laboratory for testing out different design techniques, with far less potential downside (quick to fix, too) compared with real-life roll-outs of products. Though, of course, users might not appreciate being seen in this context!

    • Dan (and Nick),
      Perhaps those sort of recent user backlashes you are referring to re. Twitter and Facebook explains Facebook’s countdown timer recently to the ‘pick your username’ service evolution? Building excitement/anticipation and even a sense of competition rather than simply rolling out the change and expecting people to jump.

      Competition is not going to work for everyone but its one step higher in the ’empowerment’ stakes and at least gives people the option to engage / disengage actively rather than simply having something forced upon them. Is the real challenge not making people feel that they are higher up the hierarchy/design decision tree than maybe they actually are, so they don’t just feel like helpless nodes at the far ends of the network/system/service diagram?

      Again this is not new, I suppose it’s why Google and other keeps things in beta a lot of the time. But why if designers are prepared to / have to acknowledge the dynamic nature of systems do they still try and design products that give user’s the impression they are completely robust. Again this is Don Norman territory isn’t it – “if automation is not completely robust, don’t automate it” and it’s is all stuff you covered already Dan.

      But given that there are performance benefits of giving designers a supervisory or testing role why aren’t more designers/organisations adopting a beta model when it comes to developing products and services?

  3. Anonymous

    How do I get a normal blog page showing the ten most recent posts, with links back to the previous ten, etc.? It’s not obvious. The “archives” link doesn’t do it.

    • Dan

      I’ll try and sort this out in due course – it’s something this new WP theme seems to lack as installed.
      If you go to you can get something like what you’re suggesting, but not 10 posts at a time (should be easy to fix, I just need to get round to doing it)

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  6. I prefer the word activity, or a action, to behavior for the very reason that behaviorist thinking almost inevitably leads to a deterministic framework.

    Self-service options on the web changed customer activity. “Thank You” stamped on the lid of a trash bin at fast food chains was intended to change activity. I don’t see anything new here. UCD can go either way, to reinforce or to change activity. How did people, at least in the USA, learn to pump their own gas even in the absence of Self Service or Full Service signs?

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  12. Sorry to be late into this, but I have a couple of thoughts:

    1) When designing for sustainability, one also needs to consider future users, hence restrictions on current users’ choices may be removing restrictions on future users. Note: where is the system boundary – could there be more future users than you first thought?

    2) Also, there is a need to consider multiple users, so again (but phrased the other way round) enabling a user to do what they want may lead to adverse impacts on other users.

    3) The Ergonomics/Human Factors definition from the International Ergonomics Association ( states that Ergonomics is about optimising human well-being and overall system performance (it is heavily based on sociotechnical systems theory)…it doesn’t include the phrase ‘user-centred’. The UK Ergonomics Society talks about ‘fit’ between a person and the wider system. Again, ergonomists are looking to optimise the system as a whole. I tend to think that the ‘user’ (and their needs, wants and limitations) is usually the most neglected part of the system, so designing ‘for’ them is the most effective way to improve a system.

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