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Coming up for air, briefly

Thanks for all the responses to the Design with Intent Toolkit – it’s got a heartening reception from lots of very interesting people, and has brought some great opportunities. I hope to be able to deal with all this effectively!

Thanks too to all the people who’ve blogged about it, included it in a podcast, and spread it via Twitter. Your attention’s much appreciated and if anyone does try it out on some problems, please do let me know how you get on, what would improve it, and so on. And more examples for each of the patterns are, of course, always welcome!

Printed copies (A2 poster, 135gsm silk finish) are available – the nominal listing on Amazon is £15 including postage, but if you’d like one for much less than that, let me know! (In fact, if you’re willing to try it out on a design problem, fill in a survey about how you did it, and let me use it as a brief case study, you can have it free.)

Persuasive 2009

I say I’m just coming up for air briefly, as for the last couple of weeks, among some other major work (which could possibly bear some very nice fruit), I’ve been putting together my presentation* for Persuasive 2009, the Fourth International Conference on Persuasive Technology in Claremont, California, next week, and at present am desperately trying to finish a lot of other things before flying out on Saturday. It’ll be my first time across the Atlantic and my girlfriend and I will be having a bit of a holiday afterwards, so I hope a lack of updates and replies, while little different to my usual pattern, will be excusable. But while the conference is on, if there’s time and no hoo-hah with the wireless and it seems appropriate, I’ll try and do a bit of blogging, or more likely, Twittering about it (#persuasive2009 ?). There are some very interesting people presenting their work.

Anyway, if you missed the update to my earlier post, a preprint version of my paper (with David Harrison, Tim Holley and Neville A. Stanton), Influencing Interaction: Development of the Design with Intent Method [PDF, 1.6MB] is available. At some point soon this version of the paper will downloadable from Brunel’s research archive, while the ‘proper’ version will be available in the ACM Digital Library. ACM requires me to state the following alongside the link to the preprint:

© ACM, 2009. This is the authors’ version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version will be published in Proceedings of Persuasive 2009: Fourth International Conference on Persuasive Technology, Claremont, CA, 26-29 April 2009, ACM Digital Library. ISBN 978-1-60558-376-1.

The presentation will include many parts of the paper, but the nature of academic papers like this (submitted in December) is that they are out of date before anyone reads them. So, much of the presentation will be about the DwI toolkit and the reasoning behind bits of it, rather than just sticking to the state of the research six months ago – I hope that’s reasonable. Last year, presenting on the last day of the conference meant that I was able to spend many hours in a hotel room in Oulu editing and re-editing the presentation (mostly listening to the Incredible Bongo Band’s version of In-a-Gadda-da-Vida on repeat) to match what I thought the audience would like, and incorporate things I’d learned during the conference, but this time I’m on the first day so there isn’t that opportunity…

Interfaces article

Also this month, I have a brief article about my research in Interfaces, the magazine of Interaction, the British Computer Society’s HCI Group, in its ‘My PhD’ series (p. 20-21). Interfaces no. 78 is available to download here (make sure to click on the link below the cover image, as – at time of writing – the cover’s linked to the previous issue). It’s a great magazine – redesigned for this issue – with some really interesting features about aspects of HCI by some well-known names in the field. Thanks to Eduardo Calvillo and Stephen Hassard for making the article possible.

The table in the article was unfortunately truncated during editing so (if I get it in in time) there’ll be a brief addendum in the next issue with the full table, but I might as well make it available here too [PDF, 8kb] – it’s a brief, not especially exciting summary of some concepts for influencing householders to close curtains at night to save energy. (At some point I’ll do a full case study on this as there are some interesting ideas as well as some very impractical ones.)

*Taking Parkinson’s Law as an instruction manual seems to be a perpetual habit of mine, so the maximum time allocated to get the presentation done has been more than entirely taken up by getting the presentation done… it’s still not quite there, and I’m not sure whether the format of the auditorium’s going to allow an interactive element which I would very much like to include but probably won’t be able to. Also – while Prezi looks like it might be everything I’ve ever wanted in presentation software – the workflow of “doing a PowerPoint” for me has evolved into a long chain of “Photoshop – Illustrator – export – Photoshop – Save for Web – insert into PowerPoint” which I’m sure I could do more quickly, but lots of conferences and seminars want PPTs rather than PDFs, and the only Mac I have (which once – kind of – belonged to the Duke of Edinburgh [interesting story]) is too slow and old to run anything better.

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Barricades, London

Britain’s supposedly on the verge of a summer of rage, and while like Mary Riddell I am of course reminded of Ballard, it’s not quite the same. I don’t think this represents the ‘middle class’ ennui of Chelsea Marina.

Instead I think we may have reached a tipping point where more people than not, are, frankly, fed up (and scared) about what’s happening, whether it’s the economic situation, the greed of the feckless, the intransigent myopia of those who were supposed to ‘oversee’ what’s going on, the use of fear to intimidate away basic freedoms, or a home secretary who treats the entire country like the naughty schoolchildren she left behind. In short: we’re basically losing our liberty very rapidly indeed. This PDF, compiled by UCL Student Human Rights Programme, provides a withering summary. As many have repeated, 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual. But, as Cardinal Wolsey warned, “be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again”.

The Convention on Modern Liberty, taking place across the UK this Saturday 28th February, aims to demonstrate the dissatisfaction with what’s happening, and hopefully raise awareness of just what’s going on right under our noses. It features an interesting cross-section of speakers, and the speeches will be streamed on the site (tickets for the London session sold out very quickly).

I’m a normal person, trying my best to advance the progress of humanity, yet I feel that the government has contempt for me as a member of the public in general, on an everyday basis. Everywhere we go, we are watched, monitored, surveilled, threatened, considered guilty. We shouldn’t have to live like this.

P.S. I apologise for the lack of posts over the last week: my laptop’s graphics card finally gave in – it had been kind-of usable at a low resolution by connecting the output to another monitor for a while, but that too has now failed. Thanks to everyone who’s e-mailed and sent things: I will get round to them as soon as I can.

The detail of everyday interaction

A kettle

Understanding what people really do when they carry out some ‘simple’ task, as opposed to what designers assume they do, is important. Even something as mundane as boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea or coffee is fraught with variability, slips, mistaken assumptions and so on, and can be studied in some depth to see what’s really going on, or could be going on (e.g. this analysis from 1998 by my co-supervisor, Neville Stanton and Chris Baber). Everyday tasks can be complex.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

So I was fascinated and very impressed with Telescopic Text from Joe Davis (found via Kate Andrews‘ eclectically excellent Anamorphosis)

This is very clever stuff – well worth exploring.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

As Joe’s meta description for the page says, this is “an exploration of scale and levels of detail. How much or little is contained within the tiniest, most ordinary of moments.” What scripts are embedded here for the user in this system of kettle, mist, mug, stale biscuits?

The dominating level of detail reminds me a bit of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel almost entirely about interaction between people and environments. Or perhaps some of Atrocity Exhibition/Crash-era Ballard, where interactions between people, objects and spaces are broken down endlessly, obsessively.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Back to kettles for a moment: they’re going to feature more heavily on the blog over the next year, in various forms and on many levels. More than almost any other energy-using household product, they’re ripe for the ‘Design for Sustainable Behaviour‘ wand to be waved over them, since almost all the wasted energy (and water) is due to user behaviour rather than technical inefficiency. It’ll be more interesting than it sounds!

A year in

Brunel Lecture CentreIt’s nearly a year since I started my PhD, (and coming up to three years since this blog was launched). Last week I had my end-of-year review, and, while I don’t often post about the minutiae of being a research student on the blog, I know that at least a few of you are in a similar position, or thinking of doing it one day.

Certainly when I was deciding whether a not a PhD was the ‘right’ thing to do after a couple of years of pretty diverse peripatetic freelancing, the efforts of other bloggers – especially this article by Tom Coates (and the appended comments) – and Rich Watts’ blog, were very helpful and gave me some great, and sometimes sobering, insights. More recently, these posts by the polymathic Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker have given well-justified discourse on moving on from academia, even more pertinent because of their design/art-technology emphasis. (The ‘disciplinarity boundaries’ issue, which vexes me so much, has been addressed in this context by Julian more than once; Roberto Greco has a comprehensive review of more thinking on this issue, too).

Anyway, here’s (mildly edited to remove some commercial and personal information) the report I prepared, rather hurriedly, on what’s been accomplished in the first year, and what’s still to come:

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Nudges and the power of choice architecture

Nudge book cover
An ‘advance uncorrected page proof’ of Nudge I managed to get off Abebooks. Thanks to Hien Nguyen for the photo.

Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is a publishing sensation of the moment, no doubt helped by Thaler’s work advising Barack Obama (many thanks to Johan Strandell for originally pointing me in Thaler and Sunstein’s direction). I’ve been reading the book in some detail over the last month or so, and while a full section-by-section review of its implications/applicability to ‘Design with Intent’ is in the works, this morning I saw that the Nudge blog’s John Balz had linked here with a post about the Oxford benches, so it seemed apposite to talk about it briefly.

Behavioural economics has/ought to have a lot of parallels with design psychology and usability research: it is effectively looking at how people’s cognitive biases actually cause them to understand, interpret and use economic systems, not necessarily in line with the intentions of the systems’ designers, and not necessarily in accordance with rational man theory. It’s clear there’s a lot in common with examining how people actually understand and use technology and designed elements of the world around them, and there would seem to be a continual bottom-up and top-down iteration of understanding as the field develops: what users actually do is studied, then inferences are made about the thought processes that lead to that behaviour, then the experiment/system/whatever is refined to take into account those thought processes, and what users actually do is then tested again, and so on. This is very much the way that many conscientious user-focused design consultancies work, in fact, often using ethnography and in-context user observation to determine what’s really going on in users’ heads and their interactions with technology.

Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational is an excellent recent book which lays bare many of the cognitive biases and heuristics guiding everyday human decision-making, and he does take the step of suggesting a number of extremely interesting ‘improvements’ to systems which would enable them to match the way people really make decisions – which are, effectively, examples of Design with Intent as I’d define it.

But Thaler and Sunstein go further: Nudge is pretty much an elaborated series of applying techniques derived from understanding these biases to various social and economic ‘problems’, and discussion of how guiding (nudging) people towards ‘better’ choices could have a great impact overall without restricting individual freedom to make different choices. They call it libertarian paternalism and in itself the idea is not without controversy, at least when presented politically, even if it seems intuitively to be very much a part of everyday life already: when we ask someone, anyone, for advice, we are asking to have our decision guided. BJ Fogg might call it as tunnelling; Seth Godin might express it in terms of permission marketing.

Choice architecture

For Thaler and Sunstein, choice architecture is the key: the way that sets of choices are designed, and the way that they are presented to people(/users) is the basis of shaping decisions. (There’s a massive parallel here with designing affordances and perceived affordances into systems, which isn’t difficult to draw.) The establishment of ‘choice architects’, as Thaler and Sunstein describe them, within companies and governments – people with specialised domain knowledge, but also understanding of biases, heuristics and how they affect their customers’ decisions, and how to frame the choices in the ‘right’ way – is an intriguing suggestion.

Clearly, any system which intentionally presents a limited number of choices is in danger of creating false dichotomies and decoy effects – either accidentally or deliberately (e.g. this [PDF, 300 kB]). Manipulation of defaults raises similar questions (Rajiv Shah is doing some great work in this area). But, depending on the degree of ‘paternalism’ (or coercion) intended, it may be that intentionally misleading choice architecture might be considered ‘ethical’ under some circumstances. Who knows?

We’ll look at Nudge in more detail in a future post, but suffice to say: it is a very interesting book – my copy’s annotated with over a hundred torn-up bits of Post-It note at present – and it seems to be placing designers, of various kinds, at the centre of taking these ideas further for social benefit.

Design with Intent presentation from Persuasive 2008

EDIT: I’ve now added the audio! Thanks everyone for the suggestions on how best to do it; the audio is hosted on this site rather than the Internet Archive as the buffering seemed to stall a bit too much. Let me know if you have any problems.

I’ve put my presentation from Persuasive 2008 on SlideShare, – because of the visual style it really needs to be listened to, or viewed alongside the text (below, or in the comments when viewing it on the SlideShare site). Alternatively, just download it [PPT, 11.6 Mb] – it comes with the notes.

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