All posts filed under “Book reviews

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.

The future of academic exposure?

Too many papers
A lot of research is published each year.

Now that I’m a student again, I’ve got access (via Athens) to a vastly increased amount of academic journals, papers and so on. Far more than I could have done ‘legitimately’ without that Athens login, aside from travelling from library to library to library. And while it’s good for me to have that login, right at this moment, the necessity for such a login is hardly good for society as a whole. As an independent researcher, I simply could not keep on top of my subject properly.

I think it’s fairly clear that open access is the way to go, and certainly where research has enjoyed any degree of public funding there should be no case otherwise. But even where research is freely or easily available, its impact, as a result of limited exposure, is often also very limited or nonexistent, even within academia.

This is surely an omnipresent worry/headache/frustration for many researchers, and the issue was brought home to me the other day. I was reading a (fairly academic) book, published in the UK in 2005, written by a design professor at a university about 50 miles from here, and found a comment, within a discussion of a particular issue, along the lines of “no research has been done on the issue of to what extent A relates to B in the field of C, but it is safe to assume D” and yet, in front of me on the desk, was a PhD thesis completed in 2003, at my university, addressing not only the exact issue specified, but also showing D to be incorrect. Now, a paper was written based on this thesis, and published in an engineering journal, and also presented at a conference, but it clearly escaped the notice of the author of the book.

Now, of course, this probably happens a thousand times a day in academia. It’s not an especially interesting example, and there may be many possible explanations, the book maybe having taken a long period to go from being researched to publication being somewhat likely. But assuming it didn’t, and assuming the book’s author, despite being, by all accounts, an ‘expert’ in his field, really was unaware of research going on not too far away, then there is a failure of communication. (In this case, there might also be the often self-imposed disconnect between the ‘design’ community, and the ‘engineering’ community: the assumption that research done in a different field is irrelevant or likely not to be understandable. That, perhaps, is another problem again.)

This type of communication failure is not necessarily entirely the fault of either side, but it is a problem, across all fields of knowledge and endeavour. So what’s the answer?

I don’t know, from that kind of distance, but closer up, I have a hunch that broad subject blog families, such as Scienceblogs, ‘research digest’ blogs such as the British Psychological Society‘s, and individual blogs with a fairly wide scope, such as Mind Hacks (these latter two both examples from the same field) are going to become increasingly important mechanisms for disseminating research advances to both an academic and a wider audience. Whether the actual awareness of a particular new piece of research comes directly by a researcher reading the site, or by a colleague or friend-of-a-friend referring the researcher, the path from ignorance to awareness is (potentially) shorter and easier than before. It’s (potentially) less likely that anyone reasonably well-informed about a field will not have had an opportunity to learn about other research in the field, at least that which is either newly published or which somehow comes to the attention of the bloggers (so the bloggers’ filtering and discriminatory abilities are very important, in this sense).

Something I’m planning to do, on this blog, from now on, is to review useful or interesting academic papers or journal articles (or books, of course) I come across, from a variety of academic areas, which are relevant to the field of architectures of control, and design for behaviour change in general – shot through the lens of my PhD research focus, extracting pertinent arguments, quotes, following up references, and so on. I hope, in some small way, this will also bring particular areas of research to the attention of researchers from other disciplines, in the same way (for example) that Lawrence Lessig’s “code is law” concept made me think more about constraints and behaviour-shaping in product design in the first place.

From a practical point of view, this approach also seems like it might be a very useful way to document the process of getting to grips with the literature on a subject – helping immensely when it comes to putting together my actual literature review for the PhD – and allowing input (commentary, recommendations, suggestions) from a very diverse set of readers worldwide, in a way which the traditional ivory tower or even open-plan research office doesn’t, or can’t, at least during this stage of the research. While I’m sure there are plenty of other people who’ve had a similar idea (any links would be very interesting: I love seeing how other people structure their research), this approach seems quite excitingly fresh to me, imbuing the literature review process with a vibrancy and immediacy that simply wouldn’t have been as easy to do in the past.

Review: We Know What You Want by Martin Howard

A couple of weeks ago, Martin Howard sent me details of his blog, How They Change Your Mind and book, We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind, published last year by Disinformation. You can review the blog for yourselves – it has some fascinating details on product placement, paid news segments, astroturfing and other attempts to manipulate public opinion for political and commercial reasons, including “10 disturbing trends in subliminal persuasion” – but I’ve been reading the book, and there are some interesting ‘architectures of control’ examples:

Supermarket layouts

We’ve seen before some of the tricks used by stores to encourage customers to spend longer in certain aisles and direct them to certain products, but Howard’s book goes into more detail on this, including a couple of telling quotes:

“About 80 percent of consumer choices are made in store and 60 percent of those are impulse purchases.”
Herb Meyers, CEO Gerstman + Meyers, NY

“We want you to get lost.”
Tim Magill, designer, Mall of America

Planograms, the designed layout and positioning of products within stores for optimum sales, are discussed, with the observation that (more expensive) breakfast cereals, toys and sweets are often placed at children’s eye level specifically to make the most of ‘pester power’; aromas designed to induce “appropriate moods” are often used, along with muzak with its tempo deliberately set to encourage or discourage customers’ prolonged browsing. There’s also a mention of stores deliberately rearranging their layouts to force customers to walk around more trying to find their intended purchases, thus being exposed to more product lines:

“Some stores actually switch the layout every six months to intentionally confuse shoppers.”

The book also refers readers to a detailed examination of supermarket tactics produced by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group in Ontario, The Supermarket Tour [PDF] which I’ll be reading and reporting on in due course. It looks to have an in-depth analysis of psychological and physical design techniques for manipulating customers’ behaviour.

Monopolistic behaviour

Howard looks at the exploitation of ‘customers’ caught up in mass-crowds or enclosed systems, such as people visiting concerts or sports where they cannot easily leave the stadium or arena or have time, space or quiet to think for themselves, and are thus especially susceptible to subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) advertising and manipulation of their behaviour, even down to being forced into paying through the nose for food or drink thanks to a monopoly (‘stadium pouring rights’):

“One stadium even hindered fans from drinking [free] water by designing their stadium without water fountains. A citizens’ protest pressured the management into having them installed.”


The ‘remote nervous system manipulation’ patents of Hendricus Loos (which I previously mentioned here and here, having first come across them back in 2001) are explained together with a whole range of other patents detailing methods of controlling individuals’ behaviour, from the more sinister, e.g. remotely altering brain waves (PDF link, Robert G Malech, 1976) to the merely irritating (methods for hijacking users’ browsers and remotely changing the function of commands – Brian Shuster, 2002/5) and even a Samsung patent (1995) which involves using a TV’s built-in on-screen display to show adverts for a few seconds when the user tries to switch the TV off.

A number of these patents are worth further investigation, and I will attempt to do so at some point.

The book itself

We Know What You Want is a quick, concise, informative read with major use of magazine/instructional-style graphics to draw issues out of the text. It was apparently written to act as a more visual companion volume to Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion, which I haven’t (yet) read, so I can’t comment on how well that relationship works. But it’s an interesting survey of some of the techniques used to persuade and manipulate in retailing, media, online and in social situations. It’s easy to dip into at random, and the wide-ranging diversity of practices and techniques covered (from cults to music marketing, Dale Carnegie to MLM) somehow reminds me of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, even if the design and format of this book (with its orange-and-black colour scheme and extensive clipart) is completely different.

I’ll end on a stand-out quote from the book, originally applied to PR but appropriate to the whole field of manipulating behaviour:

“It is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”
Edward Bernays

Review: Everyware by Adam Greenfield

The cover of the book, in a suitably quotidian setting

This is the first book review I’ve done on this blog, though it won’t be the last. In a sense, this is less of a conventional review than an attempt to discuss some of the ideas in the book, and synthesise them with points that have been raised by the examination of architectures of control: what can we learn from the arguments outlined in the book?

Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing looks at the possibilities, opportunities and issues posed by the embedding of networked computing power and information processing in the environment, from the clich├ęd ‘rooms that recognise you and adapt to your preferences’ to surveillance systems linking databases to track people’s behaviour with unprecedented precision. Read More