All posts filed under “Bureaucracy

Salt licked?

Salt shakers. Image from Daily MailSalt shakers. Image from Daily Mail

UPDATE: See the detailed response below from Peter of Gateshead Council, which clarifies, corrects and expands upon some of the spin given by the Mail articles. The new shakers were supplied to the chip shop staff for use behind the counter: “Our main concern was around the amount of salt put on by staff seasoning food on behalf of customers before wrapping it up… Our observations… confirmed that customers were receiving about half of the recommended daily intake of salt in this way. We piloted some reduced hole versions with local chip shops who all found that none of their customers complained about the reduced saltiness.”

A number of councils in England have given fish & chip shops replacement salt shakers with fewer holes – from the Daily Mail:

Research has suggested that slashing the holes from the traditional 17 to five could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half.

And so at least six councils have ordered five-hole shakers – at taxpayers’ expense – and begun giving them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas. Leading the way has been Gateshead Council, which spent 15 days researching the subject of salty takeaways before declaring the new five-hole cellars the solution.

Officers collected information from businesses, obtained samples of fish and chips, measured salt content and ‘carried out experiments to determine how the problem of excessive salt being dispensed could be overcome by design’. They decided that the five-hole pots would reduce the amount of salt being used by more than 60 per cent yet give a ‘visually acceptable sprinkling’ that would satisfy the customer.

OK. This is interesting. This is where the unit bias, defaults, libertarian paternalism and industrial design come together, in the mundanity of everyday interaction. It’s Brian Wansink’s ‘mindless margin’ being employed strategically, politically – and just look at the reaction it’s got from the public (and from Littlejohn). A BBC story about a similar initiative in Norfolk also gives us the industry view:

A spokesman for the National Federation of Fish Friers called the scheme a “gimmick” and said customers would just shake the containers more.

Graham Adderson, 62, who owns the Downham Fryer, in Downham Market, said: “I think the scheme is hilarious. If you want to put salt on your fish and chips and there are only four holes, you’re just going to spend longer putting more on.”

I’m assuming Gateshead Council’s research took account of this effect, although there are so many ways that users’ habits could have been formed through prior experience that this ‘solution’ won’t apply to all users. There might be some customers who always put more salt on, before even tasting their food. There might be people who almost always think the fish & chips they get are too heavily salted anyway – plenty of people, anecdotally at least, used to buy Smith’s Salt ‘n’ Shake and not use the salt at all.

And there are probably plenty of people who will, indeed, end up consuming less salt, because of the heuristic of “hold salt shaker over food for n seconds” built up over many years of experience.

Overall: I actually quite like this idea: it’s clever, simple, and non-intrusive, but I can see how the interpretation, the framing, is crucial. Clearly, when presented in the way that the councils media have done here (as a government programme to eliminate customer choice, and force us all down the road decided by health bureaucrats), the initiative’s likely to elicit an angry reaction from a public sick of a “nanny state” interfering in every area of our lives. Politicians jumping on the Nudge bandwagon need to be very, very careful that this isn’t the way their initiatives are perceived and portrayed by the press (and many of them will be, of course): it needs to be very, very clear how each such measure actually benefits the public, and that message needs to be given extremely persuasively.

Final thought: Many cafés, canteens and so on have used sachets of salt, that customers apply themselves, for many years. The decision made by the manufacturers about the size of these portions is a major determinant of how much salt is used, because of the unit bias (people assume that one portion is the ‘right’ amount), and, just as with washing machine detergent, manipulation of this portion size could well be used as part of a strategy to influence the quantity used by customers. But would a similar salt sachet strategy (perhaps driven by manufacturers rather than councils) have provoked similar reactions? I’m not sure that it would. ‘Nanny manufacturer’ is less despised than ‘nanny state’, I think, certainly in the UK.

What do you think?

How to fit a normal bulb in a BC3 fitting and save £10 per bulb

BC3 and 2-pin bayonet fitting compared
Standard 2-pin bayonet cap (left) and 3-pin bayonet cap BC3 (right) fittings compared

Summary for mystified international readers: In the UK new houses/flats must, by law, have a number of light fittings which will ‘not accept incandescent filament bulbs’ (a ‘green’ idea). This has led to the development of a proprietary, arbitrary format of compact fluorescent bulb, the BC3, which costs a lot more than standard compact fluorescents, is difficult to obtain, and about which the public generally doesn’t know much (yet). If you’re so minded, it’s not hard to modify the fitting and save money.

A lot of visitors have found this blog recently via searching for information on the MEM BC3 3-pin bayonet compact fluorescent bulbs, where to get them, and why they’re so expensive. The main posts here discussing them, with background to what it’s all about, are A bright idea? and some more thoughts – and it’s readers’ comments which are the really interesting part of both posts.

There are so many stories of frustration there, of people trying to ‘do their bit’ for the environment, trying to fit better CFLs in their homes, and finding that instead of instead of the subsidised or even free standard 2-pin bayonet CFLs available all over the place in a variety of improved designs, styles and quality, they’re locked in to having to pay 10 or 15 times as much for a BC3 bulb, and order online, simply because the manufacturer has a monopoly, and does not seem to supply the bulbs to normal DIY or hardware stores.

Frankly, the system is appalling, an example of exactly how not to design for sustainable behaviour. It’s a great ‘format lock-in’ case study for my research, but a pretty pathetic attempt to ‘design out’ the ‘risk’ of the public retro-fitting incandescent bulbs in new homes. This is the heavy-handed side of the legislation-ecodesign nexus, and it’s clearly not the way forward. Trust the UK to have pushed ahead with it without any thought of user experience.
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Paper Rights Management

Springer delivery note
Springer delivery note

This delivery note from Springer informs me that the book I’ve bought “must not be resold”. Good luck with that. So have I bought it or not? Or have I bought a licence to read it? What if I give it away?

Many companies would love to be able to control what users can do with things they buy, or with information after someone’s learned it. We know that, and we know that, fundamentally, it’s not going to work. You can try and shape behaviour, to guide users into helping themselves, but nonsense such “end-user licence agreements” for books has no mechanism of enforcement, and offers no benefit to the reader if he/she obeys it anyway.

How valid, legally, are any of these “post-purchase conditions”, anyway? Surely the first-sale doctrine or its equivalents allow users to re-sell items they buy with impunity?

(Anti-)public seating roundup

Photo by Ville Tikkanen
Single-occupancy benches in Helsinki. Photo by Ville Tikkanen

Ville Tikkanen of Salient Feature points us to the “asocial design” of these single-person benches installed in Helsinki, Finland. In true Jan Chipchase style, he invites us to think about the affordances offered:

As you can see, the benches are located a few meters away from each other and staring at the same direction. What kind of sociality do particular product and service features afford and what not?

Comments on Ville’s photo on Flickr make it clear that preventing the homeless lying down is seen as one of the reasons behind the design (as we’ve seen in so many other cases).

Bench in Cornmarket, Oxford
The street finds its own uses for things. Photo from Stephanie Jenkins

Ted Dewan – the man behind Oxford’s intriguing Roadwitch project, which I will get round to covering at some point – pointed me to a fantastic photo of the vehemently anti-user seating in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street, which was covered on the blog last year. When I saw the seating, no-one was using it (not surprising, though to be fair, it was raining), but the above photo demonstrates very clearly what a pathetic conceit the attempt to restrict users’ sitting down was.

As Ted puts it, these are:

The world’s most expensive, ugly, and deliberately uncomfortable benches… Still, people have managed to figure out how to sit on them, although not the way the ‘designers’ expected. They might as well have written “Oxford wishes you would kindly piss off” on the pavement.

And indeed they were expensive – the set of 8 benches cost £240,000:

Benches in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street will now cost taxpayers £240,000 – and many have been designed to discourage people from sitting on them for a long time… the bill for the benches – dubbed “tombstones” by former Lord Mayor of Oxford Gill Sanders — has hit £240,000.

The seats, made of granite, timber and stainless steel, are due to be unveiled next week but shoppers wanting to take the weight off their feet could be disappointed, because they will only be able to sit properly on 24 of the 64 seats. There is a space for a wheelchair in each of the eight blocks, while the other 32 seats are curved and are only meant to be “perched” on for a short time… Mr Cook [Oxford City planning] said the public backed the design when consultation took place two years ago. He added: “There’s method in our madness. We did not want to provide clear, long benches both sides because we did not want drunks lying across them.

But a city guide said the council had forgotten the purpose of seating. Jane Curran, 56… said: “When people see these seats and how much they cost, they are going to be amazed.

“They look like an interesting design, but seats are for people to sit on… the real function of a seat has been forgotten.”

Mrs Sanders, city councillor for Littlemore, said: “I said time and again that the council should rethink the design, because I don’t think it’s appropriate for Cornmarket. People who need a rest if they’re carrying heavy shopping need to be able to sit down. If they can’t sit on half the seats it’s an incredible waste of money.”

David Robertson, the county executive member for transport, said: “They have been designed so that the homeless will not be able to use them as a bed for the night.”

Bench by Matthew Hincman
Matthew Hincman’s ‘bench object’ installed at Jamaica Pond, Boston, Mass. Photo from WBUR website

Following last week’s post on the ‘Lean Seat’, John Curran let me know about the ‘bench object’ installation by sculptor Matthew Hincman. This was installed in a Boston park without any permission from the authorities, removed and then reinstated (for a while, at least) after the Boston Arts Commission and Parks Commission were impressed by the craftsmanship, thoughtfulness and safety of the piece.

While this is probably not Hincman’s intention, the deliberately ‘unsittable’ nature of the piece is not too much beyond some of the thinking we’ve seen displayed with real benches.

Photo of Exeter St David's Station by Elsie esq.
Exeter St Davids station – photo by Elsie esq.

In a similar vein to the Heathrow Terminal 5 deliberate lack of-seats except in overpriced cafés, Mags L Halliday also told me about what’s recently happened at Exeter St Davids, her local mainline railway station:

There are no longer any indoor seats available without having to sit in the café, and the toilets are beyond the ticket barrier. So if you’re there waiting for someone off a late train, after the cafe has closed, you can only sit outside the building, and have no access to the toilet facilities (unless a ticket inspector on the barrier feels kind).

[First Great Western] are currently doing their best to discourage people from just hanging around waiting at Exeter St Davids. The recent introduction of barriers there (due to massive amounts of fare dodging on the local trains) has created a simply awful space.

If you take a look at the stats, FGW has lost over 5% points for customer satisfaction with their facilities in the last 6 months – I wonder why!

Waiting outdoors for late-night trains, with the cold wind howling through the station, is never pleasant anywhere, but I seem to remember St Davids being especially windy (south-south-west to north-north-east orientation). This kind of tactic (removing seats) might not be deliberate, but if it isn’t, it demonstrates a real lack of customer insight or appreciation. Neither reason is admirable.

UPDATE: Mags has posted photos (slideshow) of the recent changes at Exeter St Davids, along with notes – which also show other poor thinking by First Great Western, alongside the obvious removal-of-seating:


Click to see more notes

This is the only seating freely available at Exeter St Davids if you do not have a ticket (i.e. if you are waiting for someone). Note that one of the two benches is delightfully occupied.


Click to see more notes

Exeter St David’s no longer has any freely accessible indoor seating. This is the view of the increasingly encroached concourse area where you can wait for people. The only toilets are beyond the barriers.


Click to see more notes

Having walked into the main concourse, you have to turn 180 degrees in order to see the departures screen, then 180 degrees back to go through the gates.

What an attractive meeting point!

The right to click

English Heritage, officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and funded by the taxpayer and by visitors to some of its properties, does a great deal of very good work in widening public appreciation of, and engagement with, history and the country’s heritage.

But its ViewFinder image gallery website* sadly falls into the trap of trying to restrict public engagement rather than make it easy. Yes, someone specified the old ‘right click disabled‘ policy:

English Heritage Viewfinder: right-click disabled
Screenshots of this page, launched from this page.

Now, the image in question – here’s a direct link – which happens to be an engraving of the former Datchet bridge**, in 1840 according to this page (with a colour image) is, even taking English Heritage’s “1860-1922” suggested date range, surely out of copyright, so presumably there cannot be any ‘legal’ question over ‘letting’ people save a copy (which is easiest to do by right-clicking on the most common operating systems and browsers). Using Javascript to remove the browser toolbars and menus also hides the ability to print the image for most users, presumably also deliberately.

Yes, of course, many (most?) readers of this post will know how to get around the no-right-click architecture of control, but you’re reading a technology blog; think of whom the site is presumably aimed at. It is supposed to be a resource to encourage public engagement with history and heritage. Most users will be computer-literate enough to know how to search and probably familiar with right-clicking, but not to mess round with selectively disabling Javascript. Why should they have to? Incidentally, if you do disable Javascript entirely, you can’t even view an enlarged image at all:

English Heritage Viewfinder

What actual use to the public, other than for momentary on-screen interest, is a photo archive website where nothing can be ‘done’ with the images? What is a child doing a local history project supposed to do? Order a print at £18.80 for each photo and then scan it in? Does English Heritage really think that the ability for someone to save or print or e-mail a low-resolution 72 dpi image is going to devalue or compete with the organisation in some way?

It’s ridiculous: such a short-sighted, narrow-mindset policy removes a significant proportion of the usefulness of the site. I don’t know whether the site developer did this with or without English Heritage’s instruction or cognizance (and it was in 2002, so perhaps different thinking would apply today), but it seems that no-one bothered to think through what an actual user might want to get from interacting with the site.

In fact, regardless of the fact that this particular image (as with many others on the site) is in the public domain, even the images which are still under copyright (or “© English Heritage.NMR” as the site puts it, NMR being the National Monuments Record) should, of course, be freely downloadable, printable, and do-whatever-you-want-able. Their acquisition, preservation and cataloguing were paid for by the public, and they should all be available as widely, and easily, as possible. As it is, I would call the website a waste of public money, since it does not appear to offer what most intended users would expect and need.

Still, at least the site’s not one giant bundle of Flash. That would make it marginally more hassle to extract the images.

*Partially funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and thus not entirely directly taxpayer-funded, unless one regards the National Lottery as an extra tax on the hopeful and desperate, which some commentators would.
**Almost exactly the spot where I’ve been testing a prototype radio-controlled toy for a client this very afternoon, in fact, though the bridge is long gone.

Ticket off (reprise)

Last year we looked at the way that the pricing structure of no-change-given ticket machines is often – apparently – designed to lead to overpayment, and I posed the question of whether councils/car park operators actually draw up their budget based on a significant proportion of customers overpaying.

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, DevonParking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

I’m still no closer to answering that last question, but I was reminded again of this ‘the house always wins’ idea last week by this ticket machine (above) in Totnes, Devon. Look at the price intervals: 25p, 90p, £1.70, £2.55, £4.20, £5.75 – those are some rather odd figures. The price jumps – 65p, 80p, 85p, £1.65 and £1.55 – are odd in themselves, but given that the machine does not give change, it’s a fairly safe bet that,unless they carry a lot of change, many people parking for 1 hour will pay £1.00 rather than 90p, many 2 hour customers will pay £2 instead of £1.70, and many 3 hour customers will pay some amount larger than the very awkward £2.55. Why not £2.50? What’s the logic behind that extra 5p if not to force overpayment by people not carrying a spare fivepence?

One car park visitor was clearly sufficiently irritated to label the machine with exactly what he or she thought of the pricing policy (third photo above)!

Dublin Bus ticket details at Dublin Airport

An interesting case: Dublin Bus

One detail which was thrown up in the comments last time by Undulattice is that at least one no-change-given policy, that of Dublin Bus, is accompanied by the ability to get a refund if you really want, by taking your receipt to Dublin Bus’s headquarters (which are at least located in a fairly prominent place in the city centre), as explained on signs such as the above (photographed at Dublin Airport earlier this year):

Dublin Bus have operated an ‘Exact Fare – No Change’ policy for years now. In the case of over-payment, they issue a ticket receipt which can be exchanged at Dublin Bus HQ.
Oh, and they don’t accept notes either!

and Damien added this:

I can’t remember which one, but there was a charity in Dublin that started collecting the Bus refund receipts and cashing them as donations. Great idea.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, St Francis Hospice and Barnardos are among the charities actively asking for the receipts – as Barnardos says:

Did it ever occur to you that you are throwing away real money – and lots of it!

As much as €750,000 a year is going into rubbish bins across the county!!

In 2004 there were over 150 million passenger journeys on Dublin Bus routes right across the city. If ONLY 1% of those journeys were over–paid by 5c that’s a total of €750,000 that often ends up in the bins!

This forum discussion from 2004 suggests (how accurately, I don’t know) that Dublin Bus has more than €9 million in unreturned change. As with the car parking overpayments, how do accounting standards deal with this kind of overpayment arrangement? Can budgets be drawn up based on projections of massive overpayments along these lines? Are there businesses (bus companies, car parks, etc) that are only profitable because of the scale of overpayment? Some forum posts suggest that drivers may pocket and redeem a lot of the receipts themselves, which may further complicate the picture further.

The charity initiatives are a fascinating way to ‘fight the system’ and achieve some good – a mechanism for recovering overpayment en masse – and it does make me wonder just how much overpayment Transport for London’s bus ticket machines receive each year, and how that money is accounted for.

A different strategy

Back to parking ticket machines, Carrie McLaren of the brilliant Stay Free! commented that:

…in New York, like most major cities in the US, parking meters are priced way below their market value – so “the house always wins” claim wouldn’t apply here. Anyone able to find a metered spot is getting a real bargain, even if they don’t have the right change.

This is an interesting strategy, very different to that used by most car parking operations in the UK. Restricting the number of spaces and not deliberately overcharging for them seems to be clearly targeted at discouraging drivers from even thinking of driving into the city, while not ripping off those who need to do so. This generally does not happen in the UK, where parking charges (and fines) are a major revenue source for councils and private operators, and while high charges (and forcing overpayment) may pay lip-service to ‘discouraging traffic’, the still-full car parks would tend to show up that this does not work. I’ll look further at this, and ‘architecture of control’ strategies for parking, in a future post.