All posts filed under “Cargo cult

Placebo buttons, false affordances and habit-forming

Elevator graph

This is a great graph
from GraphJam, by ‘Bloobeard’. It raises the question, of course, whether the ‘door close’ buttons on lifts/elevators really do actually do anything, or are simply there to ‘manage expectations‘ or act as a placebo.

The Straight Dope has quite a detailed answer from 1986:

The grim truth is that a significant percentage of the close-door buttons [CDB] in this world, for reasons that we will discuss anon, don’t do anything at all.

In the meantime, having consulted with various elevator repairmen, I would say that apparent CDB nonfunctionality may be explained by one of the following:

(1) The button really does work, it’s just set on time delay.
Suppose the elevator is set so that the doors close automatically after five seconds. The close-door button can be set to close the doors after two or three seconds. The button may be operating properly when you push it, but because there’s still a delay, you don’t realize it.

(2) The button is broken. Since a broken close-door button will not render the elevator inoperable and thus does not necessitate an emergency service call, it may remain unrepaired for weeks.

(3) The button has been disconnected, usually because the building owner received too many complaints from passengers who had somebody slam the doors on them.

(4) The button was never wired up in the first place. One repair type alleges that this accounts for the majority of cases.

Gizmodo, more recently, contends that:

…the Door Close button is there mostly to give passengers the illusion of control. In elevators built since the early ’90s. The button is only enabled in emergency situations with a key held by an authority.

Door close button

This is clearly not always true; I’ve just tested the button in the lift down the corridor here at Brunel (installed around a year ago) and it works fine. So it would seem that enabling the functionality (or not) or modifying it (e.g. time delays) is a decision that can be made for each installation, along the lines of the Straight Dope information.

If there’s a likelihood (e.g. in a busy location) that people running towards a lift will become antagonised by those already inside pressing the button (deliberately or otherwise) and closing the door on them, maybe it’s sensible to disable it, or introduce a delay. If the installation’s in a sparsely populated corner of a building where there’s only likely to be one lift user at a time, it makes sense for the button to be functional. Or maybe for the doors to close more quickly, automatically.

But thinking about this more generally: how often are deceptive buttons/controls/options – deliberate false affordances – used strategically in interaction design? What other examples are there? Can it work when a majority of users ‘know’ that the affordance is false, or don’t believe it any more? Do people just give up believing after a while – the product has “cried Wolf” too many times?

Matt Webb (Mind Hacks, Schulze & Webb) has an extremely interesting discussion of the extinction burst in conditioning, which seems relevant here:

There’s a nice example I read, I don’t recall where, about elevators. Imagine you live on the 10th floor and you take the elevator up there. One day it stops working, but for a couple of weeks you enter the elevator, hit the button, wait a minute, and only then take the stairs. After a while, you’ll stop bothering to check whether the elevator’s working again–you’ll go straight for the stairs. That’s called extinction.

Here’s the thing. Just before you give up entirely, you’ll go through an extinction burst. You’ll walk into the elevator and mash all the buttons, hold them down, press them harder or repeatedly, just anything to see whether it works. If it doesn’t work, hey, you’re not going to try the elevator again.

But if it does work! If it does work then bang, you’re conditioned for life. That behaviour is burnt in.

I think this effect has a lot more importance in everyday interaction with products/systems/environments than we might realise at first – a kind of mild Cargo Cult effect – and designers ought to be aware of it. (There’s a lot more I’d like to investigate about this effect, and how it might be applied intentionally…)

We’ve looked before at the thermostat wars and the illusion of control in this kind of context. It’s related to the illusion of control psychological effect studied by Ellen Langer and others, where people are shown to believe they have some control over things they clearly don’t: in most cases, a button does afford us control, and we would rationally expect it to: an expectation does, presumably, build up that similar buttons will do similar things in all lifts we step into, and if we’re used to it not doing anything, we either no longer bother pressing it, or we still press it every time “on the off-chance that one of these days it’ll work”.

How those habits form can have a large effect on how the products are, ultimately, used, since they often shake out into something binary (you either do something or you don’t): if you got a bad result the first time you used the 30 degree ‘eco’ mode on your washing machine, you may not bother ever trying it again, on that machine or on any others. If pressing the door close button seems to work, that behaviour gets transferred to all lifts you use (and it takes some conscious ‘extinction’ to change it).

There’s no real conclusion to this post, other than that it’s worth investigating this subject further.


Last week I was at a seminar where a fellow student was outlining some (very interesting) research about how to adapt ‘professional’ products to be usable by a ‘lay’ audience (what functions do you retain, what do you lose, how do you deal with different mental models? and so on)

He repeatedly referred to the importance of ‘user experience’ throughout the presentation, and it took me a while to realise that he was not talking about UX, but “the degree of prior knowledge/understanding a user has, having dealt with similar products/systems”. That made a whole lot more sense. Yet no-one else in the room – including a number of people with backgrounds in human-centred design – asked about or pointed out this (quite important) difference.

It made me think: how often in science, technology – indeed any subject – are people talking about very different things yet using the same terminology? Do they realise they’re doing it? And can this ever be used as a deliberate provocation tactic to generate new ideas or ways of looking at things? Can we think of third and fourth meanings for terms that might give us insights? (E.g. with ‘user experience’, can we think of the ‘experience’ a product has with a user – his or her quirks, errors, misperceptions and so on – rather than the other way round? Is that ever helpful?)

The Rebound Effect nicely illustrated

Rebound effect

The Rebound Effect is a significant problem in energy policy and sustainable design: if new devices are more energy efficient, will users simply use them more, or leave them on for longer? (A kind of Jevons’ Paradox). This UK Energy Research Centre report (PDF, 5 Mb) looks to be a comprehensive, interesting and readable treatment of the subject.

The compact fluorescent light bulb shown above, fitted under some scaffolding over a public footpath in Hurley, on the Thames near Henley, is switched on all day, even in bright sunshine. But that’s ‘OK’ of course, because it’s one of those energy-saving bulbs.

How prevalent is this kind of thinking among users?

Normalising paranoia

This is brilliant. ChloĆ« Coulson, Erland Banggren and Ben Williams, three Ravensbourne graduates, have put together a project looking at the “culture of fear”, the media’s use of this, and how it affects our everyday state of mind.

The outcome is a catalogue, WellBeings™ [PDF link] accompanying a specially printed newspaper, The Messenger, designed to be used with special rose-tinted spectacles – simple, yet very clever:

Feeling brave? Read the paper as usual. Feeling fragile? Put on the rose-tinted spectacles to block out the bad news stories which are printed in the same hue as the lenses so it becomes invisible.

The products in the catalogue cater for people made increasingly paranoid by aspects of modern society, by ‘normalising’ paranoia – ranging from H-ear-Phones which allow you to hear what others are saying about you, to Rear-View Mirror spectacles to allow you to keep an eye on who might be following you. As ChloĆ« puts it:

The whole project is about questioning attitudes – should we live in fear – are we safer that way, or should we live for now and not worry about what could happen.

There are also a couple of products in there which are actually defensive weapons – a pepper spray disguised as a perfume atomiser, and house-key-cum-knuckleduster, and these seem to go beyond mere paranoia. All of these products are very plausible, and indeed, some of them are probably commercially viable. Whilst none of these is an architecture of control as such, I felt that they deserved inclusion here – pertinent to the sousveillance discussion, and also the idea of users turning products against instrusive aspects of society, from relatively simple items such as the Knee Defender (prevent the person in front of you on an aircraft reclining his or her seat) to Limor Fried’s Design Noir work on using electronic devices to create social defence mechanisms.

Equally – while perhaps not the focus of the project – the rose-tinted spectacles idea parallels closely the phenomenon of increasing self-selection of the news we expose ourselves to, as the internet and hundreds of TV channels allow segmentation like never before. The idea of a newspaper bringing readers only ‘good’ news has been tried a number of times (a recent example one-off) and has inspired some interesting pieces, but modern media permits many more coloured filters than simply rose-tinting. Clearly, to a large extent, deliberate use of this segmentation can permit intentional reinforcement, entrenchment, even inspiration of certain views and behaviours. Self-selected exposure to propaganda is a curious phenomenon, but one with enormous power.

More thoughts on the Eaton MEM BC3, CFLs and Power Factor

Light bulbs

UPDATE: See this more recent post for information and photos of how to get a 2-pin bulb to fit in a BC3 fitting.

BC3 reactions

The post looking at the Eaton MEM BC3 system, a couple of months ago, has become something of a reference for UK householders and renters trying to work out why they can’t fit a normal 2-pin bayonet compact fluorescent (or other bulb) in the light fittings of their new house or flat – or so I assume from some of the search strings in the server logs.

Some comments from readers highlight the frustration and inconvenience caused by the 3-pin system – and in these cases it’s people trying to use CFLs in the fittings. They’re trying to be energy-efficient, trying to comply with government advice indeed, yet a combination of ill-thought-out regulations and a razor-blade-style commercial lock-in architecture of control is preventing their success. As an example of ‘reducing the environmental impact of products by using design to change user behaviour‘, the BC3 seems to be a poorly thought-out initiative.

MEM BC3 compared with standard 2-pin bayonet CFL

Increasing CFL uptake

Elsewhere, on the subject of CFLs, Duncan Drennan of The Art of Engineering blog has a very informative post looking at aspects of the CFL argument, such as comparing colour rendering indices, which are less often addressed in media articles on the subject. As Duncan makes clear – even including a spreadsheet to calculate the savings – the monetary arguments in terms of electricity saved are probably a more direct way to persuade many people than using environmental arguments.

Duncan also mentions the higher-end CFLs such as the Osram Dulux Superstar (which has a quicker start-up time to full brightness than standard CFLs). Along with CFLs which are shaped more like conventional incandescent bulbs (such as the version of the Osram Duluxstar, third from left in the first photo below), or even with more interesting forms, such as the concepts by Dutch designer Jacob de Baan (second image below), these surely have the potential to convert more householders to CFLs: the standard 3 U-tube design is rather ugly.

Some types of CFL compared with a 150W incandescent
Bulbs by Jacob de Baan
Above: Some types of CFL (from left: Tesco Value, GE Elegance and Osram Duluxstar) lined up next to a burned-out incandescent bulb. Note that the Osram Duluxstar – basically a standard 3 U-tube CFL with a bulb-shaped cover – is taller than even the 150W incandescent, due to the space taken up by the ballast, and this extra length can be a problem when using CFLs in existing light fixtures, shades, etc. Some companies, such as Sylvania with its Mini-Lynx Ambience range, have addressed this by making CFLs with shorter tubes and ballast such that the whole thing is the same size as a standard incandescent bulb. Below: Three CFL concepts by Jacob de Baan. Apologies for the scan quality (the images are from The Eco-Design Handbook, 2004 edition, by Alastair Fuad-Luke).

Power Factor

A rarely mentioned issue with CFLs which I realised recently (courtesy of a letter by Andrew Porter in The Engineer, a UK journal), is that of power factor. Not having studied electricity generation for some time, this is something I’d shoved to the back of my mind, but essentially it results from the phase shift between voltage and current caused by a reactive (capactive or inductive) load as opposed to a purely reactive one, and means that the actual power supplied by the power station (in volt-amps) will be greater than that indicated by simply looking at the wattage (in watts), where reactive loads are involved.

A normal incandescent filament bulb is an almost entirely resistive load, and the voltage and current will be in phase (hence a power factor of 1). But a CFL – with a significant proportion of capacitive load due to the ballast – will have a much lower power factor, perhaps only 0.5. This means that a ’15W’ CFL actually requires 30VA from the power station – which the private customer will not pay for directly, since home electricity meters only measure watts, but it is still equivalent to needing to supply double the power. That increase in necessary generation can’t be ignored: the consumer will pay for it one way or another.

Rod Elliott has a detailed examination of why the power factor should certainly be taken into account when looking at CFLs in a policy context and it’s very much worth reading for a better understanding of the issue. While fluorescent lighting ballasts with high power factors (0.95+) are available (in industrial situations, a large customer will often have to pay for the actual VA drawn by large reactive loads, such as motors), they are unlikely to be incorporated any time soon into mass-produced cheap CFLs. Elliott suggests that because fluorescent lighting is so often left on continuously (partly because of the belief that it will last longer if not switched on-and-off), in conjunction with the power factor issue, mass adoption of CFLs may actually increase the electricity used.

I don’t know to what extent policy-makers have taken the power factors of cheap CFLs into account when planning mass conversion initiatives, but in the long run, it would seem that LED home lighting (without a power factor issue), perhaps with DC ring-mains to prevent the need for multiple transformer/rectifiers, is a better solution than total adoption of CFLs.

Friday quote: Fashion & convention

All heading the same way

L.J.K. Setright, the late motoring writer and commentator, self-taught mechanical engineer and all-round Renaissance Man, once wrote:

Fashion is a terrible fetter; convention, since it lasts longer, is even worse.

This was in an issue of Car, when it was still any good.

Setright wrote it in reference to car design, and the lack of progress thereof, but I think we can all see how applicable it is to many fields of endeavour, not just in technology but in society also. We should be very wary when fashions become conventions – or at least we should think them through before they become norms. And we should always leave ourselves a way out. (I’ve mentioned this in a few contexts before, perhaps with a little hyperbole.)

What almost became a norm – DRM’d music – is now apparently on the way out. DRM was a fashion, not a convention: still a fetter, but one which can ultimately be shaken off, as it should be.

The great thing about fashions, of course, is that they can be talked into existence, and talked out of existence too. Fashions are not architecture.