All posts filed under “Communication

The ‘You Are Here’ Use-mark

You are here - Florence, Italy

Who really needs a “You Are Here” marker when other visitors’ fingers have done the work for you?

(Above, in Florence; below, in San Francisco)

You are here - San Francisco, California

Use-marks, like desire paths, are a kind of emergent behaviour record of previous users’ perceptions (and perceived affordances), intentions, behaviours and preferences. (As Google’s search history is a database of intentions.)

Indeed, while we’d probably expect the “You Are Here” spot to be worn (so it’s not telling us anything especially new) can we perhaps think of use-marks / desire paths as being a physical equivalent of revealed preferences? (Carl Myhill almost makes this point in this great paper [PDF].)

And (I have to ask), to what extent does the presence of wear and use-marks by previous users influence the use decisions and behaviour of new users (social proof)? If you see a well-trodden path, do you follow it? Do you pick a dog-eared library book to read because it is presumably more interesting than the ones that have never been read? What about where you’re confused by a new interface on, say, a ticket machine? Can you pick it up more quickly by (consciously or otherwise) observing how others have worn or deformed it through prior use?

Can we design public products / systems / services which intentionally wear to give cues to future users? How (other than “Most read stories today”) can we apply this digitally?

Ann Thorpe: Can artefacts be activists?

Ann Thorpe, author of the intriguing-sounding Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability – is pursuing an interesting investigation into design activism:

Some of the basic issues around design activism include:
# isn’t all design activism?
# how much design should be activist – aren’t designers supposed to be meeting client needs?
# are there best practices for design activism?

Low bridge, image by sarflondondunc
Low bridge in the Lee Valley, East London. Photo by sarflondondunc.

As part of this, she’s put together a very insightful article, well worth a read, Can artefacts be activists?, reviewing some of the different approaches in this area, from Langdon Winner’s discussion of Robert Moses’ low parkway bridges, to this very website:

…[O]nce designers are out of the picture, have moved on to the next job, can artifacts in themselves be activists? Can buildings, appliances, tools, or items of clothing, in themselves, lobby for change or even “force” it?

There are some worthwhile areas of debate explored in the article, especially the extent to which an artefact can embody power or discriminate, in itself, rather than simply mediating this through the way it is used or experienced. I appreciate this argument, but (coming from the point of view of a designer), I think the intent behind a design feature is critical to understanding the issue. If a bridge is intentionally made low to prevent buses passing underneath, this may well have the same practical effect as one which is simply low through an accident of history or topography, but it displays a very different attitude and philosophy on the part of the planners. Unintended consequences of design decisions – made long before products (/systems/environments) reach users – certainly have an enormous effect on almost all human-technology interactions, but not so many are actually deliberate. No design is neutral; all artefacts embody some intent, some philosophy, some outlook, even if it’s simply “manufacture this as cheaply as possible”. All design is rhetoric, a communication of values and intentions, and can be read as a social text if that’s the way you like to think of it, but with some design, those intentions are much more obviously expressed.

I look forward to seeing how Ann’s research develops – this is a very interesting area which should probably be given more attention in design school curricula in the years ahead. As more young designers “tire of designing landfill” (can’t remember if Ben Wilson first used this phrase to me, or me to him), design activism, of one form or another, is the most meaningful route forward.

Do you really need to print that?

Do you really need to print that?
Do you really need to print that?

This is not difficult to do, once you know how. Of course, it’s not terribly useful, since a) most people don’t read the display on a printer unless an error occurs, or b) you’re only likely to see it once you’ve already sent something to print.

Is this kind of very, very weak persuasion – actually worthwhile? From a user’s point of view, it’s less intrusive than, say, a dialogue box that asks “Are you sure you want to print that? Think of the environment” every time you try to print something (which would become deeply irritating for many users), but when applied thoughtfully, as (in a different area of paper consumption) in Pete Kazanjy’s These Come From Trees initiative, or even in various e-mail footers* (below), there may actually be some worthwhile influence on user behaviour. It’s not ‘micropersuasion’ in Steve Rubel’s sense, exactly, but there is some commonality.

Please consider the environment

I’m thinking that addressing the choices users make when they decide to print (or not print) a document or email could be an interesting specific example to investigate as part of my research, once I get to the stage of user trials. How effective are the different strategies in actually reducing paper/energy/toner/fuser/ink consumption and waste generation? Would better use of ‘Printer-friendly’ style sheets for webpages save a lot of unnecessary reprints due to cut-off words and broken layouts? Should, say, two pages per sheet become the default when a dicument goes above a certain number of pages? Should users be warned if widows (not so much orphans) are going to increase the number of sheets needed, or should the leading be automatically adjusted (by default) to prevent this? What happens if we make it easier to avoid printing banner ads and other junk? What happens if we make the paper tray smaller so the user is reminded of just how much paper he/she is getting through? What happens if we include a display showing the cost (financially) of the toner/ink, paper and electricity so far each day, or for each user? What happens if we ration paper for each user and allow him or her to ‘trade’ with other users? What happens if we give users a ‘reward’ for reaching targets of reducing printer usage, month-on-month? And so on. (The HP MOPy Fish – cited in B J Fogg’s Persuasive Technology – is an example of the opposite intention: a system designed to encourage users to print more, by rewarding them.)

Printing is an interesting area, since it allows the possibility of testing out both software and hardware tactics for causing behaviour change, which I’m keen to do.

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.

Mentor Teaching Machines: The ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Textbooks

Mentor Textbook Teaching Machines: Applications of SI Metric, 1971Mentor Textbook Teaching Machines: Applications of SI Metric, 1971
An Introduction to SI Metric and Applications of SI Metric, published by Mentor Textbook Teaching Machines of London, 1971.

Back in January, in a post looking at the use of forcing functions in education, I mentioned a type of textbook I remembered having somewhere which guided the user through learning in a kind of ‘choose your own adventure‘ style – depending on the answers the reader gave, he or she is routed through the book in a different order, with areas of weakness addressed in more detail to ensure better understanding before allowing the reader to progress to the next level.

At the time of the original post I mocked up how I remembered the pages looked – luckily, after a house move, I’m pleased to say I’ve now found the two textbooks I had, from 1971, and – after the jump – I’ve posted a set of photos to illustrate the system better. I love the way they’re described as textbook teaching machines (following B F Skinner’s lead [PDF]): this really is the application of machine design, or at least pseudo-programming, to a textbook, and, while I don’t know how effective the system really was in terms of advancing readers’ understanding, this type of thinking must have the potential to be relevant in other areas of interaction design…

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