Category Archives: Design with Intent

As we may understand: A constructionist approach to ‘behaviour change’ and the Internet of Things

Find Alternative Route, Old Street

In a world of increasingly complex systems, we could enable social and environmental behaviour change by using IoT-type technologies for practical co-creation and constructionist public engagement.

[This article is cross-posted to Medium, where there are some very useful notes attached by readers]

We’re heading into a world of increasingly complex engineered systems in everyday life, from smart cities, smart electricity grids and networked infrastructure on the one hand, to ourselves, personally, being always connected to each other: it’s not going to be just an Internet of Things, but very much an Internet of Things and People, and Communities, too.

Yet there is a disconnect between the potential quality of life benefits for society, and people’s understanding of these — often invisible — systems around us. How do they work? Who runs them? What can they help me do? How can they help my community?

IoT technology and the ecosystems around it could enable behaviour change for social and environmental sustainability in a wide range of areas, from energy use to civic engagement and empowerment. But the systems need to be intelligible, for people to be engaged and make the most of the opportunities and possibilities for innovation and progress.

They need to be designed with people at the heart of the process, and that means designing with people themselves: practical co-creation, and constructionist public engagement where people can explore these systems and learn how they work in the context of everyday life rather than solely in the abstract visions of city planners and technology companies.
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Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1

Brainstorming  brainstorming

Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started blogging extracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people’s behaviour.

The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong’s Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta’s Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)

The article below is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the field, but was focused specifically on aspects which I felt were relevant for a ‘design for behaviour change’ toolkit, which became Design with Intent. I should also note that since the below was written, mostly in 2010-11, a number of very useful articles have collected together toolkits, card decks and similar things. I recommend: Venessa Miemis’s 21 Card Decks, Hanna Zoon’s Depository of Design Toolboxes, Joanna Choukeir’s Design Methods Resources, Stephen Anderson’s answer on this Quora thread, Ola Möller’s 40 Decks of Method Cards for Creativity, and Public Policy Lab’s list of Toolkits for Public Service Design. I’m sure there are others.


Problem-solving and problem-framing



“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, ”so do dentists” (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the ‘What is design?’ rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]

The view of design as being entirely about ‘problem-solving’—which, at its most mechanistic, is ”basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal”—as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process.[1] In particular, the reaction against the ‘problem-solving’ view follows Schön’s (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose “inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation” (p.68).

Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution ‘spaces’ (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions. [2]
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Introducing Powerchord (Blackbird edition)


Powerchord 1, housed in a Poundland lunchbox. In the video, you see a laptop (~40W) being plugged in, with, from 10 seconds, the Powerchord kicking in with relatively gentle blackbird song. (The initial very quiet birdsong at 4-8 seconds is actual blackbirds singing in the hedge outside!) Then at 30 seconds, a 400W electric heater is switched on, and the birdsong increases in emphasis accordingly. At 49 seconds, a second 400W element is switched on and the birdsong increases further in volume. There is some background noise of rain on the shed roof.

In the previous post, I introduced the exploration Flora Bowden and I have been doing of sonifying energy data, as part of the SusLab project. The ‘Sound of the Office’ represented twelve hours’ electricity use by three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – turned into a 30-second MIDI file.

Going further with this idea, I’ve been playing with taking it into (near) real-time, producing sound directly in response to the electricity use of multiple appliances. Powerchord seemed too good a name to pass up. Again using CurrentCost IAMs, transmitting data to a CurrentCost EnviR, this system then uses an Arduino to parse the CurrentCost’s XML stream*, and trigger particular audio tracks via a Robertsonics WAV Trigger. I tried a GinSing to start with, which was a lot of fun, but the WAV Trigger offered a more immediate way of producing suitable sounds.

The Powerchord prototype   CurrentCost IAM

Testing GinSing   Alongside CurrentCost EnviR

There are lots of questions – what sort of sounds should the system produce? How should they relate to the instantaneous power consumption? Should they be linear or some other relationship? Should it be an ‘alarm’, alerting people to unusual or particularly high energy use, or a continuous soundtrack?** I decided in this case, that I wanted to build on a number of insights and anecdotes that had arisen during discussion of representing energy use in different ways:

  • one of the householders with whom we’re working had mentioned in an interview that she could tell, from the sound of the washing machine, what stage it was at in its cycle, even from other rooms of the house.
  • a remark from Greg Jackson of Intel’s ICRI Cities that the church bells he could hear from his office, chiming every 15 minutes, helped him establish a much better sense of what time it was, even when he didn’t consciously recall listening out for them
  • Blackbird

  • the amount of birdsong I can hear (mostly sparrows and blackbirds) both lying in bed early in the morning, and from the hedge behind the garden shed where I work when I’m working from home. Reinforced by a visit to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes a couple of weeks ago
  • the uncanniness of the occasional silence as the New Bus for London or other hybrid buses pull into traffic, compared with the familiarity of increasing revs for acceleration
  • the multi-sensory plug sockets produced by Ted Hunt during our ‘Seeing Things’ student workshop last year
  • the idea of linking time and daily routines and patterns to energy use, e.g. Loove Broms & Karin Ehrnberger’s Energy AWARE Clock at the Interactive Institute.
  • the notion of soundscapes, e.g. Dr Jamie Mackrill’s work at WMG with understanding and manipulating hospital soundscapes.
  • a recording I made out of the window of my hotel room, on a trip to Doha, of the continuous sound of construction work, interspersed with occasional pigeons
  • the popularity of things like Mashup: Jazz Rain Fire
  • Gordon Pask’s Ear and attempts to recreate it
  • the ‘clacking’ sound of split flap displays (e.g. mechanical railway departure boards) as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their Designing the Internet of Things.

All of this led to using birdsong as the sounds triggered – in the video here, blackbirds – at different intensities of song (volume, and number of birds) depending on the power measured by the CurrentCost, at 7 levels ranging from 5W to 1800W+. The files were adapted, in Audacity, from those available at the incredible Xeno-Canto – these include Creative Commons-licensed recordings by Jerome Fischer, Jordi Calvert, Roberto Lerco, Michele Peron, David M and Krzysztof Deoniziak. I also made sets of files using house sparrows, and herring gulls, which proved particularly irritating when testing in the office.

Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR   Arduino, WAV Trigger and cannibalised CurrentCost EnviR

The initial intention was to use multiple IAMs, with different birdsong for each appliance, played polyphonically if appliances are being used at the same time. This is the aim for the next version (and I’ll publish the code), but was stymied in this case by 1) my misunderstanding of the CurrentCost XML spec, and 2) a failed IAM, which conspired together to limit this particular version to one IAM (with multiple appliances plugged into it), at least to have it ready to be shown at a couple of events last week. The prototype you see/hear here, in all its Poundland lunchbox-encased glory, was demonstrated by Flora Bowden and me at the V&A Digital Futures event at BL-NK, near Old Street, and at the UK Art Science Prize ‘Energy of the Future’ event at the Derby Silk Mill. It was more a demo to show that it could work at all than anything particularly impressive.

What’s the overall aim with all this? It’s an exploration of what’s possible, or might be useful, in helping people develop a different kind of understanding of energy use, and the patterns of energy use in daily life – not just based on on numerical feedback. If it’s design for behaviour change, it’s aiming to do so through increasing our understanding of, and familiarity with, the systems around us, making energy use something we can develop an instinctual feeling for, much like the sound of our car’s engine – once we’re familiar with it – effectively tells us when to change gear.

The next version will, hopefully, work with multiple appliances at once, playing polyphonic birdsong, and be somewhat better presented – I’ll post the code and schematics too – and, later in the year, might even be tested with some householders.

*Using a modified version of Colin R Williams’ code, in turn based on Francisco Anselmo’s.
**The distinction between model-based sonification and other approaches such as parameter-mapping sonification is useful here – many thanks to Chris Jack for this.

Thank you to Ross Atkin and Jason Mesut for suggestions! Blackbird photo by John Stratford, used under a CC licence.

Work in progress: Ambient audible energy data

The three instruments you hear here represent the electricity use of three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – in the Helen Hamlyn Centre office over 12 hours from midnight on a Sunday to lunchtime on a Monday, in December, monitored using CurrentCost IAMs. The figures were scaled to provide ranges that sounded better, and converted into a MIDI file using John Walker’s csvmidi and then Aria Maestosa.

The ‘ticks’ indicate each hour’s passing. The ‘honk’ (Tenor Sax) is the kettle (up to 1.5kW when in use). The ‘whine’ (Synth Brass 1) is the Kyocera laser printer. The other synth (Polysynth) is the gang socket, which mainly had a couple of laptops (15W-50W) plugged into it when people were in the office, and a charger (1W) plugged into it otherwise . Lower pitch indicates greater electricity use, hence the high-pitched whine is the background power of the printer (about 10W on standby, rising to 300W-500W when in use).

As the audio starts, you can hear, over the background whine of the printer, the kettle come on as the security guard makes himself a middle-of-the-night cup of tea. Then, early in the morning, the kettle is used three times by the cleaners – twice in quick succession (reboiling?) and then once again. Suddenly, from 9.30, as office staff arrive, the kettle goes on again, laptops are plugged in, the printer starts printing and the energetic hubbub of office life becomes apparent.

Sound of the Office

Data sonification has been in the news a bit recently, from Domenico Vicinanza’s ‘Sound of Space Discovery’ to Opower’s ‘Chicago in the Wintertime’. It’s something that’s long intrigued me, but if I’m honest, has underwhelmed me in terms of either its actual utility or indeed its impact aesthetically. A (visual) graph is useful because I can use it to find something out. A table of numbers, likewise, even if patterns are less immediately evident. But a beautiful orchestral piece that just happens to draw on aggregated data which are a long way from anything I can comprehend, in scale or meaning, doesn’t tell me anything, somehow. Sarah Angliss was pretty much spot-on in this 2011 Mad Art Lab post.

Energy use is the focus of one of the main projects I’m working on, and one of the strongest findings that came out of interviews and co-creation work with householders that Flora Bowden and I did last summer and autumn was the notion that the invisibility of energy was a major component of householders’ lack of understanding, which contributed – by their own admission – to energy waste.

More than one person specifically suggested that being able to ‘listen’ to whether appliances were switched on or not, and, more interestingly, what state they were in (e.g. listening to a washing machine will give you a good idea as to where it is in its cycle), was potentially more useful for understanding how to reduce energy use than a flashy visual display or dashboard. Sound is potentially even more ‘glanceable’ than glanceables. Even hearing what you’d left on as you went out of the door would be useful. There are echoes of Mark Weiser’s Calm Technology including Natalie Jeremijenko’s Live Wire (Dangling String) but also the ‘useful side-effects’ of things like the ‘clacking’ sound of mechanical railway departure boards as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their excellent Designing the Internet of Things.

We also explored aspects of this idea further in our Seeing Things project with RCA students back in November, with contributors including Dave Cranmer and Dagny Rewera having an audio/visual sensory translation element to their work. Of the participants, Ted Hunt took an explicitly multi-sensory approach with his project, including audio, while Francesco Tacchini, with Julinka Ebhardt and Will Yates-Johnson, subsequently went on to create the incredible Space Replay where audio is both monitored and played back in public space.

I’m not saying the ‘Sound of the office’ audio above is particularly good. It was more of a let’s-play-around-with-some-data experiment, and I’ve since found that proper sonification platforms exist. But the approach is something I very much want to explore and build on – possibly whole-house energy use audio disaggregated by appliance, or by activity – and it raises so many interesting questions around what is most useful or most effective at actually either influencing energy use, or helping people understand the complex systems around them. Should it be aesthetically pleasing, or horrible enough it triggers you to turn things off? Is that just the kind of over-simplification that makes most energy monitor displays ineffective? Should the audio be real-time or provide a summary? Should it be paired with visuals? (e.g. like Alexander Chen’s beautiful MTA.ME or Listen to Bitcoin / Listen to Wikipedia) How much should it try to be ‘music’ versus, basically an ‘auditory affordance’ or alarm system? Should there be something about the quality of the sound that indicates something, e.g. load on the National Grid? (Thanks to Aideen McConville and Jack Kelly for this suggestion.)

The field is interesting partly because, post-PhD, I’ve come to realise that what I’m interested in is not so much the question of “how do we influence behaviour?” as an end in itself, but something more like “how do people understand complex systems of which their behaviour is a part, and how do we help them understand those systems better?”. There’s a substantial blog post coming on that, which hopefully draws together lots of interests and ideas, from the IoT to heuristics to seamfulness to affordances to mental models, and (I hope) will set out a kind of research programme which I might be able to get some funding for. But in the meantime, this is certainly part of the direction we’re going in with the ‘energy feedback’ part of the RCA’s work on the SusLab project. It’s going to be ambient, and it’s going to involve more than just numbers and graphs.

Direct link for MP3 file
Sound of the Office

Some news, mostly around writing

• My PhD, which was inspired and indeed sired by this blog, back in 2007, has finally been approved by the examiners. I’ve put the thesis online with a few comments. I’ll have a proper post reflecting on it all in due course – just need some time to think about it. Thank you to everyone who’s helped along the way.

• In March I joined the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art, as a senior associate working on the SusLabNWE project, and also some executive education work for partner organisations. It’s a wonderful place with some great people, and I’m very pleased to be part of it. There are some exciting events coming up around the SusLab project, which will be announced later in the summer.

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