All posts filed under “Design

Two-faced: Looking back and forwards

Thanks everyone who’s helped and been supportive in 2015. It’s been a busy year and I barely stopped to think about a lot of very important things, but spent too long thinking about other things which in retrospect probably aren’t so important. I’m sure that’s normal.

First: what’s coming up in 2016?

  • On 20 January, I’m talking at Behavior Design Amsterdam — thanks Wilbert Baan and Iskander Smit for the invitation
  • In February, I’m off to Mexico City as the RCA lead, working with Laura Ferrarello, for a collaborative Mexico–UK project with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM. Supported by the British Council’s Newton Fund, we’ll be looking at aspects of how to make policy visible, tangible and interactable-with (agency?), in the city environment, transposing ideas between Mexico City and London and vice versa. Thank you to Dan Hill, Claire Mookerjee, Gabriella Gómez-Mont, and everyone else involved in setting this up.
  • From 27–30 June, DRS2016 in Brighton, the Design Research Society conference, is shaping up into an interesting and diverse programme of perspectives on design, research and society. I’m conference experience chair, along with Veronica Ranner, and we’ll be trying to help curate a good experience for everyone taking part. Some thoughts here on how you can help.
  • The biggest event in 2016, scheduled for the autumn, will be O’Reilly’s publication of my Design with Intent book — see below for some more details.
  • Living Labs, a book arising from the SusLabNWE project, for which I am an editor along with David Keyson and Olivia Guerra Santin from TU Delft, will be published by Springer
  • ‘Taking the Code for a Walk’, written by Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself for Elisa Giaccardi’s ‘Connected Everyday’ forum in ACM Interactions will be published. This is a brief but exciting article detailing some of the research Delfina has done for her PhD around human interaction with the algorithmic systems of the ‘smart’ home, taking a second-order cybernetic perspective.
  • ‘Plans and Speculated Actions’, a chapter that Veronica Ranner and I have written for Jonathan Chapman’s Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, should be published (though I see as I write this that the intended publication date is actually 2017). We’re exploring what happens when design for behaviour change and speculative design collide, with a sustainability focus.
  • At the RCA, Research Culture Action will continue in 2016, a series of informal lunchtime talks bringing together research students and staff from across the College. Our first ‘prototype’ event, in October, featured Daisy Ginsberg, Grit Hartung and Sarah Teasley, and I’m hoping we can have them every couple of months.

In career, personal development, and work-life balance terms, 2016 needs to be very different to 2015. I won’t go into it here, but I have come to the conclusion that I need to heed Mary Dankoski‘s advice outlined here by Kate Clancy:

Dr. Dankoski asked us if we were the type of academic who lived by Plan A: did what we were asked to do and hoped we would have a rewarding fulfilling career while also meeting the promotion and tenure expectations, or Plan B: were proactive, developed a plan and negotiated responsibilities to be sure we will have vitality, find real meaning in our work, and meet promotion expectations.

You can probably guess which type most of us were, and which type Dankoski encouraged us to become. The Plan A academic says yes to most things because she is directionless and is trying to meet expectations, whereas the Plan B academic uses her personal values and interests to define and express her scholarly worth.

I have been trying to follow Plan A for the past few years, because I thought it would lead somewhere, but my resolution for 2016 is Plan B, or something better. And the main part of that is making things. I used to do it, and have done it a bit with things like Powerchord in recent years, but nowhere near to the extent I would like to. Writing papers, and book chapters, and reports that no-one will read, has squeezed out something that I really enjoyed. I need to get back to it, and find a way to make an academic career work that isn’t primarily about being seen to produce outputs, but actually to do things (and have the freedom to think about them too).

2015 certainly involved doing a lot, even if I didn’t make much. It’s strange how in an everyday life so flooded by information and essential updates from everything from household objects to people whom I vaguely remember who added me on LinkedIn, I still forget a lot of what I was doing only a few months ago. Updating my CV recently, I suddenly remembered an entire industry collaboration project I did in summer 2013, with meetings, and diagrams, and presentations and everything, that had completely slipped my mind. So, because I know that I’ll forget them if I don’t record them, below, here’s some of what happened in 2015:

Architectures of Control in Design

10 years of this blog

The anniversary slipped by unrecorded here, but it was back in November 2005 that I first started this blog, then called Architectures of Control in Design. It changed my life: it led to changing career, doing a PhD, meeting people from all over the world. Still on the same WordPress installation, with layers of tinkering and lots of things that no longer work, the blog probably deserves a bit of attention for its 11th year.


Design with Intent book

In August I signed a contract with O’Reilly to publish a Design with Intent book, which aims to give practitioners a more nuanced approach to design and behaviour, working with people, people’s understanding, and the complexities of everyday human experience. It will build on the toolkit, and my PhD, but also what I’ve learned over the last few years on practical research projects, with people in real contexts, around people’s understanding of, and interaction with, technology and designed systems.

It’s taking longer to write than I had hoped, not due to the content as much as the difficulty of arranging uninterrupted periods of time to concentrate on writing it. That’s certainly not a problem unique to me, but it gives me new (extra) respect for people who manage to write these kinds of books alongside busy jobs, looking after children, and everything else. Publication date should be Autumn 2016: see the website for updates.

Drawing Energy

Drawing Energy book published

Drawing Energy was published in July by the RCA. Written by Flora Bowden, together with myself, Rama Gheerawo and Clare Brass, and designed by Hannah Montague, the book explores public perceptions of energy, through a drawing project Flora and I ran, in which more than 180 people illustrated their thoughts and reactions to the question ‘What does energy look like?’, as part of the Interreg IVB-funded SusLabNWE project.

You can view the drawings online, download a PDF or order a free copy of the book.

Design for Action This Happened


I’ve done a few talks this year, around design, behaviour, understanding and related subjects, most notably Design for Action 2015 in Washington, DC, the Hans Sauer Foundation’s Social Design Elevation Days in Munich, Product Tank in London, This Happened at Goldsmiths (on “The Power to Act: Exploring agency, design and participation in cities”), Green Sky Thinking week (as part of Max Fordham’s programme), the launch of Keep Britain Tidy’s Centre for Social Innovation. Thanks to Steve Wendel, Zarak Khan, Nynke Tromp, Ralph Boch, Barbara Lersch, Alison Austin, Gyorgyi Galik, Kate Pincott, Henry Pelly, Tim Burns and everyone else involved in these events, for the invitations.

Here’s a video of my talk at Mind The Product’s Product Tank in March.

Guardian visitor pass

Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast

In October I was a guest on the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast, hosted by Nathalie Nahaï, talking about dark patterns, along with Cennydd Bowles, and Geoff White from Channel 4 News. Listen to it here (I’m on at about 13 minutes in, and say “kind of” about 20 times during my few minutes of airtime).

Relational Materials workshop, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar Repair cultural probes, Nazli Terzioglu
Left: Relational Materials workshop, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar; Right: Cultural probes around repair, Nazlı Gökçe Terzioğlu

PhD supervision

This year I have been a visiting (i.e. entirely uncontracted adjunct) research tutor for Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA, working mainly with a wonderful group of research students, including five whom I’m supervising:

  • Delfina Fantini van Ditmar (2012–2016), ‘The Internet of Dwelling’ (second-order cybernetics and human interaction with IoT and ‘smart’ homes—image above). Supervised with Professor Ashley Hall, RCA Innovation Design Engineering and Dr Paul Pangaro, College for Creative Studies, Detroit
  • Dr Dave Pao (MBBS, MRCP, MD) (2013–present), ‘Design as the 3rd voice in the clinician-patient conversation’ (new interfaces for facilitating conversations in sexual health contexts). Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design
  • Nazlı Gökçe Terzioğlu (2013–present), ‘Exploring the Means of Creating New Relationships between Users and Products Through Repair’—image above. Supervised with Clare Brass, SustainRCA
  • Hugo Glover (2013–present), ‘Stereoscopic Spatiality: A Practice-based Investigation into the Use of Stereoscopic 3D‐Depth Technologies in Physical and Digital Space’. Supervised with Neil Barron, RCA Innovation Design Engineering
  • Chang Hee Lee (2014–present), ‘Synaesthesia Materialisation: Synaesthetic Inputs within the Product Design Industry’. Supervised with Dr John Stevens, RCA Global Innovation Design

Thanks to all the IDE research students for all your enthusiasm and help this year, and well done on everything you’ve achieved. In November, Nazlı Gökçe Terzioğlu and Yoon Choi both presented papers at Sustainable Innovation 2015 on which I was a co-author, covering two intriguing directions in understanding (and changing) people’s relationships with products from a sustainability perspective:

—Terzioğlu, N., Brass, C. & Lockton, D. (2015) ‘Understanding user motivations and drawbacks related to product repair’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF)

—Choi, Y., Lockton, D., Brass, C., & Stevens, J. (2015) ‘Opportunities for sustainable packaging design: Learning from pregnancy as a metaphor’. Sustainable Innovation 2015, 9-10 November 2015, Epsom, UK. (PDF on ResearchGate)

V&A Design Culture Salon

V&A Design Culture Salon

As my look of terror / staring into nothingness in the above photo (by Jonny Jiang) might suggest, I chaired a Design Culture Salon at the V&A in November, with the title “Is Designing for Behaviour Change ‘Creepy’?” With a fantastic panel of Alison Powell, Phoebe Moore, Jessica Pykett, Peter John and Simon Blyth, we debated issues from the Quantified Self to the Nudge Unit to algorithmic governance: all with a “design and behaviour” theme, too broad really for a single event, but very enjoyable. Thanks to Guy Julier and Leah Armstrong for organising the event, to the panellists, and to so many people who came to see and take part.

Here’s a transcript of my introduction (I’m partly putting it here for future reference), while there are some reflections here from Lucy Kimbell, Jocelyn Bailey and Stephen Feber, collated by Guy Julier, and Phoebe Moore has written up her introductory talk, covering specifically design for behaviour change in the workplace.

Konstfack, Stockholm The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour, Nordes

The Performance of Nonhuman Behaviour

In June, I ran a workshop at Nordes 2015, at Konstfack, in Stockholm, with Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Claudia Dutson, looking at conversations between people and machines. We packed a lot into the day, with some great participants, but my part of the workshop was mostly focused on “thinking about how machines think we think”—applying some basic forms from R.D. Laing’s Knots to situations that might arise in the smart home (or other algorithmic developments). We got some nice examples of knot-like scenarios, particularly around people trying to cajole the technology to make different assumptions. I can see why, as Paul Pangaro commented, Gordon Pask liked Knots so much. I am, slowly, working on a paper drawing on some of the ideas generated in the workshop: thank you to all the participants and to Salu Ylirisku for the organisation.

AcrossRCA AcrossRCA AcrossRCA

One Another: Empathy and Experience

In October, Dr Katie Gaudion and I ran One Another: Empathy and Experience, a week-long ‘AcrossRCA’ course exploring questions of how we can experience the world as someone (or something) else does. With participants from eight different RCA MA and PhD programmes, over the week, we had a talk from Jon Adams, an autistic artist with synaesthesia, we visited London Zoo to explore the world from animals’ points of view (and human interactions), and through practical experiments, tried to see if we could “generate” empathy for inanimate objects, such as paper tissues, leaves and headphones. We backed up the practical work with some theoretical psychology background around theory of mind, empathy and the fundamental attribution error. The week ended with three really brilliant group projects, which invited participants to try to experience the world through the perspective of another:
The Human Zoo, by Sarha Hersi, Joey (Jupone) Wang, Saaya Kamita, Mariana Pedrosa
Obsessions, by Thomas Leech, Faith Wray, Andrea Fischer, Heeju Kim and Chang Hee Lee
Empathising with Claustrophobia (centre, above), by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon

Rice Summer School, Copenhagen Rice Summer School, Copenhagen

Rice University Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute

The end of May and early June saw Flora Bowden, Claudia Dutson, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and myself run Learning New Ways of Looking at the City, an international summer programme for Rice University’s Urban Sustainability and Livability Summer Institute, at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad, in Copenhagen. With visits over three weeks, working with an impressively enthusiastic and motivated group of Rice students, we used Copenhagen as a setting to explore questions around transport and mobility, tourism, green space, and cultural differences, among other issues, through student research projects. Thanks to Don Ostdiek, Michael Emerson and Julia Grasse for the organisation, and thanks to Anne-Kathrine Kjær Christensen and Larry Toups for visiting contributions.

MACE2015 Kingston University MACE2015 Kingston University

Kingston University MACE Startup Weekend

At the end of September, I returned to Kingston Business School’s MA Creative Industries and the Creative Economy, to run the Startup Weekend, a two-day workshop right at the start of the course, in which new students on this unique programme, combining design and business (with the practical requirement of creating a business by the end of the course), get a rapid introduction to design research and prototyping and carry out a group project responding to a real-life problem they have identified. In 2014, we looked at the experience of new international students; in 2015 we focused on money, with field research in Kingston town centre, including visiting (and comparing the customer experience at) Metro Bank and some more traditional establishments, and a guest talk from Stephen Wendel via Skype. Groups came up with some clever concepts, including a service that automatically puts change onto a card, new kinds of international money transfer service, and redesigning how Argos works. Thanks to Janja Song, and Mark Passera who originally invited me.

Carnegie Mellon University Carnegie Mellon University

Visit to Carnegie Mellon

In November, I visited Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to do a talk / mini-workshop called Design, Behaviour & Understanding, in the School of Design, for Master’s students in Molly Steenson’s Interaction and Service Design class, and a talk called People Don’t Really Use Energy for the Intelligent Workplace team in the School of Architecture. I also got to meet some very interesting people (students and staff), and take part in one of the Design PhD group discussions, which was very enjoyable. Thank you to Cameron Tonkinwise, Kakee Scott, Darlene Scalese, Jane Ditmore, Molly Steenson, Simon King, Terry Irwin, Peter Scupelli, Bruce Hanington, Michael Arnold Mages, Dimeji Onafuwa, and everyone else who arranged my visit and made me feel so welcome.

Good luck everyone for 2016: it’s going to be what we make it!

Let’s See What We Can Do: Designing Agency

‘What does energy look like?’ drawn by Zhengni Li, participant in Drawing Energy (Flora Bowden & Dan Lockton)
‘What does energy look like?’ drawn by Zhengni Li, participant in Drawing Energy (Flora Bowden & Dan Lockton)

How can we invert ‘design for behaviour change’ and apply it from below, enabling people to understand, act within, and change the behaviour of the systems of society and the environment?

[This article is cross-posted to Medium where there may also be readers’ comments]

As our everyday lives are increasingly pushed and pulled by technology and the systems around us, from infrastructure to quantification to government to horrifying combinations of these, understanding these complex systems, and how to change them, is something we should be paying attention to. In ‘As we may understand’, last year, I looked — at excessive length — at the understanding bit, but not the change. Hopefully here I can address that, to some extent, though my thinking’s moved on a bit.

Some empty chairs in Munich

Paralysis and regret

We are surrounded by, and enmeshed in, complexity which at once causes us paralysis over not being able to take action, and regret over the actions we do take (and continue to take). We simultaneously worry and do nothing about issues such as the military-industrial surveillance state, ageing populations, inequality, war and privatisation of the commons. We fudge our responses to planetary-scale crises such as climate change, pollution or poverty because our understanding of what we are able to do locally does not match our understanding of what is possible at a larger scale. We face a crisis of agency, in the phrase used by Gyorgyi Galik, Natalie Jeremijenko, Zygmunt Bauman and others.

How can ‘we’ (at the level of individual people — and I’m speaking from the position of a middle-class Western consumer, with all that entails) act? We don’t know what to do, and even if we did, we are not individual “micro-resource managers” (to use Yolande Strengers’ phrase), but people acting within the constraints (and enablers) of family, society, social groups, cultural contexts, norms and expectations. We lack the ability to hold different visions of possible futures in mind simultaneously, or even to think through the consequences and possibilities at multiple levels. We are entangled in social traps, double binds and knots around everything from participation in democracy (why bother? it won’t change anything) to dealing with terrorism (be alert, but not scared, because that’s what they want, so still be very very very alert).

Tomorrow's News Today, Edinburgh

What can designers do?

What is designers’ role in this? Both design and sustainability, in its broadest sense, are about “the future” — bringing into being a world where humanity and other forms of life will “flourish on the planet forever” (John Ehrenfeld) or where we can “go about our daily affairs… [knowing] that our activities as civilised beings are expanding our future options and improving our current situation” (Bruce Sterling). Design might be one of the mechanisms by which much of our current predicament has come about (Victor Papanek), but perhaps “the future with a future for “us” can only be reached by design” (Tony Fry).

Designing for behaviour change at the mundane level of helping people recycle things, or use their electrical appliances more efficiently — the sort of thing a lot of my previous work has focused on — might be part of the solution, but it’s clear that design really needs to address things at a much higher, more systemic level, including designing things out of existence. Perhaps, in terms of producing a new generation of designers ready to engage with this degree of challenge, this is what transition design can bring us. I hope so.

A tangled ethernet cable cupboard at Goldsmiths

Understanding complexity

To engage with this complexity — not destroy its variety, because we can’t and we shouldn’t — requires designers to understand society better. Yes, we need designers to understand people’s lives, and appreciate the realities of situated decision making and subjective experience, but also to understand complexity, connectedness (in a technology sense but a people sense too) and the effects of design, and its politics, to a degree beyond what might previously have been common. We need designers to engage with the invisible ‘dark matter’ (Dan Hill) even though it may often be experienced as an impediment to action.

We need designers to understand (and be allowed to deal with) the wickedness of the problems we are facing: they will not be understood until ‘solutions’ have been attempted (which will in turn create new problems, as John Gall pointed out); there will be no stopping rules; there will be no right or wrong answers; and all attempts to deal with a problem will only highlight its uniqueness and contextual peculiarity. We will not be able to step in the same river twice, nor even once (as Ranulph Glanville suggests), and we must make peace with that. It doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what we’ve done before, but we cannot presume that patterns always transpose effectively. Deterministic top-down approaches promoted by behavioural economics and simplistic notions of the ‘Quantified Self’ and ‘Big Data’ are not going to work.

A You Are Here sign at Goldsmiths

Understanding how to act

Of course, understanding complexity is not the goal in itself. The real goal is understanding what agency is possible, and how to enact change. So, we need design that enables people to understand the wider contexts of their actions, their agency within society, and how they can act to create different outcomes, different futures.

Understanding how to act to change the systems we’re in is arguably the biggest meta-challenge of our age. We need not just information, but tools for connecting our understanding of how things work and how we can act, around everything from the environment, cities, our own bodies, networked infrastructure to social, civic and political contexts, emerging technologies and plural considerations of the future itself.

This is design for behaviour change, but is not about designers trying to change ‘public behaviour’ as if it were somehow a separate phenomenon. Designers are members of society, and there is only one Earth: we are part of the same systems. It is about design which enables people to change the behaviour of the systems of which they — we — are part.

Some tar road repairs at Carnegie Mellon

Ways of doing this

What do we do, then? I imagine a ‘Designing Agency’ research / action programme, which would rethink how we engage with the systems of everyday (and future) life, through developing new approaches to understanding and action. Designing Agency would use ‘design’ — in the broadest sense — as a way to:

1. understand the world
2. understand people’s understandings of the world
3. help people understand the world
4. help people understand their agency in the world
5. help people use that agency in the world

We could see these as a progression from understanding to action. But how would we do it in practice? Different techniques would be effective at different levels. Some would be investigatory, some practical, some speculative or critical. Some would give us tools for understanding and learning, some tools for doing, some provocations for reflection. The examples I have here are quite pedestrian.

A ‘comfort timeline’ heating practice diary developed by Natalia Romero Herrera, TU Delft, being used here by a householder in Dartford, UK.
A ‘comfort timeline’ heating practice diary developed by Natalia Romero Herrera, TU Delft, being used here by a householder in Dartford, UK.

For example, at Level 1, using design to understand the world might involve designing and deploying probes (e.g. the heating diary shown here), and running designed experiments, which investigate phenomena in the world (including society) through gathering data in a way which provides meaningful scaffolding for the next level. This is essentially using design as a way to do science, or social science.

Level 2, in attempting to ‘understand understanding’ (in Heinz von Foerster’s phrase), would take things a stage further: using activities which practically try to explore the different ways in which people imagine, conceptualise and think about how things work. Very basically, we could use techniques such as drawing (as in the image at the top of the article, from the Drawing Energy project), but there’s a whole world of possibilities here. It is partly about making the invisible visible, tangible or legible, from the point of view of people themselves (i.e. what is legible, or not, to them), but also about surfacing people’s different understandings of situations, and how that leads different people to act.

Claustrophobia simulation apparatus, developed by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon as part of ‘One Another: Empathy and Experience’, AcrossRCA course by Katie Gaudion & Dan Lockton
Claustrophobia simulation apparatus, developed by Anna Dakin, Harry Thompson, Nong Chotipatoomwan and Tess Dumon as part of ‘One Another: Empathy and Experience’, AcrossRCA course by Katie Gaudion & Dan Lockton

At Level 3, we’d be designing ways which help change people’s understandings of the world and the systems they’re in. This could take the form of new kinds of interface, designed experiences, educational activities — a range of things.Some of the examples collected by Dieter Zinnbauer’s Ambient Accountability project perhaps fit here. It could be about changing mental models, expanding horizons, reframing of situations, or even trying to facilitate empathy (as in the image). I want to make it clear here that this isn’t about ‘correcting incorrect mental models’ but about enabling and supporting people to construct and refine their own models of the world, experientially, which serve them better. And learning how to reflect on that.

I don’t really know, at this stage, what Level 4 would look like. This is the “let’s see what we can do” of the title. I have some ideas, but they need work: I imagine new forms of interface, new ‘senses’, new metaphors (in the sense suggested by Margaret Mead and also by A. Baki Kocabelli — see below) and new analogues: not just behaviour quantification and data dashboards, but highlighters and contextual explainers of agency. I am very excited about this, and aim to come back to it with another article very soon, once I’ve actually built something. Let’s just say, qualitative interfaces…

At Level 5, among other things, we would pretty much be challenging and inverting common ‘behavioural design’ paradigms. We have a whole load of them, of course, but what can they do if you turn them upside down? What does it look like when the public uses a technique like Commitment & Consistency or Are You Sure? or Watermarking to change the behaviour of a system like policing or energy policy? Can it be more constructive than ‘fighting back’, and actually be about co-designing systems of society that behave more effectively, and work better for more people? Again, these could be applied critically, or provocatively — a what if? — or they could be direct ways of enabling action, empowering people to change the behaviour of the systems in which we live.

At this level, we should be mindful of our roles as designers within the systems we are aiming to help people change. The power dynamics, and our assumptions about the people we are designing with or for, need to be surfaced and questioned. We need to be aware of — and honest about — our inherent subjectivity: as Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro point out:

“Framing wicked problems requires explicit values and viewpoints, accompanied by the responsibility to justify them with explicit arguments, thus incorporating subjectivity and the epistemology of second-order cybernetics.”

In this vein, A. Baki Kocaballi has written very usefully about agency sensitive design, particularly the notion of relationality (recognising that assumptions of neither full technological determinism, nor full social determinism, are useful when understanding agency in context):

“In design processes, the quality of relationality asks for three sensitivities: (i) understanding of mutual influence, shaping and co-constitution of actors and artefacts; (ii) embracing and supporting emergent and improvised action and (iii) consideration of the system as an assemblage/network of actors, artefacts or collective hybrids. In order to develop these sensitivities, we first need to stop formulating design solutions based upon the assumption of a well-defined individual with fixed characteristics and capacities of action. Design solutions should recognize and support the existence of the multiple individuals embodied in one individual and the possibility of multiple enactments of one individual within a network of other human and non-human actors interacting with each other and exhibiting different capacities for action.”

Kocaballi’s six qualities for agency sensitive design — relationality, visibility, multiplicity, configurability, accountability and duality — could be a valuable set of considerations to explore in relation to the design of these ‘Level 5’ attempts to help people use their agency in the world.

Somewhere on the D2 near Grèoliéres, France

What next?

I need to stop writing about things like this, and get back to doing it. I’ve had my own career-related crisis of agency in 2015, but 2016 is going to be better. First up is an amazing opportunity working with Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Superflux, Future Cities Catapult and UNAM on a joint project between Mexico City and London, funded by the British Council’s Newton Fund, in which (I’m hoping) at least a bit of levels 4 and 5 can come into play, in the context of helping people understand their agency, and act in relation to policy in the built environment.

We’ll have to see what we can do.

Thank you to Veronica Ranner, Gyorgyi Galik, Delfina Fantini van Ditmar and Laura Ferrarello for conversations which have led to ideas in this article.

[See also readers’ comments / responses on Medium]

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.

View Source

Understanding things

The internet, particularly the world-wide web, has done many things, but something it has done particularly well is to enable us to understand the world around us better. From having the sum of human knowledge in our pockets, to generating conversation and empathy between people who would never otherwise have met, to being able to look up how to fix the washing machine, this connectedness, this interactivity, this understanding, has—quickly—led to changes in everyday life, in social practices, habits, routines, decision processes, behaviour, in huge ways, not always predictably.

It’s surfaced information which existed, but which was difficult to find or see, and—most importantly—links between ideas (as Vannevar Bush, and later Ted Nelson, envisaged), at multiple levels of abstraction, in a way which makes discovery more immediate. And it’s linked people in the process, indeed turned them into creators and curators on a vast scale, of photos, videos, games and writing (short-form and longer). It may not all be hand-coding HTML, but perhaps much of it followed, ultimately, from the ability to ‘View Source’, GeoCities, Xoom, et al, and the inspiration to create, adapt and experiment.

But how do things fit into this? How can the Internet of Things, ambient intelligence and ubiquitous, pervasive computing, help people understand the world better? Could they enable more than just clever home automation-via-apps, more-precisely-targeted behavioural advertising, and remote infrastructure monitoring, and actually help people understand and engage with the complex systems around them — the systems we’re part of, that affect what we do and can do, and are in turn affected by what we do? Even as the networks become ever more complex, can the Internet of Things — together with the wider internet — help people realise what they can do, creating opportunities for new forms of civic engagement and empowerment, of social innovation, of sustainability?

In this article, I’m going to meander a bit back and forth between themes and areas. Please bear with me. And this is very much a draft—a rambling, unfocused draft—on which I really do welcome your comments and suggestions.

Light switch panel, RCA

Design and behaviour change

For the last few years, I’ve been working in the field of what’s come to be known as design for behaviour change, mostly, more specifically, design for sustainable behaviour. This is all about using the design of systems—interfaces, products, services, environments—to enable, motivate, constrain or otherwise influence people to do things in different ways. The overall intention is social and environmental benefit through ‘behaviour change’, which is, I hope, less baldly top-down and individualist than it may sound. I am much more comfortable at the ‘enable’ end of the spectrum than the ‘constrain’. The more I type the phrase ‘behaviour change’, the less I like it, but it’s politically fashionable and has kept a roof over my head for a few years.

As part of my PhD research, I collected together insights and examples from lots of different disciplines that were relevant, and put them into a ‘design pattern’ form, the Design with Intent toolkit, which lots of people seem to have found useful. All of the patterns exemplify particular models of human behaviour—assumptions about ‘what people are like’, what motivates them, how homogeneous they are in their actions and thoughts, and so on—often conflicting, sometimes optimistic about people, sometimes less so. Each design pattern is essentially an argument about human nature. Some of them are nice, some of them are not.

However, in applying some of the (nicer!) ideas in practice, particularly towards influencing more sustainable behaviour at work and at home, around issues such as office occupancy and food choices, as well as energy use, it became clear that the models of people inherent in many kinds of ‘intervention’ are simply not nuanced enough to address the complexity and diversity of real people, making situated decisions in real-life contexts, embedded in the complex webs of social practices that everyday life entails. (This is, I feel, something also lacking in many current behavioural economics-inspired treatments of complex social issues.)

Milton Keynes Station

Many of the issues with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon can be characterised as deficiencies in inclusion: the extent to which people who are the ‘targets’ of the behaviour change are included in the design process for those ‘interventions’ (this terminology itself is inappropriate), and the extent to which the diversity and complexity of real people’s lives is reflected and accommodated in the measures proposed and implemented. This suggests that a more participatory process, one in which people co-create whatever it is that is intended to help them change behaviour, is preferable to a top-down approach. Designing with people, rather than for people.

Another issue, noted by Carl DiSalvo, Phoebe Sengers and Hrönn Brynjarsdóttir in 2010, is the distinction between modelling “users as the problem” in the first place, and “solving users’ problems” in approaches to design for behaviour change. The common approach assumes that differences in outcome will result from changes to people—‘if only we can make people more motivated’; ‘if only we can persuade people to do this’; ‘if only people would stop doing that’—overcoming cognitive biases, being more attentive, caring about things, being more thoughtful, and so on.

But considering questions of attitude, beliefs or motivations in isolation rather than in context—the person and the social or environmental situation in which someone acts (following Kurt Lewin and Herbert Simon)—can lead to what is known as the fundamental attribution error. Here, for example, some behaviour exhibited by other people—e.g. driving a short distance from office to library—is attributed to ‘incorrect’ attitudes, laziness, lack of motivation, or ignorance, rather than considering the contextual factors which one might use to explain one’s own behaviour in a similar situation—e.g. needing to carry lots of books (this example courtesy of Deborah Du Nann Winter and Susan M. Koger).

So, framing behaviour change as helping people do things better, rather than trying to ‘overcome irrationality’ as if it were something that exists independently of context, offers a much more positive perspective: solving people’s problems—with them—as a way of enacting behaviour change, from the initial viewpoint of trying to understand, in context, the problems that people are trying to solve or overcome in everyday life, rather than adopting a model of defects in people’s attitudes or motivation which need to be ‘fixed’.

Lord Stand By Me

Something that has arisen, for me, during ethnographic research and other contextual enquiry around things like interaction with heating systems, energy (electricity and gas) use more widely — and even seemingly unrelated issues such as neighbourhood planning, or a community group’s use of DropBox — is the importance of people’s understanding and perceptions of the systems around them. Questions about perceived agency, mental models of how things work, assumptions about what affects what, conflating one concept or entity with another, and so on, feed into our decision processes, and the differences in understanding can cause conflict or undesired outcomes for different actors within the system.

As Dan Hill puts it, if we can “connect [people’s] behaviour to the performance of the wider systems they exist within” we can help them “begin to understand the relationships between individuals, communities, environments and systems in more detail”.

'Pig Ears' outside the Said Business School, Oxford

But it seems as though most approaches to design for behaviour change—and it’s a rapidly growing field under different labels—either ignore questions around understanding entirely, or try to find out about how users (mis)understand things, and then attempt to change users’ understanding to make it ‘correct’. Many, in fact, start straight out to try to change understanding without trying to find anything out about users’ current understanding. A few (but not enough, perhaps) try to adjust the way a system works so that it matches users’ understanding. (This is a development of something I explored in a London IA talk a few years ago.)

Also, I must emphasise at this point that ‘behaviour change’ is not really a thing at all. ‘People doing something differently’ covers so much, across so many fields and contexts, that it’s silly to think it can be assessed properly in a simple way.

If anyone is really an ‘expert’ in ‘behaviour change’, it is parents and teachers and wise elderly raconteurs of lives well lived, children with youthful clarity of insight, people who strike up conversations with strangers on the bus, or talk down people about to jump off bridges: optimistic, experienced (or not) human students of human nature, not someone who sees ‘the public’ as a separate category to him- or herself, ripe for ‘intervention’.

Not for Public Use, Class 172 London Overground train

The Internet of Things as an innovation space

One of the nicest things about the Internet of Things phenomenon—and indeed the Quantified Self movement—as opposed to that other, related, topic of our time, the top-down ‘Smart City’, is the extent to which it crosses over with the bottom-up, almost democratic, Maker movement mentality. I’m using ‘the IoT’ here as a broad category for the potential to involve objects and sensors and networks in areas or situations that previously didn’t have them.

The Internet of Things, through initiatives such as Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s IoT meetups and others—while undoubtedly boosted commercially by Gartner Hype Cycle-baiting corporate buzzword PowerPoints—has been to no small extent driven by people doing this stuff for themselves. And helping each other to do it better. The peer support for anyone interested in getting into this area is immense and impressive: you can bet that someone out there will offer assistance, suggest ways round a problem, and share their experience. The barriers to entry are relatively low, and there are organisations and projects springing up whose rationale is based around lowering those barriers further.

The IoT is a huge von Hippel user innovation space, and it involves not just innovation by users, but innovation that is about building things. Its very sustenance is people building things to try out hypotheses, addressing and reframing their own problems responding to their own everyday contexts, modifying and iterating and joining and forking and evolving what they’re doing, putting the output from one project into the input of another, often someone else’s. And yet it is still quite a small community in a global sense, overrepresented in the echo-chamber of the sorts of people likely to be reading this article.

Home Energy Hackday, Dana Centre

Constructionism and co-creation

I suspect there is something about the open structure of many IoT technologies (and those which have enabled it) which has made this kind of distributed, collaborative community of builders and testers and people with ideas more likely to happen. It may just be the openness, but I think it’s more than that. There are three other elements which might be important:

  • Linking the real world to a virtual, abstract, invisible one. Even if an IoT project is about translating one physical phenomenon into another, this action comes about through links to an invisible world. I don’t know for certain why that might be important, but I think it may be that it triggers thinking about how the system works, in a way that is still somewhat outside our everyday experience. This kind of action-at-a-distance retains some magic, in the process calling new mental models or simulations into existence…
  • …which are then tested and iterated, because nothing ever works first time. This means people learn through doing things, through coming up with ideas about how things work, and testing those hypotheses by their own hand, often understanding things at quite different levels of abstraction (but that still being just fine). It’s not a field that’s particularly suited to learning from a book (despite some excellent contributions)…
  • …and indeed the boundaries of what the IoT is for are so fluid and expansive in a ‘What use is a baby?’ sense that the goal is one of exploration rather than ‘mastery’ of the subject. There is no right or wrong way to do a lot of this stuff, nor limits imposed by any kind of central authority.

I’m no scholar of educational theory, but it seems that these kinds of characteristics are similar to what Seymour Papert, father of LOGO and student of Jean Piaget, termed constructionism—in the words of the One Laptop Per Child project,

“a philosophy of education in which children learn by doing and making in a public, guided, collaborative process including feedback from peers, not just from teachers. They explore and discover instead of being force fed information”.

Story Machine workshop at The Mill, Walthamstow
Constructionist learning (whether with children or adults) is not a ‘leave them to it’ approach: it involves a significant degree of facilitation, including designing the tools (like LOGO, or Scratch) that enable people to create tools for themselves. Returning to the design context, this is a central issue in discussions of participatory design, co-design and co-creation—to what extent, and how, designers are most usefully involved in the process. What are the boundaries of co-creation? How do they differ in different contexts? Is the progression from design for people to design with people to design by people an inevitability? Whither the designer in the end case?

Setting aside this kind of debate for the moment, I am going to say that for the purposes of this article:

  • involving people (‘users’, though they are more than that) in a design process…
  • to address problems which are meaningful for them, in their life contexts…
  • in which they participate through making, testing and modifying systems or parts of systems…
  • partly facilitated or supported by designers or ‘experts’…
  • in a way which improves people’s understanding of the systems they’re engaging with, and issues surrounding them…

meets a definition of ‘constructionist co-creation’.

Education City, Doha

Behaviour change through constructionist co-creation

Now, let’s go back to behaviour change. I mentioned earlier my contention that much of what’s wrong with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon is about deficiencies in inclusion. People (‘the public’) are so often seen as targets to have behaviour change ‘done to them’, rather than being included in the design process. This means that the design ‘interventions’ developed end up being designed for a stereotyped, fictional model of the public rather than the nuanced reality.

Every discipline which deals with people, however tangentially, has its own models of human behaviour—assumptions about how people will act, what people are ‘like’, and how to get them to do something different (as Susan Weinschenk notes). As Adam Greenfield puts it:

“Every technology and every ensemble of technologies encodes a hypothesis about human behaviour”.

Phone box, Isleworth

All design is about modelling situations, as Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro and before them, Christopher Alexander remind us. Even design which does not explicitly consider a ‘user’ inevitably models human behaviour in some way, even if by omitting to consider people. Modelling inescapably has limitations—Chris Argyris and Donald Schön suggested that “an interventionist is a man struggling to make his model of man come true”—but of course, although “all models are wrong…, some are useful.”

In design for behaviour change, we need to recognise the limitations of our models, and be much clearer about the assumptions we are making about behaviour. We also need to recognise the diversity and heterogeneity of people, across cultures, across different levels of need and ability, but also across situations. This approach is something like attempting to engage with the complexity of real life rather than simplifying it away—in Steve Portigal’s words:

“rather than create distancing caricatures, tell stories… Look for ways to represent what you’ve learned in a way that maintains the messiness of actual human beings.”

What’s a way to do this? Co-creation, co-production—in a behaviour change context—enables us to include a more diverse set of people, leading to a more nuanced treatment of everyday life. This, in itself, represents an advance in inclusion terms over much work in this field. Flora Bowden and I have tried to take this approach as part of our work on the European SusLab energy project.

But going further, constructionist co-creation for behaviour change would enable people actually to create, test, iterate and refine tools for understanding, and influencing, their own behaviour. Just look at Lifehacker or LifeProTips, GetMotivated or even the venerable 43 Folders. People enjoy exploring ways to change their own behaviour, through experimenting, through discussion with others, and through developing their own tools and adapting others’, to help understand themselves and other people, and the systems of everyday life which affect what we do. Behaviour change could be direct—or it could be, perhaps more interestingly, directed towards exploring and improving our understanding of the systems around us.

Vodafone tower, on a car park roof in central London

Invisible infrastructures and the Internet of Things: avoiding the demon-haunted smart fridge

The thing is, the systems around us are complex and becoming more so, and often invisible—or “distressingly opaque”—in the process, which makes them more difficult to understand and engage with. This includes everything from ‘the Cloud’ (which, as Dan Hon notes, is coming to the fore with news stories such as celebrity photo hacking) to Facebook (as danah boyd puts it, “as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing”) to CCTV and other urban sensor networks.

You are now entering a Bluetooth Zone (Right: An interesting infrastructure ‘business model’ from the Public Safety Charitable Trust—see

Timo Arnall, in his PhD thesis, introduces this issue using the example of smartphones, “perhaps the most visible aspect of contemporary, digitally-mediated, everyday-life. Yet the complex networks of systems and infrastructures that allow a smartphone to operate remain largely invisible and unknown.”

He goes on to explore, via some beautiful projects, another invisible infrastructure—RFID and near-field communication— and the possibilities of making this visible, tangible and legible.

Most diagrams or infographics aiming to illustrate the Internet of Things show visible lines connecting objects to each other, or to central hubs of some kind. But whatever forms the IoT takes, most of these are going to be ‘invisible by default’, in Mayo Nissen’s words (specifically referring to urban sensors). Invisibility might seem attractive, and magic (and we’ll get onto seamlessness in a bit) but by its very nature it conceals the links between things, between organisations, between people and purpose:

“Some sensing technologies capture our imagination and attract our constant attention. Yet many go unnoticed, their insides packed with unknowable electronic components, ceaselessly counting, measuring, and transmitting. For what purpose, or to whose gain, is often unclear… there is seldom any information to explain what these barnacles of our urban landscape are or what they are doing.”

Black Boxes & Mental Models Black Boxes & Mental Models Black Boxes & Mental Models

(Above and below: Black boxes and mental models: an exercise at dConstruct 2011. Some photos by Sadhna Jain.)

Back in 2011 I ran a workshop at dConstruct including an exercise where groups each received a ‘black box’, an unknown electronic device with an unlabelled interface of buttons, ‘volume’ controls and LEDs, housed in a Poundland lunchbox and badly assembled one evening while watching a Bill Hicks documentary and drinking whisky.

Black Boxes & Mental ModelsInternally  — and so secretly — each box also contained a wireless transmitter, receiver, sound chip and speaker (basically, a wireless doorbell), and in one box, an extra klaxon. The aim was to work out what was going on — what did the controls do? — and record your group’s understanding, or mental model, or even an algorithm of how the system worked in some form that could explain it to a new user who hadn’t been able to experiment with the device.

As people realised that the boxes ‘interacted’ with each other, by setting off sounds in response to particular button-presses, the groups’ explanations became more complex.

Each group used slightly different methods to investigate and illustrate the model, with unexpected behaviour or coincidences (one group’s box setting off the doorbell in another, but coinciding with a button being pressed or a volume control being turned) leading to some rapidly escalating complex algorithms.

We are now creating an even more complex world of black boxes, networked black boxes with their own algorithms, real and assumed, and those that depend on algorithms out of our hands, remote, changeable, strategic, life-changing which we may not have any easy way of investigating. And which model us, the public, in particular ways.

Algorithm is going from black box code to black box language. Everything is being explained away as “algorithm”. No surprise really

(“Algorithm is going from black box code to black box language. Everything is being explained away as “algorithm”. No surprise really.” Scott Smith, 6 July 2014 —

As James Bridle puts it, “comprehension is impossible without visibility”:

“the intangibility of contemporary networks conceals the true extent of their operation… This invisibility extends through physical, virtual, and legal spaces.”

Bridle is talking about a policing context, but invisibility, or rather lack of transparency, is of course also a hallmark of crime and corruption, often intentionally complex systems. Dieter Zinnbauer’s concept of ambient accountability is very relevant here: systems can only be accountable if people can understand them, whether that’s windows in building-site hoardings or politicians’ expenses.

Or as Louise Downe has said:

“We can only trust something if we think we know how it works… When we don’t know how a thing works we make it up.”

What new superstitions are going to arise from smart homes, smart meters, smart cities? What will people make up? Are my fridge and Fitbit collaborating with Tesco and BUPA to increase my health insurance premiums? What assumptions are the systems in my daily life going to be making about me? How will I know? What are the urban legends going to be? How will this understanding affect people’s lives? How can we make use of what the IoT enables to help us understand things, rather than making things less understandable?

Cables, Downing College Cambridge, 2004

An opportunity

The opportunity exists, then, for more work which uses a constructionist approach to enable us—the public—to investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, in the process potentially changing our mental models, behaviour and practice. Tools based around IoT technology, developed and applied practically through a process of co-creation with the public, could enable this particularly well. In general, co-creation offers lots of opportunities for designing behaviour change support systems that actually respond to the real contexts of everyday life. But the IoT, in particular, can enable technological participation in this.

We would have to start with particular domains where public understanding of a complex, invisible system in everyday life potentially has effects on behaviour or social practices, and where changing that understanding would improve quality of life and/or provide social or environmental benefit.

Ghosts, Old Street LT

Introducing ‘knopen’

I want to propose some examples of projects (or rather areas of practical research) that could be done in this vein, but before that—because I can—I am going to coin a new word for this. Knopen, a fairly obvious portmanteau of know and open, can be a verb (to knopen something) or an adjective (e.g. a knopen tool). Let’s say ‘to knopen’ conjugates like ‘to open’. We knopen, we knopened, we are knopening. Maybe it will usually be more useful as a transitive verb: We knopened the office heating system. The app helped us knopen the local council’s consultation process. Help me knopen the sewage system. Maybe it’s useful as a gerund: knopening as a concept in itself. Knopening the intricacies of the railway ticketing system has saved our family lots of money.

Tools for understanding

What does knopen mean, though? I’m envisaging it being the kind of word that’s used as description of what a tool does. We have tools for opening things—prying, prising, unscrewing, jimmying, breaking, and so on. We also have tools that help us know more about things, and potentially understand them—a magnifying glass, a compass, Wikipedia—but just as with any tool, they are better matched to some jobs than to others.

If I just use a screwdriver to unscrew or pry open the casing on my smart energy meter, and look at the circuitboard with a magnifying glass, unless I already have lots of experience, I don’t know much more about how it works, or what data it sends (and receives), and why, or what the consequences are of that. I don’t necessarily have a better understanding of the system, or the assumptions and models inscribed in it. I have opened the smart meter, but I haven’t knopened it. To knopen it would need a different kind of tool. In this case, it might be a tool that interrogates the meter, and translates the data, and the contexts of how it’s used and why, into a form I understand. That doesn’t necessarily just mean a visual display.

Meter cupboard

This, then, would be knopening: opening a system or part of a system (metaphorically or physically) with tools which enable you to know and understand more about how it works, what it does, or the wider context of its use and existence: why things are as they are. Knopening could include ‘knopening thyself’—understanding and reflecting on why and how you make decisions.

Knopening isn’t as involved as grokking. To grok something is at a much deeper level. Nevertheless, knopening could be transformative. Going back to the earlier discussion, knopening is basically a label for a process by which we can investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, which could certainly change our mental models, behaviour and practice. Knopening is about understanding why.

Maybe knopen is a daft conceit, a ‘fetch’ that isn’t going to happen. But it’s worth a try. And I see that it also means ‘to button’ or ‘to knot’ in Dutch, but that’s not too awful. As my wife put it, “that’s quite sweet.” Probably ontknopen, unbuttoning or untying, would be closer in meaning to what I mean. Urban Dictionary tells us that knopen can also mean “the act of knocking on and opening a closed door simultaneously”, which is not inappropriate, I think.

Some areas of research for knopen

These are all about people making and using tools to understand—to knopen—the systems around them, in particular the whys behind how things work. They all have the potential to integrate the quantitative data from networked objects and sensors with qualitative insights from people themselves, in co-created useful and meaningful ways.

Please Don't Turn Me Off, I'm The Fridge :)

DIY for the home of the future

In the UK, “at least 60% of the houses we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built” (and that quote’s from 2010). That means that whatever IoT technologies come to our homes, they will largely be retrofitted. The ‘smart home’ in practice is going to be piecemeal for most people, the Discman-to-cassette-adaptor-to-car-radio rather than a glossy integrated vision.

CC licensed by Toyohara
(Photo by Toyohara, used under a Creative Commons licence)

That’s something to bear in mind in itself, but even with this piecemeal nature, there’s still going to be plenty of invisibility—quite apart from whatever it is our fridges are going to be making decisions about, what will DIY look like?

What are people going to be able to choose to fit themselves? What systems will people be able to connect together? What’s the equivalent of a buried cable detector for data flows? What will Saturday afternoons be like with the IoT? Is it an electrician we need or a ‘data plumber’? What will happen when parts need to be replaced? When smart grids come along, for example, what is interaction with them going to look like? Can DIY work in that context? What happens if microgeneration becomes popular?

Could we use this DIY context strategically — as a way of engaging people in behaviour change, through active participation in experimenting and changing their own homes and everyday practices, using IoT technologies? How do we domesticate the IoT?

House of Coates Haunted Coates House

(Tom Coates’ House of Coates, and the Haunted Coates House)

Something in this space could be the core of the knopen concept: tools that enable us to understand and investigate the invisible systems around us, and the links between them, at home (or at work). Really basically, we could think of it as in-context system diagrams on everythingnot just static, but explorable explanations in Bret Victor’s terminology, maybe even some kind of data traces. And those explanations don’t have to be physical diagrams — they can be ambient, responsive, exploring both the backstories and possible future states of systems.

Networked devices and sensors, inputs and outputs, everything the IoT provides, could show us explicitly how systems work both in and beyond our immediate home context — including our own actions, past, present and future (hence enabling us to change our behaviour), and those of other people. We would learn what a system assumes/knows about us, and how it makes decisions that affect us and others; how do we fit into these systems that pervade our homes?

Pipes in disabled toilet at RCA Battersea

Seams, streams and new metaphors

The idea of seamful design  — in contrast to the seamlessness which so often seems to be goal of advances in human-computer interaction—is useful here. We are used to systems being promoted as invisible, seamless, frictionless as if this is necessarily always a good thing, from contactless payment to Facebook Connect. There’s no doubt that seamlessness can be convenient, but there’s a cost.

Matthew Chalmers, who has developed the ideas that Mark Weiser (father of calm technology, ubiquitous computing, etc) had around seamlessness and seamfulness, suggests that: “Seamfully integrated tools would maintain the unique characteristics of each tool, through transformations that retained their individual characteristics.”

Going slightly further than that, perhaps, by enabling people to experience the joins between systems, and the discontinuities, the texture of technologies — even making the seams not just ‘beautiful’ but tangible— we could help them understand better what’s going on, and interact with systems in a different way. As Karin Andersson says:

“The seams that are the most important are the ones that can improve a system’s functionality and when they are understood and figured out how they can become a resource for interaction by the user. If designers know how certain seams affect interactions, they can then incorporate them into an application and direct their effects into useful features of the system. This way, seamful design allows users to use seams, accommodate them and even exploit them to their own advantage”

Knopen is perhaps an attempt to enable people to make tools to make seams visible, or tangible, for themselves, where currently they are not. It is trying to turn seamlessness into seamfulness, then into understanding and empowerment, through enabling, facilitating, investigation of those systems: brass rubbing for the systems of the home, perhaps.

Detail of Juliana, wife of Thomas de Cruwe, 1411, CC licensed by Amanda Slater

(Detail of Juliana, wife of Thomas de Cruwe, 1411. CC licensed by Amanda Slater)

Seams are important to mental models. In the 1990s, Neville Moray — drawing on a approach taken by cybernetician (and ‘requisite variety’ originator) Ross Ashby — explored how one way of modelling what a mental model really is, is a lattice-like network of nodes that are super- or subordinate to other nodes (not necessarily in the sense of power relations, but rather in terms of parts or categories). By this interpretation, different mental models of the same situation or system come down to things like:

  • two people’s models containing different sets of nodes
  • or, more specifically, conflating particular nodes or introducing distinctions between nodes where others treat them as the same thing
  • two people’s models connecting the same nodes in different ways

Seams are, perhaps, the links or gaps between nodes or groups of nodes. Intentional seamlessness is an attempt to hide these links or gaps by actually conflating particular nodes or groups of nodes from the user’s perspective. Seamlessness is saying, “This is one system, and these nodes are the same”. In doing this, it inherently removes the ability to see or inspect or question or understand these relations.

Ethernet cable looped back, Quality Hotel Panorama, Gothenburg

We are — and will shortly be even more so — surrounded by systems, in our homes and elsewhere, that are collecting, sending, receiving and storing data all the time, about us, our actions and our environments. And yet we are generally not privy to what’s going on, what decisions are being made, where the data come from and where they go.

It might not seem a major issue at present to most people — even in the light of Snowden’s revelations and all that’s come since  — but once, for example, smart meters are dynamically adjusting pricing for electricity and gas on a large scale, a greater number of people are going to want to understand where those prices are coming from, and how these systems work. Compare the — often amusing — reactions when people explore what Google Ads or Facebook thinks it knows about them. Many people seem to enjoy this kind of exploration — all the more reason for a constructionist approach.

AC will not work when door is open, Four Seasons, Doha

We need a narrative context for the streams in our daily lives: what is the story of the sensors? What is the meaning of what’s going on? Even a Dyson-style ‘transparent container’ metaphor for data, showing us what’s being collected, or colour-coded statuses on devices, would give us some more understanding. This is something like ambient accountability in Dieter Zinnbauer’s terminology, but involving us, the public, the ‘end user’, much more explicitly.

Metaphors could play an important role here, or perhaps new metaphors. Representing a new, unfamiliar system in terms of more familiar ones is maybe obvious, and has its limitations (except in Borges, the map is never the territory), but as with our discussion of new superstitions earlier, it’s almost inevitable that new metaphors will arise for parts of these invisible systems in the home and elsewhere, as part of mental models and in people’s explanations to others of how they work. Metaphors are very commonly used in design for behaviour change, from gardens to sarcastic overlords.

What does energy look like?

(What does energy look like? From the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2014. Photo by V&A Digital.)

We can learn quite a lot from exploring people’s understanding and mental imagery around invisible systems. A project Flora Bowden and I have been doing over the last couple of years involves asking people to draw ‘what energy looks like’; we’ve also tried it with concepts such as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, and there are large scale projects such as Can You Draw the Internet? There are insights for the design of new kinds of interfaces, of course, but also something more fundamental about how people perceive and relate to intangible things. Almost by definition, people use metaphors (or metonyms) of one kind or another to visualise abstract or unseen concepts — what would they look like for invisible systems in our homes?

Could we use new metaphors strategically, to help people understand new systems? What should they be? How do they link to behaviour change in this context? Bringing it back to DIY, what metaphors are going to be used to get people interested in fitting these systems to their homes in the first place?

Ham Island, Old Windsor

You’re not alone

Moving away from the home, this next group of ideas would use IoT technologies to enable ‘peer support’ for decision making: connecting people to others facing similar situations, and enabling people to understand each other’s thinking and what worked for them (or not). The aim of this knopening of situations would be empathy, but also practical advice and support.

Understanding—and reflecting on—how you think, and how other people approach the same kinds of situation, can help change mental models, support behaviour change in the context of everyday practices (learning from others what worked for them, and why), and tackle attribution errors, as mentioned earlier, by bridging the gaps between our own thinking and our assumptions about others’ behaviour.

The contexts and domains where this could be useful range from physical and mental health, to route planning, to home improvement, to financial decisions, to any situation where a combination of networked objects and/or sensors, combined with qualitative insights from people who are part of the system, could help.

Some specific ways of implementing You’re not alone might include:

Windows XP Event Viewer
(Windows XP Event Viewer — image from

The Shared ‘Why?’

  • This would be a tool for annotating situations with ‘what your thinking is’ as you do things (that may be logged automatically anyway) — a kind of ‘Why?’ column in the event logs of everyday life.
  • The question might be prompted automatically by certain situations being recognised (through sensor data) or could also be something you choose to record. These ‘Whys’ would then be available to your future self, and others (as you choose) when similar situations arise.
  • My thinking here is that (as Tricia Wang points out), the vast quantities of Big Data generated and logged by devices, sensors and homes and infrastructure, are largely devoid of human contexts—the ‘Why?’, the ‘thick’ data—that would give them meaning. There’s a great opportunity for introducing a system which makes this easier to capture. It could be an academic or design practitioner research tool, but my main priority is that it be actually useful to the people using it.

Annotating household objects to understand thermal comfort

(Annotating household objects to understand thermal comfort. From a study by Sara Renström and Ulrike Rahe at Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg.)

  • Asking people to annotate real-life situations with simple paper labels or arrows has worked well as a research method for eliciting people’s stories, meanings and thought processes around interaction with particular devices, and the sequences they go through. Similarly, even simple laddering or 5 Whys-type methods can be used to uncover people’s heuristics around everyday activities. But how could these kinds of methods be made more useful for those doing the annotation or answering the questions—and for others too?
  • While there exist research methods such as experience sampling and sentiment mapping, with plenty of location- or other trigger-based mobile apps, these largely focus on mood and feelings, rather than the potentially richer question of ‘Why?’. Yet Facebook and Twitter have shown us that short-form status updates, with actual content (mostly!), are something people enjoy producing and sharing with others. When I worked on the CarbonCulture at DECC project, one of the most successful features (in terms of engagement) of the OK Commuter travel logging app was a question prompting users to describe that morning’s commute with a single word, which often turned out to be witty, insightful and revealing of intra-office dynamics around topics such as provision of facilities for cyclists.
  • Clearly there are lots of questions here about validity and privacy. Would people only log ‘Whys’ that they wanted others to know? Who would have access to my ‘Whys’? Would they ‘work’ better in terms of empathy or behaviour change if linked to real names or avatars than anonymously? We would have to find ways of addressing and accommodating these issues.

There are some parallels with explicitly social projects such as the RSA’s Social Mirror Community Prescriptions, but also with work in naturalistic decision making. For example, there are projects exploring how Gary Klein’s recognition-primed decision model of how experts make decisions (based on a mixture of situational pattern recognition and rapid mental simulation) can be ‘taught’ to non-experts. A constructionist approach seems very appropriate here.

The wall of a fish restaurant in Gothenburg

Helpful ghosts: ambient peer support

  • What this would involve is essentially being able to create helpful ‘ghosts’ for other people, which would appear when certain situations or circumstances, or conjunctions of conditions, were detected, through IoT capabilities. You could record advice, explanations, warnings, suggestions, motivational messages, how-to guides, photos, videos, audio, text, sets of rules, anything you like, which would be triggered by the system detecting someone encountering the particular conditions you specified. That could be location-based, but it could also be any other condition. It’s almost like a nice version of leaving a note for your successor, or anyone who faces a similar situation.

The wall of a fish restaurant in Gothenburg
(The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972). Image from

  • The ghosts wouldn’t be scary, or at least I hope not. Maybe ghost is the wrong word. The idea obviously has parallels with Marley’s Ghost in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—and the feedforward / scenario planning / design futures of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come—but what directly inspired me was Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (probably in turn inspired by archaeologist and parapsychologist Tom Lethbridge’s work), in which ghosts are explained as a form of recording somehow left behind in the fabric of buildings or locations where strong emotions have been felt. Kevin Slavin’s talk at dConstruct 2011, and Tom Armitage’s ghostcar, are also inspirations here. And I have recently also come across Joe Reinsel’s work on Sound Cairns, which has some very clever elements to it.
  • Maybe it’s better to think of this like If This Then That (see below), but allowing you to create rules that trigger events for other people instead of just for you.
  • How would it be different to Clippy? (thanks to Justin Pickard for making this connection). We should aim to learn from the late Clifford Nass’s work at Stanford on why Clippy was so disliked, and how to make him more loveable. It would also be important that the helpful ghosts did not just become a form of ‘pop-up window for real life’. Advertisers should not be able to get hold of it. It should always be opt-in, and the emphasis should be on participation (creating your own ghosts in response) and understanding. It is meant to be at least a dialogue, a collaborative approach to learning more about, and understanding—knopening—a situation, and then passing on that understanding to others.

Pigeon deciding whether to take the District Line or North London Line from Richmond station

A Collective If This Then That

  • This is probably already possible to achieve with clever use of If This Then That together with some other linked services, but the basic idea would be a system where multiple people’s inputs—which could be a combination of quantitative sensor data and qualitative comments or expressions of sentiment or opinion—together can trigger particular outputs. These might also be collective, or might apply only in a single location or context.
  • There are obvious top-down examples around things like adaptive traffic management, but it would more interesting to see what ‘recipes’ emerge from people’s—and communities’—own needs. There could also be multiple outputs to different systems. They could work within a family or household or on a much bigger scale—connecting families who are often apart, for example.
  • The knopen element comes with being able to understand—right from the start—how to make action happen, and collaboratively create recipes which address a community’s needs, for example. The system might be complex but would be not only visible, but fully accessible since the participants would be involved in creating and iterating it.
  • It could involve ‘voting’ somehow, but it would also be interesting to see effects emerge from unconscious action or a combination of physical effects read by sensors and social or psychological effects from people themselves.
  • I’m inspired here particularly by Brian Boyer and Dan Hill’s Brickstarter—in which the collective desire/need/interest of the crowdfunding model is applied to urban infrastructure—but also by the academic research (and workshop at Interaction 12) I did exploring ‘if…then’-type rules of thumb and heuristics that people use for themselves, often implicitly, around things like heating systems, and how different people’s heuristics differ.
  • There’s some really interesting academic research going on at the moment by teams at Brown and Carnegie Mellon—e.g. see this paper by Blase Ur et al from CHI 2014—on using IFTTT-like ‘practical action-trigger programming’ in smart homes as a way to enable a more easily programmable world, and it would be great to explore the potential of this approach for improving understanding and engagement with the systems around us. As Michael Littman puts it:

“We live in a world now that’s populated by machines that are supposed to make our lives easier, but we can’t talk to them. Everybody out there should be able to tell their machines what to do.” (Professor Michael Littman, Brown University)

Trackbed at St Margaret's (London)

Storytelling for systems: Five whys for public life

Five whys’ is a method for what’s called root cause analysis, used in fields as diverse as quality management and healthcare process reform. It’s similar to the interview technique of laddering, which has seen some application in user experience design. The basic principle is that there is never only one ‘correct’ reason ‘Why?’ something happens: there are always multiple levels of abstraction, multiple levels of explanation, multiple contexts—and each explanation may be completely valid within the particular context of analysis. In ‘solving’ the problem, the repeated asking ‘Why?’ enables reframing the problem at further levels up (or down) this abstraction hierarchy, as well as giving us the ‘backstory’ of the current state (which is often considered to be a problem, hence the analysis).

It’s a practical instantiation, in a way, of Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s tenet of trying to design for the “next largest context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, environment in a city plan”. In some previous work, I tried exploring (not particularly clearly), the notion that this kind of approach, in reframing the problem at multiple levels, could essentially provide us with multiple suggested ‘solutions’ by inverting problem statements at each level of abstraction.

Construction work, Doha

Planning notice, Kensington, LondonSo what do we do with this? How can IoT technology be useful? Imagine being able to ‘ask’ the physical and societal infrastructure around you—the street lamps, the building site, the park fountain, but also the local council, the voting booth, the tax office, your children’s primary school’s board of governors, the bus timetable, Starbucks, the numberplate recognition camera, the drain cover, the air quality sensors in the park, the National Rail Conditions of Carriage—Why?

Why are they set up the way they are? Who came up with the idea? (not for blame, but for empathy). What’s the story behind the systems? What influenced how they’re operating, how the decisions were made, how they came to be?

What data do they collect, and what do they do with the data? What’s the revision history for this government policy? What were the reasons given for that cycle path being routed that way? What’s the history of planning applications for buildings on this site? What were the debates that led to the current situation?

And for each of those, the answers would be explained at multiple levels—maybe not exactly five ‘whys’, but more than one simplistic reason, devoid of context.

SEEB Cables Cross Here, Twickenham

This isn’t just Freedom of Information—although it intersects with that. It’s more about understanding the decision process, the constraints and priorities others have had to contend with along the way. Kind of autobiographies for systems (including public objects, perhaps, but also institutions—maybe even Dan Hill’s ‘Dark Matter’). Or a cross between blue plaques (or rather, Open Plaques), ‘For the want of a nail’, WhatDoTheyKnow, City-Insights, FixMyStreet, Dieter Zinnbauer’s Ambient Accountability, TheyWorkForYou, Historypin, Wikipedia’s revision history, Mayo Nissen’s ‘Unseen Sensors’ and a sort of transparent reverse IFTTT where you can see what led to what.

Cables, Berkeley

From a technology point of view, you could do it very simply with smartphones and QR codes or NFC tags stuck on bits of street furniture (for example), but it would be possible to do much more when systems have a networked capability and presence—when data are being collected or received, or transmitted, or when one piece of infrastructure is informing another.

Of course, it could be seen as quite antagonistic to authority: this kind of transparent storytelling could reveal how inept some institutions—and potentially some individuals—are at making decisions, although it could also help generate empathy for people facing tough decisions, in the sense of revealing the trade-offs they have to make, and so increase public engagement with these systems by showing both their complexity (potentially) and their human side. Peerveillance, sousveillance, equiveillance, yes—but preferably framed as storytelling.

The challenge would be finding positive stories to lead with (thanks to Duncan Wilson for this point). Suggestions are very welcome.

Asset mapping, Kentish Town

Conclusion: what next?

This has been a long, rambling and poorly focused article. It tangles together a lot of ideas that have been on my mind, and others’ minds, for a while, and I’m not sure the tangle itself is very legible. But I welcome your comments.

My basic thesis is that IoT technology can be a tool for behaviour change for social and environmental benefit, through involving people in making systems which address problems that are meaningful for them, and which improve understanding of the wider systems they’re engaging with.

I think we can do this, but, as always, doing something is worth more than talking about it. As an academic, I ought to be in a position to find funding and partners to do something interesting here. So I am going to try: if you’re interested, please do get in touch.

The End, College Hall, Cooper's Hill, 2004

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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Designers, literature, abstracts and Concretes

Trinity College Dublin Library, by A little coffee with my cream and sugar on Flickr

Last week, I put a quick survey online asking how actual designers make use of academic literature.

It provoked some interesting discussion on Twitter as well as two great blog posts from Dr Nicola Combe and Clearleft’s Andy Budd exploring different aspects of the question: ways to get access to academic research, and the frustrations of the relationship between design practice and academia. Comments on Andy’s article from Vicky Teinaki and Sebastian Deterding helped draw out some of the issues in more detail (and highlighted some of the differences between fields). Kevin Couling has also blogged from the perspective of an engineer, drawing on Nicola’s post. Steven Shorrock pointed to his work with Amy Chung and Ann Williamson addressing similar issues, much more rigorously, within human factors and ergonomics [PDF]. Someone also reminded me that I’d already blogged about related issues back in 2007.

As of now, about 50 people have filled in the survey, a mixture of digital, physical and service design practitioners: thank you everyone, and thanks too to people who emailed comments in addition.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of survey responses (Google Docs) so far. I’ve had some good suggestions for other places to publicise it, so I’ll do this in due course to get a wider scope of practitioners’ opinions.
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