All posts filed under “Engineering

Getting someone to do things in a particular order (Part 1)

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Photo by trancedmoogle.

Back in January, I introduced the Design with Intent method on the blog. I’ve been developing this since then, and, suitably tested and refined, it should form the first stage of the PhD.

Essentially, the DwI Method is intended to be a structured ‘suggestion engine’, where a target behaviour is put in one end, and a range of applicable mechanisms and design techniques, both physical and psychological, come out of the other. The aim is for it to be useful to designers, engineers, architects, policy-makers, and planners of all sorts, who aim to try and shape or change users’ behaviour in some way – and also useful to users in understanding how their behaviour might be manipulated or shaped, for their benefit or someone else’s, by the products, systems and environments around them.

The post in January looked at some of the different design techniques applicable to the target behaviour ‘No access, use or occupation, in a specific manner, by any user’, through the example of anti-homeless benches, and received some really useful feedback from readers (thanks!), as well as forcing me to think more clearly about how the method is structured. Since then the method has evolved considerably, but it’s not yet in the form I want to publish. However, I thought it would be interesting to share an example of applying the method as it currently stands, to a different target behaviour: getting someone to do things in a particular order.

The target behaviour: Introduction

We want to shape the way a user follows a path or process

Here I’ve identified a target über-behaviour – We want to shape the way a user follows a process or path – which is inherent to many design problems. There are then (at present) three target sub-behaviours, each of which is subtly different, with different design techniques applicable. In this series of posts I’m going to elaborate on User follows process or path, performing actions in a specified sequence.

Often we (designers/planners/engineers/architects) want the user to do things in a certain order, or follow a path, and are aiming to use the design of the system to help achieve that. The process or path can involve simple spatial sequencing (e.g. making sure shoppers walk past certain items on their way to the checkout), software metaphors for physical procedures (e.g. disabling the ‘Next’ button on a software wizard until required options have been confirmed), or a combination of software logic with physical space (e.g. making sure the user removes his or her bank card from an ATM before the cash is dispensed).

This target behaviour also applies to many safety measures: staggered pedestrian crossings which make sure users turn to face the direction of oncoming traffic, microwave ovens which will not start until the door is closed, cars which will not start unless the clutch is depressed or seat-belt buckled, cars where the ignition key cannot be removed until the automatic transmission is in ‘Park’ mode, machine tools which will not start until a guard is in place, and so on.

Ecodesign applications

Possible ecodesign applications may follow similar lines to the safety measures – particularly, increasing the likelihood that operations are performed in the ‘most efficient’ sequence. A kettle that requires users to pre-select the amount of water required before boiling it, for example, such as the Product Creation Eco-Kettle, aims to have users consider how much boiling water they actually need at the ‘right’ point in the sequence – before boiling. A car’s air conditioning system could require the windows to be fully closed before operating. A bathroom sink could require the plug to be in place before the tap could be left in a ‘running’ position.

Interfaces which suggest the ‘most efficient’ action to the user, at the right point (e.g. a rev-counter-linked light on a car dashboard indicating that it’s time to change gear, as formerly used on a number of Volvo models), can also help encourage users to follow the intended sequence of actions.

Applicable mechanisms/techniques

The DwI method suggests a variety of design techniques applicable to this target behaviour, which fall roughly into three ‘approaches’:

Suggested mechanisms

I’ll deal with each of these approaches, with examples of the mechanisms/techniques in action, in the next few posts in this series. Part 2 is up now.

Making users more efficient: Design for sustainable behaviour

International Journal of Sustainable Engineering I’m pleased to say that a paper I wrote earlier this year has been accepted by the International Journal of Sustainable Engineering, a new journal based at Loughborough University. The publishers (Taylor & Francis) allow authors to post a preprint* version online, so here it is.

Making the user more efficient: Design for sustainable behaviour [PDF, 160kb] is a brief review of approaches to designing products and systems which could shape or change users’ behaviour in an environmentally friendly way; if you’ve followed this blog, there’s probably little new in it, but it’s (hopefully) a useful summary. (At present that PDF is hosted on this website, but once Brunel allows me access to deposit papers in its institutional repository, BURA, I’ll change the above link. UPDATED: Changed link 2nd May)

Abstract: User behaviour is a significant determinant of a product’s environmental impact; while engineering advances permit increased efficiency of product operation, the user’s decisions and habits ultimately have a major effect on the energy or other resources used by the product. There is thus a need to change users’ behaviour. A range of design techniques developed in diverse contexts suggest opportunities for engineers, designers and other stakeholders working in the field of sustainable innovation to affect users’ behaviour at the point of interaction with the product or system, in effect ‘making the user more efficient’.

Approaches to changing users’ behaviour from a number of fields are reviewed and discussed, including: strategic design of affordances and behaviour-shaping constraints to control or affect energy or other resource-using interactions; the use of different kinds of feedback and persuasive technology techniques to encourage or guide users to reduce their environmental impact; and context-based systems which use feedback to adjust their behaviour to run at optimum efficiency and reduce the opportunity for user-affected inefficiency. Example implementations in the sustainable engineering and ecodesign field are suggested and discussed.

Keywords: ecodesign; sustainability; managing use; managing consumption;
behaviour change; sustainable innovation; persuasive technology

Until it appears in the journal (probably towards the end of 2008) I’m not sure what the guidance is on referencing, but something like Lockton, D., Harrison, D.J., Stanton, N.A. (2008) ‘Making the user more efficient: Design for sustainable behaviour’, To appear in: International Journal of Sustainable Engineering (forthcoming) is probably about right.

*Required disclaimer:

This is a preprint of an article whose final and definitive form will be published in the International Journal of Sustainable Engineering. © 2008 Taylor & Francis; International Journal of Sustainable Engineering is available online at:

Water on the membrane

Smart sink, Cranfield University and Electrolux
The Cranfield/Electrolux Smart Sink – photo from Trespassers by Ed van Hinte and Conny Bakker.

Ten years ago, teams from Cranfield University and Electrolux Industrial Design collaborated on an ‘eco-kitchen’, a family of related concepts for a kitchen of the future. Part of the intention was to demonstrate that eco-design could be a positive spur to innovation, rather than merely an ‘environmental cost-cutting’ exercise. The project is explained in this article from The Journal of Sustainable Product Innovation [PDF] (starting on page 51).

What’s especially interesting from the architectures of control / design for behaviour change perspective is the Smart Sink (above), which, very simply, uses a membrane for the bowl, expanding (treefrog-vocal-sac-like,) as it’s filled, thus making it much more easy to control the amount of water being used – along with some other neat features in the same vein:

The ‘Smart Sink’ is the centre of household water management. A membrane sink expands to minimise water use and a smart tap switches from jet to spray to mist to suit customer needs. A consumption meter and a water-level indicator in the main basin gives feedback on rates and level of water usage. Household grey water is managed visibly by an osmosis purifier and a cyclone filter located in the pedestal, and linked to the household grey water storage.

We’ve looked before at taps (faucets) with built-in water meters, in various forms, but the Smart Sink concept goes beyond this in terms of assisting the user control his or her own water use. Gentle persuasion or guidance rather than external control, but guidance that gives the user helpful feedback. Ten years later: are membrane sinks available? Why not? What else could be done in this line of thinking?

On the level

Patent image of Tilt sensor
A tilt-detector from this 1984 US patent, with intended application on a packing box.

The liquid detection stickers in mobile phones, which allow manufacturers and retailers to ascertain if a phone has got wet, and thus reject warranty claims (whether judiciously/appropriately or not), seem to be concerning a lot of people worldwide. Around a quarter of this site’s visitors are searching for information on this subject, and the comments on last October’s post on the subject contain a wealth of useful experience and advice.

This current thread on goes into more depth on the issue, and how the burden of proof works in this case (at least in the UK). While informed opinion seems to be that the stickers will only change colour when actual liquid is present within the phone, rather than mere moisture or damp, this may well include condensation forming within the casing, as well as the more obvious dropping-of-phone-into-puddle and so on. The main point of contention seems to be that the sticker may change colour (perhaps gradually) and the phone continue working perfectly, but when an unrelated problem occurs and the phone is taken in for repairs under warranty, the presence of the ‘voided’ sticker may be used as a universal warranty get-out even if the actual problem is something different.

Tilt detection
Along these lines, one of the posts tells of a similarly interesting design tactic – tilt-detectors on larger hardware:

30 years in the IT industry and associated customer service tells me they are trying it on and most people buy it. In the olden days, hardware used to come with a similar red dot system indicating the kit had been tilted more than 45 degrees and the manufacturers claimed the kit could not be installed and had to be written off.

Of course, 99.9% of the time the kit was fine, but they had a get-out from a warranty claim or so they thought. When the buyers tried to claim on their insurance or against the transport companies insurers the loss adjusters got involved and invariably the kit was installed and worked fine for years rather than the insurers paying out.

In some cases, of course, tilt-detectors were (are still?) necessary in this role. A piece of equipment with multiple vertically cantilevered PCBs laden with heavy components – relays, for example – might well be damaged if the PCBs were tilted away from the vertical. Certainly some devices with small moving coil components would seem as though they may be damaged by being turned upside down, for example. (Do the ultra-fine damper wires on an aperture-grille CRT monitor such as a Trinitron need to be kept in a particular orientation when handling the monitor?)

This patent, published in 1984, from which the above images were extracted, describes an especially clever ‘interlock’ system using two liquid-based detectors arranged so that if the device/package is tilted and then tilted back again, the second detector will then be triggered:

…it is desirable that the tilt detectors not be resettable. In particular, it must be possible to combine a package with at least a pair of the tilt detectors such that attempting to reset one would cause the other to be tilted beyond its pre-determined maximum angle so that the total combination would always afford an indication that the tilt beyond that allowed had been effected.

This is something of a poka-yoke – but as with the phone liquid-detection stickers, it’s being used to detect undesirable customer/handler behaviour rather than actually to prevent it happening. Other than making a package too heavy to tilt, I am not sure exactly how we might design something which actually prevents the tilting problem, aside from rectifying the design problem which makes tilting a problem in the first place (even filling the airspace in the case with non-conductive, low-density foam might help here).

But there’s certainly a way the tilt-detector could be improved to help and inform the handler rather than simply ‘condemn’ the device. For example, it could let out an audible alarm if the package or device is tilted, say, 20 degrees, to allow the handler to rectify his or her mistake before reaching the damaging 45 degrees, whilst still permanently changing colour if 45 degrees is reached. In the long run, it would probably help educated users about how to handle the device rather than just ‘punishing’ them for an infraction. I’m sure that mercury-switch (or whatever the current non-toxic equivalent is) alarms have been used in this way (e.g. on a vending machine), but how often are they used to help the user rather than alert security?

The patent description goes on to mention using tamper-evident methods of attaching the detectors to the device or packaging – this is another interesting area, which I am sure we will cover at some point on the blog.

Freelancing Part 3: The Ben Wilson Interview

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series I looked at some aspects of what it’s like being a freelance designer / engineer / maker, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Lots of freelancers have blogs, and sites such as Freelance Switch and Sologig News draw together some very interesting (and diverse) people and advice. I did an interview for Sologig News a few months ago.

One of the things that I’m often asked, mainly by design students intrigued by the idea of working for themselves once they graduate, is just how to go about doing it: how to raise your profile, and find the right projects to take on. Having really only been marginally successful in this area, I decided to interview Ben Wilson, with whom I’ve worked on a couple of projects, and who’s achieved a great deal working for himself in this field. Ben’s blog, along with his brothers, is a great photostream-style travelogue of interesting products, vehicles, graphic design, places and influences.

Tilting Trike by Ben WilsonDownlow Lowrider by Ben Wilson
Left: The Tilting Trike in arm-propelled mode. Right: The Downlow Lowrider
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