All posts filed under “Entertainment

Thoughts on the ‘fun theory’

The ‘Piano Staircase’ from Volkswagen’s

The Fun Theory (Rolighetsteorin), a competition / campaign / initiative from Volkswagen Sweden – created by DDB Stockholm – has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks from both design-related people and other commentators with an interest in influencing behaviour: it presents a series of clever ‘design interventions’ aimed at influencing behaviour through making things “fun to do” – taking the stairs instead of the escalator, recycling glass via a bottle bank and using a litter bin. The stairs are turned into a giant piano keyboard, with audio accompaniment; the bottle bank is turned into an arcade game, with sound effects and scores prominently displayed; and the litter bin has a “deep pit” effect created through sound effects played as items are dropped into it. It’s exciting to see that exploring design for behaviour change is being so enthusiastically pursued and explored, especially by ad agencies, since – if we’re honest – advertisers have long been the most successful at influencing human behaviour effectively (in the contexts intended). There’s an awful lot designers can learn from this, but I digress…

As a provocation and inspiration to enter the competition, these are great projects. The competition itself is interesting because it encourages entrants to “find [their] own evidence for the theory that fun is best way to change behaviour for the better”, suggesting that entries with some kind of demonstrated / tested element are preferred over purely conceptual submissions (however clever they might be) which have often been a hallmark of creative design competitions in the past. While the examples created and tested for the campaign are by no means “controlled experiments” (e.g. the stats in the videos about the extra amount of rubbish or glass deposited give little context about the background levels of waste deposition in that area, whether people have gone out of their way to use the ‘special’ bins, and so on), they do demonstrate very well the (perhaps obvious) effect that making something fun, or engaging, is a way to get people interested in using it.

Bottle bank arcadeWorld's deepest bin


Going a bit deeper, though, into what “the theory of fun” might really mean, it’s clear there are a few different effects going on here. To use concepts from B J Fogg’s Behaviour Model, assuming the ability to use the stairs, bottle bank or bin is already there, the remaining factors are motivation and triggers. Motivation is, on some level, presumably also present in each case, in the sense that someone carrying bottles to be recycled already wants to get rid of them, someone standing at the bottom of the stairs or escalator wants to get to the top, and someone with a piece of litter in her hand wants to discard it somehow (even if that’s just on the ground).

(But note that if, for example, people start picking up litter from elsewhere in order to use the bin because they’re excited by it, or if – as in the video – kids run up and down the stairs to enjoy the effect, this is something slightly different: the motivation has changed from “I’m motivated to get rid of the litter in my hand” to “I’m motivated to keep playing with this thing.” While no doubt useful results, these are slightly different target behaviours to the ones expressed at the start of the videos. “Can we get more people to take the stairs over the escalator by making it fun to do?” is not quite the same as “Can we get people so interested in running up and down the stairs that they want to do it repeatedly?”)

So the triggers are what the interventions are really about redesigning: adding some feature or cue which causes people who already have the ability and the motivation to choose this particular way of getting out of the railway station to the street above, or disposing of litter, or recycling glass. All three examples deliberately, prominently, attract the interest of passers-by (“World’s deepest bin” graphics, otherwise incongruous black steps, illuminated 7-segment displays above the bottle bank) quite apart from the effect of seeing lots of other people gathered around, or using something in an unusual way.

And once they’ve triggered someone to get involved, to use them, there are different elements that come into play in each example. For example, the bottle bank – by using a game metaphor – effectively challenges the user into continuing (perhaps even entering a flow state, though this is surely more likely with the stairs) and gives feedback on how well you’re doing as well as a kind of reward. The reward element is present in all three examples, in fact.

Perhaps the most relevant pattern in all these examples, and the “fun theory” concept itself, is that of emotional or affective engagement. The user experience of each is designed to evoke an emotional response, to motivate engagement through enjoyment or delight – and this is an area of design where a lot of great (and commercially applicable) research work has been done, by people such as Pieter Desmet (whose doctoral dissertation is a model for this kind of design research), Pat Jordan, Marco van Hout, Trevor van Gorp, Don Norman and MIT’s Affective Computing group. Taking a slightly different slant, David Gargiulo’s work on creating drama through interaction design (found via Harry Brignull‘s Twitter) is also pertinent here, as is Daniel Pink’s collection of ’emotionally intelligent signage’ (thanks to Larry Cheng for bringing this to my attention).

What sort of behaviour change, though?

I suppose the biggest and most obvious criticism of projects such as the Rolighetsteorin examples is that they are merely one-time gimmicks, that a novelty effect is the most (maybe only) significant thing at work here. It’s not possible to say whether this is true or not without carrying out a longitudinal study of the members of the public involved over a period of time, or of the actual installations themselves. Does having fun using the stairs once (when they’re a giant piano) translate into taking the (boring) normal stairs in preference to an escalator on other occasions? (i.e. does it lead to attitude or preference change?) Or does the effect go away when the fun stairs do?

It may be, of course, that interventions with explicitly pro-social rhetoric embedded in them (such as the bottle bank) have an effect which bleeds over into other areas of people’s lives: do they think more about the environment, or being less wasteful, in other contexts? Have attitudes been changed beyond simply the specific context of recycling glass bottles using this particular bottle bank?

Project by Stephen Intille & House_n, MITProject by Stephen Intille & House_n, MIT

How others have done it

This campaign isn’t the first to have tried to address these problems through design, of course. Without researching too thoroughly, a few pieces of work spring to mind, and I’m sure there are many more. Stephen Intille, Ron MacNeil, Jason Nawyn and Jacob Hyman in MIT’s House_n group have done work using a sign with the ‘just-in-time‘ message “Your heart needs exercise – here’s your chance” (shown above) positioned over the stairs in a subway, flashing in people’s line-of-sight as they approach the decision point (between taking stairs or escalator) linked to a system which can record the effects in terms of people actually making one choice or the other, and hence compare the effect the intervention actually has. As cited in this paper [PDF], previous research by K D Brownell, A J Stunkard, and J M Albaum, using the same message, in a similar situation, but statically displayed for three weeks before being removed, demonstrated that some effect remains on people’s choice of the stairs for the next couple of months. (That is, the effect didn’t go away immediately when the sign did – though we can’t say whether that’s necessarily applicable to the piano stairs too.)

Persuasive Trash Cans by de Kort et alLast year I mentioned Finland’s “Kiitos, Tack, Thank you” bins, and in the comments (which are well worth reading), Kaleberg mentioned Parisian litter bins with SVP (s’il vous plaît) on them; most notable here is the work of Yvonne de Kort, Teddy McCalley and Cees Midden at Eindhoven on ‘persuasive trash cans‘ [PDF], looking at the effects of different kinds of norms on littering behaviour, expressed through the design or messages used on litter bins (shown to the left here).

Work on the design of recycling bins is, I think, worthy of a post of its own, since it starts to touch more on perceived affordances (the shape of different kinds of slots, and so on) so I’ll get round to that at some point.

Many thanks to everyone who sent me the Fun Theory links, including Kimberley Crofts, Brian Cugelman and Dan Jenkins (apologies if I’ve missed anyone out).

Cialdini on the Beach

Self-monitoring is one of the most common persuasive techniques used in interface design: basically, giving people feedback on what they’re doing and what they’ve done. There are lots of issues about which kinds of feedback work best, in what circumstances, pairing it with feedforward, i.e. ‘What would happen if I did this?’ information, and so on. My recent long post about smart energy meters looks at some of the ideas within a particular application.

But sometimes it takes an example that’s not at first sight a ‘user interface’ or a ‘product’ to highlight how much difference certain design techniques can make.

Encouraging donations, Santa BarbaraThis unattended layout of things on the beach at Santa Barbara, California, soliciting donations, is an interface, too. It’s been designed, cleverly, both to invite passers-by to participate (by throwing coins from an adjacent walkway) and to give them feedback on their throwing ability.

That target – the bright red Folger’s tub on the bright red square of fabric in the middle of the white sheet – is a crucial way of engaging people and getting them to contribute. Who, throwing a coin, isn’t going to try and get it in the tub? (Unless you’re trying to knock over the vases or the little surfers.) And when you miss, you’re going to try again. And again. (I know I did.) You get entertainment and a challenge which seems like it’s worth pursuing, and you can see your track record.

Encouraging donations, Santa Barbara

It mustn’t be too difficult. It’s Csíkszentmihályi’s flow, it’s fairground games theory applied to the simplest of begging sitations, but it works, in terms of getting people to contribute.

What it shows me from a design point of view is that explicitly using targets ought to be included as a Design with Intent technique / pattern in addition to related ones such as self-monitoring, in future versions of the toolkit. The target effect – and other game-related techniques – are sufficiently distinct to inspire plenty of design ideas on their own.

Encouraging donations, Santa Barbara

Of course this particular setup also uses a number of other techniques – affective engagement with the ‘Just Plain Hungry’ card, reciprocation with the ‘Make a Wish’ offer, colour & contrast and prominence & visibility with the way the arrangement draws the eye, operant conditioning in terms of a ‘reward’ when you succeed (the wish, or a sense of satisfaction) and social proof in the way that everyone can see that others have thrown coins (and even a note), and that everyone can see you contributing when you throw your coins (or if you decide not to) – a kind of peer surveillance. The plate of sand is an additional affective touch which also works well.

It’s almost like Robert Cialdini put the whole thing together.

It also makes me think it would be worth cataloguing the design techniques employed in the design of charity collecting boxes and games which offer donors (often children) something exciting or engaging in return for their money. I used to love spiral wishing wells and, in general, ones that did something (like this wonderful RSPCA example, though from before my time). There have to be lessons there for other designers interested in engaging users and motivating them to contribute, or behave in a particular way.

I hope whoever set all that up on that beach in Santa Barbara made some money that day. It would have been well deserved.

Cleaning up with carpets

Horrible carpet

Following the recent post looking at aspects of casino and slot machine design, in which I quoted William Choi and Antoine Sindhu’s study – “[Casino] carpeting is often purposefully jarring to the eyes, which draws customers’ gaze upwards toward the machines on the gambling floor” – Max Rangeley sends me a link to the Total Influence & Persuasion blog, discussing casinos’ carpeting strategy in more detail:

They don’t want you to look at the floor, they want you to look at the machines!
… after some time you eyes get tired and need a rest. Normally they would be dawn to a area of dull colour that could be used as a “safe haven” (probably all done subconsciously). The ground is normally a good bet, yes?….not in a casino. As soon as you look at the ground it is worse than the machines and your eyes want to move off somewhere else and hopefully toward one of these many waiting, flashing slot machines where you can slot in a few more quid.

Indeed, casinos’ grotesque carpet patterns are apparently fairly notorious – a couple of years ago Boing Boing pointed to this fantastic gallery on Die Is Cast, the website of Dr David G Schwartz, an authority on casino design, strategy, and evolution:

Casino carpet is known as an exercise in deliberate bad taste that somehow encourages people to gamble.

In a strange way, though, it’s s sublime work of art, rivalling any expressionist canvas of the past century. Note the regal tones of Caesars Palace, the bountiful bouquet of Mandalay Place, the soft, almost abstract pointilism of Paris, all whispering, “gamble, gamble” just out of the range of consciousness as people walk to the nearest slot machine.

Image from Die Is Cast
A section of the 9-page gallery of real casino carpet patterns at Die Is Cast.

Implications of this kind of thinking

Are there examples from other fields where graphic design is deliberately used to repel the viewer, specifically in order to shift his or her focus somewhere more desirable?

In newspaper/magazine layout, one might think of company A using deliberately repellent/garish advertising graphics alongside company B’s ad, to shift the reader’s focus away from that page to the opposite page, where company A has a ‘proper’ ad. Or the low-priced items on a menu or on a shelf might be surrounded by ugly/brash/over-busy graphics, so as to make shoppers look away to the area where the higher-priced items are. Maybe even an artist (or the gallery) deliberately positioning ‘ugly’/repellent work either side of the piece which it’s desirable for the visitor to focus on: in comparison, it is bound to look more attractive.

I have no evidence that this happens, but I’m assuming it has been used as a tactic at some point.

Does anyone have any real examples of this?

Learned down the gambling house

Fruit machine reelsMichael Shanks’ Ten Things class at Stanford – which looks like a brilliant application of anthropological and archaeological thinking to design and technology – generated a very interesting project by William Choi and Antoine Sindhu analysing the architectures of control (psychological and physical) designed into both slot machines, and casinos themselves.

Slot machines

From ‘The psychology of the slot machine‘:

[S]lot machines keep players engrossed through a psychological phenomenon known as operant conditioning. What psychologists call the “primary conditioning mechanism” is the inclusion of relatively small payouts in slot machine gameplay. These small payouts provide positive reinforcement to the player … the positive reinforcement provided by the small payouts causes people to continue repeating the behavior. The frequency of payouts is precisely fine-tuned and optimized—a payout rate that is any higher than absolutely necessary cuts down on the casino’s profits.

Slot machines do not stop with a single primary conditioning mechanism. Secondary mechanisms augment the excitement and incentive to continue playing. The most important of these is the inclusion of a system in the machine that yields a high frequency of “near misses,” or situations in which the player believes they have almost won. For example, the slot machine often displays two out of the three jackpot bars, a tremendously stimulating event which has greatly reinforced the player’s behavior at no cost to the casino.

The article compares the positive reinforcement effect in humans to that shown by B F Skinner‘s classic experiments with rats, where pressing a lever caused pellets to be dispensed, and where the mechanism was very quickly learned. Skinner’s work on behaviour shaping [PDF link] is of great relevance to my forthcoming PhD research, since it’s effectively about ‘teaching’ (or ‘guiding’) the subject (which could be a rat, pigeon or end-user) towards a different set of behaviour, rather than actual coercion. This continuum between persuasion and outright control will, I suspect, be an important part of the research, although as a number of readers have pointed out in the comments here over the last couple of years, persuasion can be as much about control (in a psychological sense) as code or physical product or environmental architecture are in the world outside our minds.

Casino design

We’ve looked briefly before at casino layouts and tricks, inspired by a piece on Signal vs Noise, but Choi and Sindhu’s ‘Analysis of casino design‘ goes into fascinating detail:

Casinos are generally designed so that patrons must walk through or at least around the periphery of several slot machine blocks to move around the casino, to maximize the customers’ exposure to the exciting sights and sounds of the slot machines, and especially of others winning on the machines … Casino planners know that slot players love to see and hear other people winning on nearby machines, because players hold it as evidence that money can be made on the machines. Thus casinos are designed to have the loosest machines in prominent areas deep within the gambling floor. Areas such as the ends of long rows or near walkways or elevated sections are generally where loose machines are placed. As people walk through the gambling floor, the sights and sounds of people playing on these more liberal machines draw other customers deeper into the slot machine block, where the machines are tighter.

In general, table players do not like the noise of slot machines because they find it distracting … At the same time, however, spouses or partners of table players will often wile away time playing at a nearby slot machine. Thus casinos are planned such that there are slot machines lining walkways around tables. However, these slots are always tight. This cuts down on the noise and distraction to table players, and makes sense because the majority of players on these machines are playing spontaneously, with little expectation of winning. This demonstrates to what degree casino layouts are optimized—in this case, to the point that a complex system is implemented simply to clean up loose change from spontaneous players.

In most Las Vegas casinos, there is a noticeable lack of natural light and of clocks. The gambling floor is always located away from the main entrance out onto the street to minimize the gamblers’ exposure to the outside world … those who are simply walking around the casino are more inclined to start using a machine, because their perceptions of time are manipulated by the design of the casino.

Other features of the casino, including the music, carpeting, and even the air conditioning system, are manipulated to the casino’s advantage. Studies have shown that carpeting is often purposefully jarring to the eyes, which draws customers’ gaze upwards toward the machines on the gambling floor. Music is usually mild and soothing, and plays on a continuous loop rather than individual songs, contributing to a trance-like feeling of warmth and comfort in the gamblers.

Choi and Sindhu go on to discuss the use of coercive atmospherics (Douglas Rushkoff‘s term) – things such as extra oxygen or pheromones pumped into the air – tactics which clearly have been tried – and in retail environments as well as casinos. Although Hunter pointed out in a comment on the SvN post that extra oxygen is not / no longer widely used by the major casinos, the Commercaire website is no longer online (Wayback copy here – switch off images if you want to be able to read it!), and Commercaire’s manufacturers claim to have withdrawn their ‘controversial’ product, if the results claimed [PDF link] – 42% increase in casino revenues – are real, then one might suspect the company has simply changed the way it markets the product (as the ‘Spitting Image’ blog suggests here).

The Terminal Bench

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Mags L Halliday – author of the Doctor Who novel History 101 – let me know about an ‘interesting’ design tactic being used at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. From the Guardian, by Julia Finch:

Flying from the new Heathrow Terminal 5 and facing a lengthy delay? No worries. Take a seat and enjoy the spectacular views through the glass walls: Windsor castle in one direction; the Wembley Arch, the London Eye and the Gherkin visible on the horizon in the other.

But you had better be quick, because the vast Richard Rogers-designed terminal, due to open at 4am on March 27 next year, has only 700 seats. That’s much less than two jumbo loads, in an airport designed to handle up to 30 million passengers a year.

There will be more chairs available but they will be inside cafes, bars and restaurants. Taking the weight off your feet will cost at least a cup of coffee.

I suppose we should have expected this. If they weren’t actually going to remove the seats, they’d have used uncomfortable benches instead. In itself, it’s maybe not quite as manipulative as the café deliberately creating worry to get customers to vacate their seats that we looked at a few days ago, but as Frankie Roberto commented, “airports seem to be a fairly unique environment, and one that must be full of architectures of control.”

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Nevertheless, aside from the more obvious control elements of airport architecture – from baggage trolley width restrictors to the blind enforcement of arbitrary regulations, the retailers themselves are keen to make the most of this unique environment and the combination of excitement, stress, tiredness, and above all, confinement, which the passengers are undergoing:

The new terminal may have been heralded as a “cathedral to flight”, but with 23,225 sq metres (250,000 sq ft) of retail space, the equivalent of six typical Asda stores, it is actually going to be a temple to retail. Heathrow may be packed with shops, but when the £4.2bn Terminal 5 opens the airport’s total shopping space will increase by 50% overnight.

After security, two banks of double escalators will transport potential shoppers into a 2,787 sq metre (30,000 sq foot) World Duty Free store… Mark Riches, managing director of WDF, believes his new superstore has the best possible site to part passengers from their cash: “About 70% of passengers will come down those escalators”, he said, “and we will be ready”.

He recognises he has a captive audience: “If we can’t sell to people who can’t leave the building, then there’s something wrong with us”.

Mr Riches, a former Marks & Spencer executive, is planning “to put the glamour back into airport retailing” with plans for gleaming cosmetics counters and a central area reserved for beauty services such as manicures.

“We are moving away from just selling stuff to providing services. This should be real theatre,” he said.

He is also planning what he calls “contentainment” – the music will change according to where you are in the shop and a 14-metre-long “crystal curtain” “bigger than a double decker bus and thinner than a calculator” will show videos, advertising and sports events.

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Everything about this story – from the location itself out on the bleak badlands between the M25 and A30, to the way the customers are coerced, channelled, mass-entertained and exploited, to the odd hyperbolic glee of Mr Riches’ visions for his mini-empire – seems to scream J G Ballard. If Kingdom Come hadn’t riffed off the Bentall Centre, it could surely have been about a Terminal 5.

Back to the practical aspects: the deliberate removal of public seating to force passengers to patronise restaurants and cafés is in no way isolated to Heathrow. In a coming post – also suggested by Mags – we’ll look at First Great Western’s policy of doing this in some of its railway stations, with none of the glitz of Terminal 5 but all of the cold-eyed distaste for the customer.

Heathrow: Skyport for the Seventies

Images from a leaflet published by the British Airports Authority, 1970.

Making exercise cooler

Snowdown, by Matthew Barnett
Main image and above right: Snowdown aesthetic model; below right: Snowdown functional test rig prototype.

Snowdown, by Matthew Barnett, is fantastic. Powered by a child exercising, moving the handle, it crushes ice cubes and compacts them to make snowballs. There are a lot of kids out there who would very much like one of these, at any time of year – summer especially. Shown last month at Made in Brunel – I hope Matthew finds a way to take the project forward.

Is the requiring-exercise-to-get-a-reward strategy an architecture of control? I think so, and I think this product exemplifies why and how it is possible to use ‘control’ for the benefit of the user. Sure, society benefits when children grow up more healthily, but the children (and their parents) also benefit. And Snowdown actively rewards the user for his or her effort.

We’ve seen this thinking, specifically regarding encouraging exercise, embodied before on the blog in two products, as far as I can remember: Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes (also from Brunel), and, of course, the Entertrainer. Both of these use television as the ‘reward’ for exercise – in the case of Square-Eyes, 100 steps on the special insole equate to 1 minute of TV time (controlled by a base station); with the Entertrainer, the user’s heart rate is monitored (you can set the level of exercise you want) and the TV’s volume is controlled, which is an interesting concept: you exercise watching the TV, keeping your heart rate within the optimal range:

The chest strap heart monitor wirelessly relays your heart rate to the Entertrainer™. The Entertrainer then determines if your heart rate is within, above, or below your target zone. If your heart rate is low, the Entertrainer lowers the volume on your television (or other infrared remotely controlled device). If your heart rate is within the target zone (range), the volume remains at a comfortable level. If your heart rate is too high, the volume increases.

Stanford’s Captology research group has also investigated exercise-promotion persuasive technology extensively (e.g. here) but I’m not sure to what extent actual ‘control’ is involved, as opposed to persuasion through making exercise more attractive/fun.

Square-Eyes by Gillian Swan Square-Eyes by Gillian Swan
Square-Eyes by Gillian Swan, using special insoles and a control unit

Image from
The Entertrainer (image from

Nevertheless, with all the above examples, the element of control is very much something the user opts into (unless, say, parents were to force their kids to use Square-Eyes or have no TV) rather than having it imposed with no choice. The ‘code’ is embedded in the product architecture, but you make a choice to use the product because you want the discipline it can help give you.

And again, Snowdown stands out, since it is something fun in itself. Indeed, it may be stretching it to see it as any more a control example than any other children’s toy which requires exercise (bicycle, trampoline, rollerskates, etc). If I hadn’t seen Matthew’s description which specifically highlighted the product’s ability to promote exercise in children, I probably wouldn’t have considered it in this light at all. And it’s perhaps this ‘mindless margin’ (to quote Brian Wansink) of helping yourself while not feeling that you’re being ‘controlled’, which might lie behind positive, successful, ethical, useful applications of architectures of control in design as opposed to the generally anti-user spirit with which the majority are imbued.