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Play Lab: Exploring Ambiguity

The ‘Time-Traveling Hipster’ (1941)

Carnegie Mellon School of Design, Senior Design Labs, Fall 2016, 51–401

  • Final projects: see
  • Discussion of the final projects
  • Updated: December 21, 2016: Please note: this syllabus has been updated over the semester and rewritten into a kind of ‘review’ of what happened.
  • Play Lab took place Mondays & Wednesdays, 1.30–4.20pm, MM 213/4; Session 1: August 29 — September 28; Session 2: October 3 — November 2; Session 3: November 7 — December 7, 2016

Dan Lockton, Assistant Professor, Margaret Morrison Carnegie Hall 207b;


Seniors (4th-year undergraduates) in Industrial and Product Design at Carnegie Mellon take three ‘Senior Design Labs’, Wonder Lab, Speak Lab, and Play Lab, each of which aims to help students develop some ‘design agility’. They set out to enable students to integrate and revisit skills they’ve developed through their time at CMU, but applying them in new and different situations. The idea is that this helps graduating students develop a shift in perspective on their own abilities and identities as designers, and gives them confidence to tackle new kinds of problems and challenges in a reflective way, through knowing themselves better.

Play Lab 2016 was specifically about exploring ambiguity. Over five weeks, the 33 students worked on the idea of future(s), and designers’ role in both creating (in a sense), and responding to, ideas of possible futures that by definition, don’t exist yet. It’s about developing and being able to show a thought process which is not just about problem-solving, but comfortable with ambiguity, problem-finding, and problem-worrying.

Play Lab: Scenes from projects by Diana Sun, Lea Cody, Julia Wong, Rachel Chang, Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, and Jeff Houng. The final projects are online at

Our starting points for exploration were three quotes: most famously, as phrased by the novelist William Gibson, that “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” (there are different versions of this quote going back to the early 1990s); Jenny Holzer’s “You live the surprise results of old plans” and “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”, attributed to Frederik Pohl. The basic idea is powerful from a design point of view: what ‘futures’ do we see emerging right now, what might they grow into, what consequences could they have, and how would designers be involved? What power, or agency, do designers even have here? Through a series of small exercises, students build toward designing and creating ‘pockets of the future’ that can be glimpsed or experienced by others.

Play Lab: Some scenes from the class

Course objectives

By the end of the course:

  1. Comfortable discomfort: you should be comfortable — well, as comfortable as you can be — with applying the design skills you have developed over your time at CMU, to inherently ambiguous questions about the future.

Play Lab: Projects from Albert Topdjian, Brian Yang and Zai Aliyu. The final projects are online at

2. Problem-worrying: you should have carried out a project through which you don’t ‘solve’ a problem, but rather, ‘worry’ at the questions involved, creatively exploring possibilities and opportunities through synthesizing your design and research skills, thinking through ‘making’.

Play Lab: Projects from Jackie Kang, Jeff Houng and Vivian Qiu (image incorporates Passive Collaboration by Sarah Sitkin for Work magazine. 2014). The final projects are online at

3. Reflective designing: you should be confident in using the project to demonstrate your ability to engage creatively to explore ambiguous futures, with a critical eye on your own role as a designer in shaping and responding to trends.

Play Lab: Projects from Diana Sun, Gabriel Mitchell and Hannah Salinas. The final projects are online at

Course outline

The course overall comprised five exercises, starting with small challenges around observation and speculation, and building to a bigger project in the final two weeks of the five-week session. The classes were a mixture of group discussion, presentations, demonstrations and one-to-one advising in the studio. Students kept a blog as part of the course, which was part of the assessment; these could be made public or kept private depending on students’ preferences. As students come from different design specialisms, it was expected that they will use whatever physical or digital media suit their skills and confidence. The fuzzy edges of ‘the future’ permit a deliberate fuzziness in the resolution of the work: ambiguity was encouraged.

Details of assessment, learning outcomes, etc are in the syllabus intro PDF.

It’s worth noting that Play Lab took place in three groups over the semester, and the details of what we focused on with each group differed slightly as questions and ideas and issues arose. With the final group, the presidential election results occurred on the morning of one of the classes, and provided an emotional and quite difficult atmosphere to our discussions of the future. Questions around filter bubbles, fake news (a form of design fiction, surely), blurred boundaries between truth and falsehood, and changing geopolitics ended up influencing a number of the projects. Oddly, many of the themes from J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Future of the Future’, written for Vogue in 1977, also seemed to recur, unprompted, throughout the class.

Play Lab: Projects from Catherine Zheng, Courtney Pozzi (incorporates photo of Ichika from and Linna Griffin. The final projects are online at

Some references, precedents and inspirations

There are many interesting and very talented people working in different areas of design, futures, speculative design and design fictions of various kinds. Over the weeks with different groups, we looked at and discussed a number of projects and tools from people and groups including: Dunne and Raby; Superflux; Stuart Candy and Jake Dunagan; Near Future Laboratory; Strange Telemetry; Extrapolation Factory; Natalie Jeremijenko; Interaction Research Studio at Goldsmiths; The Onion; Changeist; The Yes Men; Anne Galloway; Iohanna Nicenboim; Vytas Jankauskas; Luiza Prado and Pedro Oliveira, Luke Sturgeon; Keiichi Matsuda; James Auger and Julian Hanna; Matthew Buchholz; Simon Stålenhag; Jakub Różalski; Benjamin Bratton; James Bridle; Simone Rebaudengo; Loove Broms; Veronica Ranner; Daisy Ginsberg; Timo Arnall; Sputniko, Warren Ellis; Darren Cullen; Bruce Sterling, Charlie Brooker; Alison Jackson and others. (I also wanted to show them Scarfolk and the Framley Examiner, but I think the Britishness might have just been too confusing.)

Some of the work we looked at which I think had a particularly large influence on some students’ projects includes the following:

Superflux, Uninvited Guests; Extrapolation Factory, 99¢ Futures; Near Future Laboratory, TBD Catalog; More-Than-Human Lab, Counting Sheep; Situation Lab, The Thing From The Future; Veterans For Peace, Battlefield Casualties; Wired, ‘Found’ (gallery collected by Stuart Candy); The Yes Men, New York Times Special Edition; Near Future Laboratory, Curious Rituals; Luke Sturgeon, Citizen Rotation Office; Strange Telemetry, Senescence; Near Future Laboratory, Corner Convenience; Situation Lab & Extrapolation Factory, 1–888-FUTURES.

Play Lab also took place in the context of ongoing debate at Carnegie Mellon around issues of speculative and critical design, including the Climactic: Post Normal Design exhibition curated by Deepa Butoliya, Ahmed Ansari, and Katherine Moline, Deepa Butoliya’s elective class Speculative (Post) Critical Design and Peter Scupelli’s class Dexign Futures, and was fortunate to coincide with visits to CMU by people working in related areas, including Anne Burdick, Bruce Tharp, and Maria Lamadrid. We also had the legacy of Aisling Kelliher’s work at CMU including a previous class on Design Fiction and Imaginary Futures, and previous iterations of Play Lab with a speculative design focus.

While Play Lab 2016 was not explicitly focused on speculative and critical design (Deepa Butoliya’s class gave her students a proper grounding in that), much of what students produced was nevertheless approaching this area. It was, at least, using design to provoke discussion, particularly in relation to the future mundane, as Nick Foster has called it. If the ideas and scenarios the students created ended up telling us more about today’s preoccupations and concerns, from the perspective of North American undergraduate design students, than being politically motivated calls to action, that is little different to the majority of work on design fictions, and no worse for it. As we will see with the projects themselves, the broad themes give us an insight into what worries, inspires, and preoccupies a group of talented designers about to go out into the uncertain world of 2017.

I was influenced in putting aspects of the class together by many strands of thought, including an exercise that Veronica Ranner and I developed for a session called ‘Plans and Speculated Actions’ at the Design Research Society 2016 conference earlier this summer, with Molly Wright Steenson, Gyorgyi Galik and Tobie Kerridge; doing a talk for Tobias Revell and Ben Stopher’s SCD Summer School at the London College of Communication; a gathering of design-and-futures people organised by Georgina Voss, Justin Pickard and Tobias Revell in 2015; and taking part in the 2014 Oxford Futures Forum (thanks to Lucy Kimbell).

Play Lab: Projects from Daniel Kison, Praewa Suntiasvaraporn and Zac Mau. The final projects are online at

Exercise 1: Observing possible micro-futures

We started by looking at William Gibson’s famous statement (variously phrased) that:

“the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”

and thinking about how this idea is manifested in practice. What do we see around us — things, actions, habits — that are potentially ‘from’ a future? What do we perceive to be anachronisms, in ‘both’ directions (past-in-the-present and ‘future’-in-the-present)? What is the ‘texture’ of the present? What things come and go, and what stay? Can we tell which ways of doing things are going to become ‘normal’ or popular, the seeds of possible futures, and which won’t? How does this differ across cultures, across countries, but also within one place? As designers, are our observations and thinking here different compared with what people with different agendas and skills might pay attention to?

Looking specifically at the ‘distribution’ of ‘futures’ in the present and in the past, we discussed three ‘time traveler’ memes — the time-traveling hipster (see image at the top of this blog), and two women apparently using what look like cellphones — to modern eyes, at least — in a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie and a 1938 clip of a Dupont factory.

We considered how we ‘read’ modern behaviors into images from the past, and how that relates to what we assume, as designers, about the way people ‘will’ use things that we design. Looking around the room for examples, we saw things such as the projector propped up on a diary, a trash can being used to hold the door open and the first aid kit box being used as a noticeboard, all of which are not necessarily what the designers intended, but nevertheless are almost second nature to us. (See Jane Fulton Suri’s Thoughtless Acts, Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff’s Non-Intentional Design and Richard Wentworth’s beautiful Making Do and Getting By for much more of this kind of thing).

In considering the role of the designer in both creating and responding to ‘futures’, we thought about Pagan Kennedy’s comment, in her review of Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor, in which she said:

“Cars lumbered past like ponderous elephants of rusty steel, not so different from the cars of 30 years ago, and seemed not to belong in the same world as the tattooed kid punching code into his laptop nearby.

Under the spell of this book, I suddenly understood my surroundings not as a discrete contemporary tableau but as a hodgepodge of 1910, 1980, 2011 and 2020.”

We also considered how this kind of ‘hodgepodge’ could mean that, in a sense, we are all living in different worlds, a flaky, uneven present— what is ‘new behavior’ or ‘a new way of doing things’ for one person may be something quite mundane for someone else. (This theme came up later in a number of the projects showing the point of transition from one way of doing things to another — when some people have adopted a new way, and others haven’t.)

We talked about futures, and forecasting, including this 99% Invisible podcast on trend hunters (and creators) WGSN and Stylus, a brief look at retrofuturism, via Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog and the illustrations of Bruce McCall, before thinking through the ideas in Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Unknown Unknowns’ speech, and how they relate to ideas of technological progress and effects on society and the environment:

A ‘futures cone’ diagram from Jessica Bland and Stian Westlake’s ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow’.

We also talked through Voros’s futures cone, as explored by people such as Stuart Candy (see pages 42/43 of the PDF) and Jessica Bland and Stian Westlake (see image) — and featured in Chapter 1 of Dunne & Raby’s Speculative Everything, one of the readings (see below) — and what it might mean for designers plotting a career trajectory. Futures that might once have been merely ‘possible’, such as driverless cars, are rapidly moving right to the center of the ‘probable’ cone, while other futures recede in probability. What happens if you specialize in something that goes nowhere? And yet, as a designer, you are potentially partly responsible for the way in which the future develops. (Sjef van Gaalen has some thoughts about how the cone interacts with Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.) We also looked briefly at the idea of ‘backcasting’ from the right-hand side of the cone to the left (the present), discussed some of the deficiencies of treating the present as a ‘singular’ point, and asked what a cone extending backwards into multiple ‘pasts’ might look like. (Some of my own thoughts about how this potentially relates to Transition Design are here.)

Introducing the first exercise, we thought about how observation, and noticing things around you — objects, behaviors, trends, outliers, social ‘rules’ and norms, and ways of doing things (practices) — can be a valuable habit to get into as a designer, and how using this form of observation to try to see some of the ‘unevenness’ of the present could be a way of uncovering possible ‘micro-futures’ that might be the start of something. This is the idea of ‘weak signals’ as explained by Near Future Laboratory.

Was this man I saw at Helsinki airport in 2008, using a (for the time) startling, apparently enormous 20" HP laptop, with an external hinge, an early adopter of a trend that would soon be ubiquitous? Were we soon going to be seeing people using giant laptops in coffee shops everywhere? Was this a ‘pocket of the future’ in the present? Or was this an aberration? What about devices such as PDAs and personal organizers, which in some way seemed to presage today’s total cellphone saturation, and yet never reached those levels of popularity?

Jan Chipchase’s TED talk from 2007 — nine years ago — on The Anthropology of Mobile Phones, describing his research fieldwork for Nokia, provides a fascinating ‘historical’ insight into how possible future(s) for cellphone use and communication practices were explored and envisaged through in-context research in a huge number of countries and cultures, and makes an interesting comparison with what actually happened in the subsequent decade. (Jan’s Future Perfect blog is an incredible chronicle / travelogue, and diving into the archives at any point is well worth it.) Exercises like asking people to empty their bags, to get insights into the minutiae of everyday life, can also be used to explore possible futures — what do you carry around that you expect to be doing so for the foreseeable future? What is temporary? What will change?

We finished the class by looking at a few examples, mostly collected online, of what might seem like ‘odd’ behaviors or outright misunderstandings , but which nevertheless maybe offer something interesting, the tantalizing seed of a different kind of system, where things work differently. Some involve adaptation, some ‘fighting back’ against a system (like make-up and fashion to prevent facial recognition), some involve people believing that something works in a particular way that it doesn’t really, but maybe it could.

Exercise 1

Look around you — on campus, online, anywhere — at the ways people are using things (not just technology, but clothes, fashions, mannerisms even). Notice unusual or intriguing sets of behaviors, and consider whether they could be possible ‘micro-futures’ — small trends, kernels of the future in today, or maybe even today in the future.

They might be ways of doing things that seem culturally different, or age-specific. They might be things that just seem strange, or wrong. Or they might take a bit of noticing. Look at other people, but also perhaps yourself — what micro-futures might you be engaged in creating? Are there new habits you’ve developed, or you see yourself developing?

Document them somehow, using photos, video, screenshots, or even just your own notes (it’s not always easy to photograph people doing things!).
Ideally, find at least 3 possible micro-futures.

Readings for Exercise 1 (on Box, needs CMU login)

Students’ blogs for Exercise 1 (non-public ones not listed)

Lauren Zemering: Cell phones and daily commute, Chairs as coat hangers, Social media and “auto-tagging”, Forgot your password?

Jiyoung Ahn: Minimalism, Sagging pants, Street art

Brandon Kirkley: (1, 2, 3) Green walls as aesthetic component in architecture, Fashion and wearable technology, Hyper-personalized targeted advertising

Albert Topdjian: Texting blindness, The path less traveled by / synthetic turf, The cool Velcro shoe

Kaitlin Wilkinson: Instant gratification, How Alexa / Amazon Echo might change the home, Social media creating a physical artifact of someone’s life

Jonathan Don Kim: (1, 2) Payment methods, Technology and change in the concept of centralized locations, Connections and the sense of ‘I’

Rachel Headrick: Sound effects that relate to everyone, Augmented GPS, Buy even your plants online!

Rachel Chang: Missing doorknob, Jill Magid turned Luis Barragán into a diamond: How do we represent ourselves after death?, Bots and AI in our daily lives

Diana Sun: (1, 2, 3) Share Closet / clothes-sharing, Interconnected world / smart water bottle, How driverless cars could lead to redefining ‘success’

Courtney Pozzi: Packaged Unpackaged Food, Makeup and societal norms, Hands-free (“Why are people always carrying stuff in their hands?”)

Praewa Suntiasvaraporn: Making everything automatic, Obsession with food, Sexualization of food, Food as a chore

Jillian Nelson: Railings as bike parking, Pocketbra, Phone as mirror, Holding papers inside of laptop, Backs of chairs as coat or bag storage, Roads / sidewalks as a billboard, Using a trashcan as a ladder to climb into window, I used a hammer to open up a beer bottle once, Kenny and the cereal bar

Leah Anton: People who brush their teeth in the shower, People who share their food over the internet, People who ask “How are you?” and mean it

Vicky Hwang: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Bidets and toilets, Hacking cables to strengthen them, Ways to open beer bottles, Skipping songs, Digital and seniority

Jackie Kang: How-to videos, Social media/reality stars, Google

Play Lab: Sketches by Gabriel Mitchell; Eye color Pantone reference by Courtney Pozzi

Zac Mau: Lifehacking, For Sale@CMU, Embedded OS

Brian Yang: Public transport in Asia, Toothpaste maximizer, Velcro spice rack, Food caddy

Catherine Zheng: Prescriptive lifestyles, Distracted walking and waiting, Cosmetic augmentation

Lea Cody: Status update, Health tracking, The American Death

Linna Griffin: Augmenting nature through tech, Citizen journalism, Temporary beauty technology

Gabriel Mitchell: What will augmented reality actually be like?, What will bots actually be like?, How much information is too much?

Temple Rea: VR Experiences, Transcranial direct stimulation, Facial Action Coding System, Inherent vs explicit form, Tools for creators, The relationship between technology and our feelings

Scenes from Hyper-Reality by Keiichi Matsuda

Zai Aliyu: Emotions and intelligence in technology, Civil inattention, Ephemerality, Impression management

Kate Apostolou: The political reality show, Emotional expression through technology, Technology’s effect on spatial thinking

Kaleb Crawford: Live-streaming, live-chatting, and and the meta-memetic zeitgeist, A/B Testing, Rhetoric Analysis, Context Collapse, Self-Identity through Non-Identity: Social media presence for a post-ironic generation

Ruby He: Banter with robots, Packaged empathy, Moments relived

Alisa Le: Gender identity and gender expression, Sharing economy, Automating decisions and simplifying daily routine

Julia Wong: Flexible and mobile environments, Grunge, “nostalgia” and celebration of the “retro” / less perfect and “genuine”, Extended self

Jeff Houng: Tattoos and Body Self Expression, Biometric Data or Authentication, The Pursuit of Hyper-Efficient Wellness

Jenny Holzer, Survival series. Photo by Peter Chamberlain Cann.

Exercise 2: Side-effects and side-shows

‘You live the surprise results of old plans’: Jenny Holzer, Survival series, 1983–5

2016 Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

After discussing the micro-future trends spotted in Exercise 1, we looked briefly at some formal concepts and terminology in the theory of technology and innovation — Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, from which common terms in design such as ‘early adopter’ come, Geoffrey Moore’s Technology Adoption Life Cycle (with its ‘chasm’ between early adopters and the early majority), and the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies with its evocative terminology, especially peak of inflated expectations and trough of disillusionment.

We looked at these not so much as theories that need to be understood, but as examples of formal corporate / business attempts to ‘deal with’ ambiguity in futures and understand how ideas and practices spread.

Traffic, Moscow, September 2000

‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not [just] the automobile but the traffic jam’: Attributed to Frederik Pohl

We went on to look at the idea of perhaps unanticipated consequences — side-effects and side-shows — in considerations of futures, based on part of an exercise that Veronica Ranner and I developed for a session called ‘Plans and Speculated Actions’ at the Design Research Society 2016 conference earlier this summer, with Molly Wright Steenson, Gyorgyi Galik and Tobie Kerridge.

We talked about some famous unanticipated consequences, both ‘bad’ and ‘good’, and, re-evoking Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”, talked briefly about effects that went far beyond what could have been reasonably predicted at the outset, such as the suggested link between the introduction of tetra-ethyl lead in petrol (gasoline) and the rise (and decline) of violent crime in society in the 20th century. (It’s interesting here to note that Thomas Midgley, who developed both tetra-ethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons, has been described as having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”)

The distinction between side-effects and side-shows is somewhat blurred, but we might consider side-effects (in relation to cars) to include, as in the Frederik Pohl quote, immediate effects such as traffic jams and accidents , but also, potentially, longer-term effects such as obesity, changes in city planning, and, potentially — via lead — violent crime. And of course wars driven, in some part, by the quest for oil.

It’s also important to remember what might be seen as positive side-effects: widening access to travel has enabled huge changes in mobility, working possibilities (including jobs for designers!), economic development, meeting new people, cross-fertilization of cultures, and so on. And, as Robert K. Merton pointed out, even if certain effects were not specifically desired by people who planned the system, they may well be desirable for some people:

‘Undesired effects are not always undesirable effects’: Robert K. Merton, 1936, ‘The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action’, American Sociological Review 1(6), 894–904

A version of Jerome Glenn’s Futures Wheel featured in Extrapolation Factory’s Operator’s Manual

Side-shows are the parallel-but-related developments. In relation to the car, that might mean the development of gas stations, roadside diners, car culture and everything that goes with it — which all involve design to a greater or lesser extent. They might also include frictions and counter-movements: people opting out, or being forced out, of the new norm, or finding ways to subvert it (as in Superflux’s ‘Uninvited Guests’).

The line is blurred between side-shows and side effects, hence considering them together. There are many levels of abstraction at which systems can change, and the boundaries of how we frame our analysis are necessarily somewhat arbitrary. A version of Jerome Glenn’s Futures Wheel featured in Extrapolation Factory’s Operator’s Manual was a useful tool for thinking through side-effects and side-shows, or secondary and tertiary consequences — and some students managed to apply this very effectively to the micro-futures they had identified in Exercise 1.

Play Lab: Futures Wheels from Praew Suntiasvaraporn (Food porn obsession), Vicky Hwang (Digitalizing secluded senior citizens) and Justin Finkenaur (Furniture micro-futures)

Exercise 2

Pick one of the possible micro-futures you explored in Exercise 1 (or swap with someone else’s) and explore/study it further as a concept or phenomenon. (If you don’t like it, find another.)

How does it fit with the ‘ecosystem’ of people’s lives now? How could it fit in the future? How would it change daily life?

Using what you know as a designer, about both design trends and human behavior, can you extrapolate a few years into the future to create a short scenario for how things might be? (Remember, there are, of course, no ‘wrong’ predictions here, since we don’t know what we don’t know yet.)

Think through the side-effects and side-shows that might exist in this world, and the role of the designer:

  • Side-effects: What consequences (potentially unanticipated — except by you!) might there be, from the new thing or way of acting? What effects could it have on society more widely? Will some people ‘opt out’ of it? Will some people rebel against it? Are there technological or environmental ‘limits’ we might reach?
  • Side-shows: What other things are going on in this world? What parallel developments, related or unrelated, go along with the phenomenon you’re examining? What are the big issues in this world, the areas of public debate?
  • Role of the designer: What might the briefs be for designers, in this world? What skills are in demand? How does society treat designers? How do designers treat society? Are designers mainly dealing with side-effects?

Explore these ideas visually and in text, and document them on your blog. Visually, you could sketch, take photos, collect images from elsewhere and annotate them or modify them — anything you need to do to tell your story and explain your thinking to others. In text, there’s no need for a long essay, but aim for a few hundred words. Be prepared to present what you’ve done.

Some questions to help you

These are a few (optional!) questions and things to look up which might be relevant, depending on how ‘big’ the idea is that you’re working on.

Questions about ethics
Look up Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. What would happen if this new behavior, object, etc, became universal, i.e. if everyone acted or were influenced in this way? Would you envisage that that this ‘should become a universal law’? If not, why not?
— Look up Rawls’s ‘Veil of Ignorance’. What are you, as a designer, assuming your status would be in the world you envision? Would you support the idea if you didn’t know what place you would have in the scenario, what background you would have, and whether you were on the ‘receiving end’?

Questions about sustainability
If you are thinking about ‘sustainability’, what definition are you using, tacitly or explicitly? Where is the boundary drawn between humans and nature? Is your treatment of sustainability primarily ecological, or does it include a social component?

Questions about power
Would this world involve one group of people having power or advantage over others? Would it create new power structures in society, or reinforce existing power structures? Or could it break down existing structures, and give different people agency to change the system?

These questions are based on some in a forthcoming book chapter by myself and Veronica Ranner: Lockton, D. & Ranner, V. (2017). ‘Plans and speculated actions: Design, behaviour and complexity in sustainable futures’. In: J. Chapman (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Product Design, Routledge, London.

Readings for Exercise 2

Students’ blogs for Exercise 2 (non-public ones not listed)

Lauren Zemering: Discussing bathroom habits

Jiyoung Ahn: (1, 2) Minimalism and language

Brandon Kirkley: FashionTech — Politics, stigma, and a new layer of interpersonal interaction

Albert Topdjian: Artificially Creating the Natural

Kaitlin Wilkinson: Creating physical artifacts from our social media

Jonathan Don Kim: Concurrence of technology and various industries

Rachel Headrick: Ascribing a Different Meaning to Apple iPhone Sound-effects

Play Lab: Ideas for ‘a language for inanimate objects’ by Rae Headrick

Rachel Chang: Death does not mean the end

Diana Sun: Internet of Things & Smart Homes

Courtney Pozzi: What if the things we owned were alive?

Praewa Suntiasvaraporn: (1, 2) Food obsession

Jillian Nelson: (1, 2) Sousveillance and reflectionism

Leah Anton: Multitasking

Play Lab: Sketches exploring the idea of Living Static Structures, by Courtney Pozzi

Vicky Hwang: Seniors and digitalizing world

Jackie Kang: How Google as a whole might affect our society in the future

Zac Mau: Technology truly seamlessly blending into our lives

Brian Yang: Better Utilization of Public Transport Through Shrinking Personal Space

Catherine Zheng: Prescriptive lifestyles

Lea Cody: Health tracking

Play Lab: Side-effects and side-shows explored by Brian Yang, Lea Cody, Praew Suntiasvaraporn and Jackie Kang

Gabriel Mitchell: The Ephemeral Interface

Zai Aliyu: How might emotional intelligence in technology help us better express ourselves to others, empathize with others, or improve day-to-day interactions? In this faster moving world, how might the integration of ephemerality into our day-to-day lives change the way we interact, share, and connect with others, as well as our perception of identity?

Kate Apostolou: What is the future of spatial thinking in a world where people depend entirely on technology (smartphones and self-driving cars) to get around?

Kaleb Crawford: What does a future look like where online content and copywriting is algorithm driven, not personally authored?

Images collected by students

Ruby He: A New Age of Communication: Conversations with Machines

Alisa Le: Future of gender

Julia Wong: Flexibility and mobility

Jeff Houng: A Biometric Future

Images collected by students

Exercise 3: Storytelling scenarios

Throughout the class, we looked at a variety of examples of design fiction, speculative design and other forms of making futures (and alternative pasts and presents) experiential — or at least tangible — through design. We explored the notion of diegetic prototypes and design fictions as detailed by David Kirby, Bruce Sterling and Julian Bleecker, and the influence of Hollywood, and popular visions of ‘the future’, including the very current Black Mirror, on how we as designers imagine what might exist, and what might be designed to bring that ‘alive’ to an audience. A major part of bringing the futures alive was finding ways to incorporate some of the side effects and side-shows uncovered in Exercise 2, either directly as part of a story, or through developing a scenario in which some designed product or service responded to those side-effects.

The aim of looking at existing examples was partly to consider the speculated futures themselves, but also to evaluate and critique the designed forms in which those ideas were presented, and relate them to the skills and ambitions the students have, and what might be achievable to create within a short period. So, from newspapers to photoshoots, websites to day-in-the-life videos, comics to service blueprints, renderings to prank product packaging, we examined these forms as potential models and inspirations, for their effectiveness and limitations.

Image from Alison Jackson’s Private 2016; A Bruce McCall piece for National Lampoon, 1973; Prank Pack’s iDrive; Winning Formula by Near Future Laboratory with Scott Smith of Changeist

It is important to remember: these were going to be undergraduate student projects, to end up in portfolios, be seen by potential employers and be shown in the end-of-semester exhibition — they needed to be comprehensible to an audience without extensive introduction or background-setting, and, while they could be amusing or serious, they needed to demonstrate the skills the students wanted to exhibit. Telling a story somehow, through either acting a scenario or showing us artefacts from that scenario (or both), seemed to be a good way of doing this, and we looked at some basic story forms via TV Tropes, Kurt Vonnegut and Plotto.

User Enactments approach, by Will Odom

We benefited from a very useful guest lecture by CMU’s Bruce Hanington, co-author of Universal Methods of Design, on methods of quick prototyping and ways to get low-fidelity feedback, including bodystorming, experience prototyping, Wizard of Oz and Will Odom’s ‘User Enactments’ method.

Todd Zaki Warfel’s “If you can’t make it, fake it” seemed to be a running theme here, and indeed, as used very effectively in Near Future Laboratory’s Curious Rituals: A Digital Tomorrow, the use of ‘off-screen’, invisible or audio interfaces or systems which are perhaps ‘seen’ by the people in the story but whose presence is only implied to the viewer.

Digital meta-artefacts

One novel, contemporary form which emerged was the creation of digital ‘meta-artefacts’: not just webpages, but search engine results pages, reviews, forums, subreddits and even Wikpedia articles as design fictions, particularly to show the side-effects or side-shows, or other consequences of the main idea. Starting with Lauren Zemering, who saw the value of technology blogs and reviews as a potential way to highlight side-effects, students explored a range of media and platforms. I have no doubt that some of these have been done before in design fiction contexts, but the Play Lab students certainly took them in some interesting directions:

Play Lab: Lauren Zemering’s YouTube video page mockup, and Google results page as implemented in her final project, highlighting both the product itself and some reactions to it, including both positive news stories and concerns from members of the public.

Play Lab: Lea Cody’s r/physio subreddit shows some of the side-effects of the Physio ‘health improvement system’; Justin Finkenaur created Yelp review pages and YouTube search results to accompany his Intelligent Furnishings project, including people showing DIY versions; and Julia Wong created a Wikipedia page to support her Ab Ovo project.

But this is getting ahead of ourselves somewhat. Exercise 3 was intended to help students start to world-build, to create a scenario in which the trend they identified in Exercise 1, and the side-effects and side-shows explored in Exercise 2, started to come together, as a way of providing a structure for Exercise 4 where the ‘future’ would be made. In some cases students pivoted from, or evolved significantly, the ideas they had initially been exploring, to produce a story which better fitted what they were interested in.

Exercise 3

Create a scenario around the future(s) world(s) that you’re gradually exploring. What is a ‘realistic’ (maybe) everyday (maybe) situation that might exist in this world? What are the behaviors? What are the ambiguities? What is expected vs uncertain? Try to preserve some ambiguity: do you understand everything about the world around you now? Would you expect to do so in the future?

Build a story around your scenario — bearing in mind that in Exercise 4, you will be ‘making’ parts of it, so if particular objects or settings are going to be important in the story, think about how you might do this. If you need to do so, work in pairs or groups of 3 to plan how to act each person’s story out (you’ll need one story one per person in the end — so split your time accordingly). Don’t script everything in detail, but work out some possible roles for different people and the general outline of a story.

The ‘deliverable’ is:
• notes on the scenario / story and people’s behaviors (on your blog)
• notes on what objects or situations you might need to ‘make’ later (on your blog)
• a brief run-through in class of the outline of your story (not a full-on dramatic production)

Readings for Exercise 3

Nicolas Nova, Katherine Miyake, Walton Chiu & Nancy Kwon, 2012. Curious Rituals: Gestural Interaction in the Everyday.
David Kirby, 2010. ‘The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development’. Social Studies of Science 40(1), p. 41–70

Students’ blogs for Exercise 3 (non-public ones not listed)

Lauren Zemering: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) Scenario development for Hygienie

Jiyoung Ahn: (1, 2) Scenario development for a new language

Brandon Kirkley: (1, 2, 3) Scenario development for FashionTech

Albert Topdjian: Scenario development for a future where green spaces become personal

Play Lab: Storyboard and model by Zac Mau

Kaitlin Wilkinson: Scenario development for a future museum exhibit of personal documentation

Rachel Headrick: I Live in Channel 32

Rachel Chang: Scenario development for bots built from the digital trail individuals leave behind

Diana Sun: Scenario development for Home Smart Home

Courtney Pozzi: Scenario development for GeneX, the future of genetic engineering through a for-profit firm

Praewa Suntiasvaraporn: (1, 2) Scenario development for future of food and celebrity

Leah Anton: Scenario development around multitasking

Vicky Hwang: (1, 2, 3) Scenario development for The Senior Millennial

Play Lab: GeneX-related images by Courtney Pozzi

Jackie Kang: (1, 2, 3, 4) Scenario development for Google’s presence in the future

Zac Mau: (1, 2) Scenario development for thought-based interface

Brian Yang: Scenario development for Tiny Home X Big City

Catherine Zheng: Scenario development for Prescriptive lifestyles

Play Lab: Scenes from scenario development by Kaitlin Wilkinson, Julia Wong, Lauren Zemering and Rae Headrick

Lea Cody: Scenario development for Health Improvement System

Gabriel Mitchell: Scenario development for ‘When everything can talk’

Zai Aliyu: Scenario development for An Ephemeral Future and Intentional Impression Management

Kate Apostolou: Scenario development around the dérive

Play Lab: Scenario development from When Everything Can Talk, by Gabriel Mitchell

Ruby He: Scenario development around Conversations with Machines

Alisa Le: Scenario development around Raising the Gender-Neutral Generation

Julia Wong: (1, 2) Scenario development around traveling in the future

Jeff Houng: Scenario development around Hyper-personalization leading to experiential echo-chambers

Play Lab: Scenario development by Lea Cody, Rae Headrick and Brandon Kirkley

Exercise 4 and 5: Make an experiential ‘pocket’ of a future; reflect, critique and document

The final segment of the class, approximately the last 2½ weeks, was spent as studio sessions where students developed and implemented their scenarios from Exercise 3 in an experiential, or at least presentable, form, with regular desk crits and discussion with each other. The third group of students did this alongside preparing Focus, their senior design exhibition, but some students from this group nevertheless managed to get their Play Lab projects done in time to have on show.

Forms of one-line ‘referenced’ elevator pitch outlined by Chris Eleftheriadis based on a 2013 study of AngelList

As well as continuing to look at examples of design fictions of different forms, we also did a group exercise to generate taglines and project titles for each other’s projects (based around the notion that if someone else can explain your project back to you, they probably understand it). After looking at some famous movie taglines and the ways in which they perhaps hint at the story but did not give it away, we also examined the phenomenon of the one-line elevator pitch, which often references other, existing products or services.

It’s clear that while these will often relate to very specific, current contexts, there are some structures which could almost be used generatively for creating (and explaining) speculative concepts, e.g. “Facebook for the dead” or “LinkedIn on steroids” in Chris Eleftheriadis’s list. In the event, the Play Lab students variously found these approaches useful or not, with a few usable taglines and project names being generated: Courtney Pozzi’s “First we cured cancer, now let’s cure ugly”, Hannah Salinas’s “Watch the world go by” and and Lea Cody’s notion of a “hangover for your whole life” being particularly memorable.

Play Lab: Some taglines generated by the second group.

Here’s the brief the students had:

Exercise 4 and 5:

Make an experiential ‘pocket’ of a future

Create a way for an audience to ‘experience’ the future you are exploring, through bringing your story /scenario to life somehow in a form which can be presented. This could involve objects / artifacts, a website, illustrations, a video or a performance which you or others ‘act’ out, or maybe something that the audience can interact with. The aim is that an audience is able to get slightly more than a glimpse of this future, but also some of the frictions, ambiguities, tensions and uncertainties in it — what are the side-effects, the side-shows, the issues?

The deliverable for this is a 5 minute maximum presentation (+3 mins of questions) of your ‘pocket of a future’ (this might be the wrong term!).

Reflect, critique and document

On your blog, write a short (500–800 word) reflection on the role of designers in this possible future. Has it come about through design, or through external factors? Are designers in this world acting within the story or scenario, or acting to oppose it? What could a common brief be for a designer (or design student) in this world?

Also, reflect on your speculation itself: is this a future you want to be part of creating? If so, how do you get there? If not, what do designers need to do now to prevent it? Make sure that your blog overall documents your process throughout Play Lab, including the development of ideas through Exercises 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Readings for Exercise 4 and 5

Georgina Voss, Tobias Revell and Justin Pickard, 2015. Speculative design and the future of an ageing population: outcomes and techniques reports:

Anne Galloway, 2014. Counting Sheep: NZ Merino in an Internet of Things.

WIRED magazine, various dates. ‘Found: Artifacts from the future’ gallery, collated by Stuart Candy at Found%20gallery

Play Lab: Some scenes from project presentations and the CMU senior design exhibition, Focus, in which the Play Lab projects were largely included in the ‘Thoughts’ section of the show.

Discussion of the final projects

All the projects are featured at, but it’s worth some discussion here of the trends that were apparent, and the variety of ways in which students tackled the issues they worked on. Over the course of the three groups, some larger themes emerged, which I attempt to summarize here. The preoccupations of imagined futures inevitably represent reflections on many of the issues of concern in the present, and perhaps tell us more about ourselves right now than we might first appreciate.

Our environment

‘Smart’ homes

Many students were interested in ideas of the evolution of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, the usage of our data, and ‘intelligent’ devices more generally (see below). But two projects in particular explored the everyday environment of the ‘smart’ home and what it might be like to live in a context where our devices talk to us, day and night.

Gabriel Mitchell’s Nes.0 Bot focuses specifically on one device, while Diana Sun’s Home Smart Home looks at the convergence of multiple systems. Are our homes still ‘ours’ when they contain appliances with so much agency of their own? Diana reflects on her project here while Gabe’s reflection accompanies the video here.

The future of place

Outside the home, four projects looked at what we might think of as futures of place, at different scales. Via a passport, travel guide and a Wikipedia page, Julia Wong’s Ab Ovo (1, 2, 3, 4) examines this globally, “extreme globalization leading up to the designation of permanent and mobile zones in cities and eventually the formation of a new culture and nation… due to the transition of economic needs and ultimately a progression of human values on a global scale.”

Play Lab: Ab Ovo, by Julia Wong (1, 2, 34)

Brian Yang’s Big City X Tiny Home imagines a future where tiny homes become increasingly the default for city living as population rises. Through a property website and a clever fold-out IKEA advertising flyer, Brian explores how renters might find the homes, and what might be important to them (how to choose furniture, which amenities are shared, and so on).

Play Lab: Brian Yang’s Big City X Tiny Home

Albert Topdjian’s Green Space Initiative (e.g. 1, 2, 3) is an intriguing experiment in actually making the imagined future experiential in the present. The project envisioned a situation “where the density of city populations increases, and the available green spaces diminish, citizens can retreat into their personal/public indoor green rooms. There, one can relax, reflect, and socialize like it was in the good ol’ days of public parks, and green lawns.” Albert brought this to life by installing a patch of artificial grass in Carnegie Mellon’s University Center, branded #gspitt, and seeing how students used it. In documenting this via a Tumblr, he also fused this ‘feed from the future’ with contemporary tweets about green space from others.

Play Lab: Albert Topdjian’s Green Space Initiative

Kate Apostolou’s Get Lost! imagines a consequence of increasing detachment from place, “where people have lost their intuitive understanding of the world around them because of technology dependence”. Get Lost! is essentially dérive-as-a-service, “a speculative tourism service that reconnects people with their home environments”. Kate’s reflection on the project explores the ideas further.

Play Lab: Kate Apostolou’s Get Lost!: birthdays at parking garages and date nights at gas stations

Filtered realities

The mainstreaming of forms of augmented reality in 2016 was reflected in two projects looking at how its evolution might affect our everyday interactions with the world and each other, particularly the notion of its enabling of / convergence with filter bubble-type phenomena.

Rae Headrick imagines the 2063 Channel Expo, an event unveiling hundreds of channels of augmented reality which people can choose to tune into for the next three years — “your chance to discover new realities and transform your life in one flip (in the Tuning Ceremony).”

Play Lab: The Channel Expo, by Rae Headrick

Perhaps representing a closer future, Linna Griffin’s Update is a comic exploring the issues around a teenager making the decision to have the surgery needed for an AR implant — the peer pressure, the societal norms, differences in access between wealthier and poorer families, and the history of AR evolution as taught in schools. Linna reflects on these ideas here. With other students playing different roles, Linna’s live-reading of the comic in the final Play Lab presentations was a dramatic and effective way to bring the ideas and issues to life.

Play Lab: Update comic by Linna Griffin


The future of the self

How will we present ourselves to others in the future? How will we curate and re-create the ways in which others see us? Three projects examined this from different perspectives.

Zai Aliyu’s Identity Curation explores two alternatives with opposite extremes of people’s investment in curation of their identity online at levels from the individual to the communal: “In one future, identity curation is made harder through ephemerality. What if all forms of media or posted content are temporal and they have an expiry date? In the other future, identity curation is made easier through impression management. What if we can cure this sense of disconnection that results from identity curation?”. In contrast, Leah Anton’s Transpersona imagined a service which enables people to adopt ‘personas’, to “break down cultural barriers by giving users the ability to behave as if they are from another background”, particularly “to perform appropriately in professional situations such as interviews and presentations”.

Play Lab: Four scenes from Zai Aliyu’s Identity Curation

Alisa Le’s Beyond the Binary looked at the future of gender expression — “how different the world would be if from the beginning humans were not raised based on these stereotypes and “norms””, via “an imaginary gift set a new parent might receive during a baby shower or a similar celebration”. Alisa also explored more questions around design’s role in perceptions and reinforcement of gender norms in society.

Play Lab: Alisa Le’s Beyond The Binary

Dealing with death

Evolution in the way we deal with death is the focus of projects by Vivian Qiu and Rachel Chang.

Vivian’s ASHES. is a “high brow magazine for the future elite to plan their own funeral”, imagining a world where “dying becomes a claim to individuality or a exposition of values” through articles such as ‘Curate Your Digital Legacy’ with North West, and ‘5 Mournists You Should Know’ covering ‘notable designers in the field’. Rachel’s Orpheus explores how “as a way of memorializing dead loved ones, bots built from the immense digital trail individuals leave behind become common. Preparing the bot is just another step of estate planning.” The Orpheus prototype concentrates on the touchpoints of the service, while Rachel’s reflection examines some deeper questions around artificial intelligence, design, and death.

Play Lab: ASHES. by Vivian Qiu (PDF link)

The body as site

The relationship between our bodies and technological advances was a theme running through a number of projects, but three in particular explored this in more depth.

Play Lab: Timeline for the future of gene therapy, from Courtney Pozzi’s Cosmetic Genetics

Courtney Pozzi’s Cosmetic Genetics examines the development and mainstreaming of gene therapy and genetic engineering via a projected timeline and scenes from that timeline, with newspaper and magazine headlines and covers. Building on the pattern seen in reconstructive surgery and popularized drugs, the project explores the “idea of a tipping point, or the when, what, and whys behind how an idea detrimentally splits between its utopia and dystopia, and how both of these worlds may coexist within a singular future.” Courtney explores these questions further in her reflection in relation to speculative design and ambiguity.

Play Lab: Moments from the future of gene therapy, from Courtney Pozzi’s Cosmetic Genetics

Jeffrey Houng’s A Biometric Future asks “What happens when using biometric data for hyper-personalization becomes ubiquitous?” Through a vlog, TongueID plates replacing restaurant menus and new kinds of restaurant listings, the project explores how hyper-personalization could lead to experiential echo-chambers, and some wider consequences of the use of biometrics in everyday life.

Brandon Kirkley created a story taking place in a future where “FashionTech — fashion with wearable technology that showcases one’s emotions — becomes popular”. Dealing with social interactions emerging from the visible display of emotions, and the consequences, the video “explores an everyday situation in which someone denies how they are feeling — despite what their clothes say.” Brandon also reflects on the role of the designer in relation to emotion, and the idea of such an approach making communications between humans easier.

Our communication

Voices in the head

The idea of voice interfaces, and more specifically, invisible voice technology audible only to the user, is explored, in different ways, in two projects. Ruby He’s Visual Aids in an Audio World imagines the (AR) iconography needed to accompany conversations with each other in a world “when information and interactions are almost entirely in our ears, it will be much easier for people engage in audio realms different from their immediate surroundings by playing music, listening to podcasts, etc without others even knowing.”

Going perhaps one step further, Zac Mau’s Future of iOS brings to life the idea that “within 50 years we will stop using phones to natively access the Cloud and digital service platforms including Facebook, Maps and Uber, and instead stream all of our digital content directly through our brains. This would result in a thought-based interface that we mentally interacted with, rather than physically”. Zac illustrates this very effectively through “a day-in-the-life kind of video, that briefly takes the audience through this future where speaking to an OS in your head is already the norm”.

Changing relationships with language

How will changes in technology affect how we talk to each other? Two projects took this question in different directions. Kaleb Crawford’s Marko V examines ‘contextual computation co-authorship’ via “a speculative fiction that explores future social media interactions at the intersection of conversational interfaces, automated text generation, and post-context-collapse. Told through four audio-vignettes, the story explores how Adrian’s use of a conversational writing assistant, Marko, amplify tensions in his social relationships with a loved one, his ego, and his friends.”

Jiyoung Ahn’s Trilingo, in contrast, imagines the evolution of a new language, CCE, which fuses vocabulary elements of Chinese and English with the formal structures of computer programming languages, to enable easier human-machine communication. The idea is that children are learning this at school, and the need exists for older generations, particularly grandparents, to learn CCE as a second language. Trilingo is an educational language learning platform aiming to bridge this gap.

    Our data

    Memory and privacy

    Questions around the use of data, and questions of memory and privacy, ran through three quite different projects. Kaitlin Wilkinson’s The Private Life considers a future world where privacy has been effectively abandoned — “People have become accustomed to having personal data tracked and shared at all times. This data ranges from things about health, fitness, eating habits, social habits, experiences, etc. The idea of personal information is not understood.” Kaitlin envisions a museum exhibit on personal documentation such as letters and private photos, things which “no longer play a role in the life of the average person”, complete with almost incredulous copy explaining to the public the “primitive act of personal documentation” and the “unfathomable” ways in which people “tried to hide aspects of their lives from public view”.

    Play Lab: The Private Life, by Kaitlin Wilkinson

    Jillian Nelson’s Lifeed extrapolates from ideas of lifelogging and sousveillance to imagine a service which “creates a catalogue of everything you see and experience in order to use it as a way to document your life story for yourself, your descendants, and for those seeking to learn about the past in the far future.” Lifeed would enable reflection and change our relationship with memory, and primarily be for people themselves rather than for sharing on social media; Jillian discusses the ideas here, including the possibility of creating ‘life documentaries’ in the present.

    Play Lab: Lifeed by Jillian Nelson

    Jackie Kang envisions something closer to the present: The Future Mundane (with Google), a social evolution of Google’s search engine such that users see what others are searching for, and can follow others’ searches — friends’ , but also celebrities’ — in a form of outsourcing memory to Google and the memory of the crowd. Jackie also reflects on these ideas and the role of the designer.

    Smart everything

    We saw projects earlier dealing with wider contexts of ‘smart’ homes, but two projects focused on specific product-service systems within the field. Lauren Zemering’s Hygienie is a “line of bathroom devices [that] allow users to monitor and track their shower, teeth brushing, and toilet habits. The devices not only monitor and track them, but are also able to provide feedback that can help improve a person’s health and hygiene. AND they can be awarded points and compete with their peers!” The site presents the system from the manufacturer’s point of view (including a revealing FAQ), but also shows some of the wider side-effects of the data’s use via a Google search page. Lauren reflects on these ideas here.

    Justin Finkenaur’s Intelligent Furnishings explored the development of ‘smart’ furniture which, in response to sedentary lifestyles, involves ‘automating’ furniture so it adjusts itself to the ergonomic needs of individual people. The proposed service was explored through service blueprints, experience maps and a storyboard.

    Play Lab: Intelligent Furnishings by Justin Finkenaur

    Our societies

    When the millennials age

    Two projects, from Vicky Hwang and Daniel Kison, deal with questions of what happens as the millennial generation ages. Vicky (forum text and a discussion of the video) imagines a disorienting experience via a forum where the ageing millennials ask for help with the ‘New Web’. Daniel takes as his starting point the current notion that “Millennials are killing everything” and imagines what vanished activities the post-millennial generations might want to ‘live’ for the first time,through a store display of virtual experiences.

    Play Lab: Daniel Kison’s Millennials Are Killing Everything range


    Our relationship with celebrity, and how it might change, was the subject of projects by Praewa Suntiasvaraporn and Hannah Salinas. Hannah’s Watch The World Go By tells the story of Alexa, a vlogger, and Vicky, a ‘watcher’, who spends her day watching Alexa via screens everywhere at home and at work. The video explores the effects this has on the lives of Vicky and her friends. Hannah’s blog post shows the significant amount of work required to produce the video.

    Consumer Culture, by Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, explores food celebrity, an evolution of current trends such as mok-bang and the food porn of Instagram. Praewa created a world around this, including personal artefacts from the life of food celebrity Mikah Wong, exposed through hidden cameras placed by an infatuated fan. The project examines how lifestyle eating, food presentation and photography become so significant that they dominate popular culture.

    Play Lab: Scenes from Consumer Culture by Praewa Suntiasvaraporn

    The medicalization of everything

    Three projects examined, in very different ways, the potential evolution of the current trend towards the ‘medicalization’ of human conditions and problems, perhaps a form of solutionism. Catherine Zheng’s Prescriptive Lifestyles is a range of medications, branded stasis: perfect state, which each target common emotions and situations such as ‘timidity’, ‘focal deficiency’ and ‘sluggishness’. In Catherine’s reflection, she notes how “No longer are people able to simply be themselves, as there is always a way to “become better”, whether that means acting, looking, thinking, or feeling the “acceptable” way.”

    Play Lab: Prescriptive Lifestyles, by Catherine Zheng

    Jonathan Kim’s NowFood.Inc envisioned a range of ‘medicalized’ food products and consumption-related drugs such as Muse, a treatment which reduces the immediate side-effects of smoking.

    Play Lab: NowFood.Inc by Jonathan Kim

    Finally, Lea Cody’s Physio is an exploration of the evolution of the fitness tracker, going beyond quantified self into the realm of actually changing behavior through operant conditioning — a “health improvement system”: “After receiving a Hormonal Adjustment Implant, the user will obtain a prescription for Physio, the external tracker. Physio will reward ‘good’ behavior like exercise with accelerated effects of increased agility, decreased anxiety, and euphoria. It will punish ‘bad’ behavior like poor diet, smoking, and lethargy with decreased agility, irritability, and depression.” Lea’s project provides an interesting example for the possibility space in design for behavior change around health, and I think could serve as a useful touchstone for this particular approach.

    In her reflection, Lea suggests something which perhaps offers a succinct summary of the feelings many (not all) of the Play Lab students had about the ideas they explored:

    “I believe that the role of the designer in this scenario, as in it seems all current scenarios, is to rein in the possibilities of technology to ensure a human-centered, benevolent focus.”

    Play Lab: Physio, by Lea Cody

    Final thoughts

    This is the first class I have taught at Carnegie Mellon, and I was not sure what to expect. But the students have, very pleasantly, allayed any trepidation I had: they have been enthusiastic, insightful, critical and creative, and have worked very hard in short periods of time to produce the work you’ve seen on this page. I am proud of them for what they have achieved, given some very vague briefs.

    What is the value of this class? I feel that being able to explore, and make ‘real’, different visions of possible futures is an important part of ‘designing agency’ and indeed Transition Design, but most importantly, to be able to think through, manage and cope with uncertainties, ambiguities and potential side-effects in a design process. If, as outlined in the introduction, Play Lab can help undergraduate design students “develop a shift in perspective on their own abilities and identities as designers”, “give them confidence to tackle new kinds of problems and challenges in a reflective way”, and help them “developing… a thought process which is not just about problem-solving, but comfortable with ambiguity, problem-finding, and problem-worrying”, then it will have succeeded. Maybe I am just teaching the class I wish I had had as an undergraduate design student, and am lucky enough to be working somewhere that gives me the freedom to do that.

    The ‘critical’ in the Play Lab projects is, largely, not too critical, but it is certainly demonstrative of a curious and enquiring mindset, and, with at least a few of these projects, I think there are hints of comfort with ambiguity and contrast and the good and bad all at once, the “complicated pleasures” that Dunne and Raby speak of. Dave Wolfenden, a DDes candidate at Carnegie Mellon, is researching the notion of negative capability, a term coined by the poet John Keats to describe the state of someone “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”, and after hearing Dave speak about his research, I realize that perhaps this is what Play Lab aimed for.

    The future will be at least as complex as the present, and the projects resulting from Play Lab show a recognition of that. The design fictions the students have created are, no doubt, very much rooted in the concerns they have about the world they are growing up in, and the world into which they are about to head out once they graduate (yes, in the eyes of many of the critics of speculative and critical design, most of these projects would probably, rightly, be categorized as arising from a privileged group of students with a particular mindset, and dealing primarily with people like them, but going beyond that was not the point of the class).

    As Christopher Beanland phrases it (in an article on an abandoned British maglev train project, a kind of Brummie Aramis): “When you get to a certain age you realise how much more visions of the future say about the present they’re concocted in than the actual future they purport to show us hurtling towards”. Maybe what the Play Lab students have created, to draw on Stanisław Lem, is not a collection of futures, but a set of mirrors for the present.


    Thank you to the students, first of all, for their enthusiasm and for giving me a wonderful welcome to CMU: Jiyoung Ahn, Rachel Chang, Rae Headrick, Jonathan Kim, Brandon Kirkley, Courtney Pozzi, Vivian Qiu, Diana Sun, Albert Topdjian, Kaitlin Wilkinson, Lauren Zemering, Leah Anton, Justin Finkenaur, Vicky Hwang, Jackie Kang, Daniel Kison, Zac Mau, Jillian Nelson, Hannah Salinas, Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, Brian Yang, Catherine Zheng, Zai Aliyu, Kate Apostolou, Lea Cody, Kaleb Crawford, Linna Griffin, Ruby He, Jeffrey Houng, Alisa Le, Gabriel Mitchell, Temple Rea, and Julia Wong; thanks too to my fellow senior design labs leaders Mark Baskinger and Michael Arnold Mages for co-ordinating and helping me get started; to Peter Scupelli for the very useful insights into previous senior design labs; to Bruce Hanington for the guest lecture for group 2; to Harriet Riley for making shah biscuits and bringing Marks & Spencer tea back from Britain for the class; to Veronica Ranner and Ahmed Ansari for lots of chats about ideas; and to Molly Wright Steenson, Stella Boess, Deepa Butoliya, Dimeji Onafuwa, Theora Kvitka, Terry Irwin, Dan Boyarski, Shruti Aditya Chowdhury, Tammar Zea-Wolfson, Robert Managad and Matthew McGehee and anyone else I have missed, who came to visit the groups’ presentations and asked some very good questions.

    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

    Persuasion for peace

    Influencing individual people’s behaviour often seems to be about mundane or trivial things, such as choosing one type of magazine subscription over another, or using less shower gel in a hotel bathroom.

    But if we’re honest, it’s only in aggregate that behaviour change is going to have any real effect on the world outside the specifics of individual interactions. I think most people involved with design for behaviour change appreciate that it’s going to be mass behaviour change that makes the difference to humanity’s health, environment, happiness and effectiveness in the long run, whether via mass interpersonal persuasion or some other method.

    This is where the opportunity for the most ambitious, most audacious plans becomes apparent, and few are more ambitious than Peace Dot, a new initiative from Stanford’s Peace Innovation Team, led by BJ Fogg and bringing together companies and organisations as diverse as the Dalai Lama Foundation, Facebook, CouchSurfing and Sourceforge.

    peace.facebook.comThe overall vision behind Stanford’s Peace Innovation work is clear – world peace could be possible in 30 years if we use innovation methods and new technology in the right way. The actual execution is something which will necessarily evolve and change as new technologies afford new possibilities and potential for connection and mass behavioural influence, and the Peace Dot project – while only a small part of this – is a great way to start and demonstrate what’s possible right now.

    Initially at least, the focus is on getting a range of companies and organisations to demonstrate (via a special peace.xxxxx.nnn subdomain on their websites) how what they do is bringing people together, from different cultures, different countries, different religions, different political backgrounds etc, and encouraging understanding, cooperation and respect: a specific lens for considering corporate social responsibility in terms of contribution to peace. The ‘Peace Dot’ initiative becomes something like a hashtag for organising and making available current and past data clearly, with a certain degree of social proof to it: making it clear that stereotypes such as “X type of people don’t get on with Y type of people” are not necessarily true.

    So Facebook is showing figures, updated daily (e.g. above & right) of new connections between people from different groups (as Dean Eckles points out in a comment on the Guardian’s article about the initiative, the graphs show new connections per day, rather than the cumulative total of connections, so the relative ‘flatline’ of Muslim-Jewish connections is actually showing steady progress); CouchSurfing (below right) is highlighting how it helps initiate cultural exchanges, forming international friendships; while even relatively smaller organisations such as Kara Chanasyk’s White Lotus Design are able to demonstrate how what they do helps bring people together. peace dot couchsurfing

    As the Peace Dot network develops – with the idea spread via Twitter, Facebook, Google Groups and so on – and more organisations get involved, I’m sure the strategies will develop too, with increasingly innovative persuasive approaches to influencing peace and cooperation. Even encouraging more people to believe that peace is possible, and believing that others believe that too, and that technology is able to help with this, is a significant development. It’s a very worthwhile project to keep an eye on, and it almost inevitably provokes us to consider the extent to which each of us has the potential to be involved, with this kind of initiative or with one of the many thousands of others that might arise: by definition, world peace needs all of us.

    ‘Smart meters’: some thoughts from a design point of view

    Here’s my (rather verbose) response to the three most design-related questions in DECC’s smart meter consultation that I mentioned earlier today. Please do get involved in the discussion that Jamie Young’s started on the Design & Behaviour group and on his blog at the RSA.

    Q12 Do you agree with the Government’s position that a standalone display should be provided with a smart meter?

    Meter in the cupboard

    Free-standing displays (presumably wirelessly connected to the meter itself, as proposed in [7, p.16]) could be an effective way of bringing the meter ‘out of the cupboard‘, making an information flow visible which was previously hidden. As Donella Meadows put it when comparing electricity meter placements [1, pp. 14-15] this provides a new feedback loop, “delivering information to a place where it wasn’t going before” and thus allowing consumers to modify their behaviour in response.

    “An accessible display device connected to the meter” [2, p.8] or “series of modules connected to a meter” [3, p. 28] would be preferable to something where an extra step has to be taken for a consumer to access the data, such as only having a TV or internet interface for the information, but as noted [3, p.31] “flexibility for information to be provided through other formats (for example through the internet, TV) in addition to the provision of a display” via an open API, publicly documented, would be the ideal situation. Interesting ‘energy dashboard’ TV interfaces have been trialled in projects such as live|work‘s Low Carb Lane [6], and offer the potential for interactivity and extra information display supported by the digital television platform, but it would be a mistake to rely on this solely (even if simply because it will necessarily interfere with the primary reason that people have a television).

    The question suggests that a single display unit would be provided with each meter, presumably with the householder free to position it wherever he or she likes (perhaps a unit with interchangeable provision for a support stand, a magnet to allow positioning on a refrigerator, a sucker for use on a window and hook to allow hanging up on the wall would be ideal – the location of the display could be important, as noted [4, p. 49]) but the ability to connect multiple display units would certainly afford more possibilities for consumer engagement with the information displayed as well as reducing the likelihood of a display unit being mislaid. For example, in shared accommodation where there are multiple residents all of whom are expected to contribute to a communal electricity bill, each person being aware of others’ energy use (as in, for example, the Watt Watchers project [5]) could have an important social proof effect among peers.

    Open APIs and data standards would permit ranges of aftermarket energy displays to be produced, ranging from simple readouts (or even pager-style alerters) to devices and kits which could allow consumers to perform more complex analysis of their data (along the lines of the user-led innovative uses of the Current Cost, for example [8]) – another route to having multiple displays per household.

    Q13 Do you have any comments on what sort of data should be provided to consumers as a minimum to help them best act to save energy (e.g. information on energy use, money, CO2 etc)?

    Low targets?
    This really is the central question of the whole project, since the fundamental assumption throughout is that provision of this information will “empower consumers” and thereby “change our energy habits” [3, p.13]. It is assumed that feedback, including real-time feedback, on electricity usage will lead to behaviour change: “Smart metering will provide consumers with tools with which to manage their energy consumption, enabling them to take greater personal responsibility for the environmental impacts of their own behaviour” [4, p.46]; “Access to the consumption data in real time provided by smart meters will provide consumers with the information they need to take informed action to save energy and carbon” [3, p.31].

    Nevertheless, with “the predicted energy saving to consumers… as low as 2.8%” [4, p.18], the actual effects of the information on consumer behaviour are clearly not considered likely to be especially significant (this figure is more conservative than the 5-15% range identified by Sarah Darby [9]). It would, of course, be interesting to know whether certain types of data or feedback, if provided in the context of a well-designed interface could improve on this rather low figure: given the scale of the proposed roll-out of these meters (every household in the country) and the cost commitment involved, it would seem incredibly short-sighted not to take this opportunity to design and test better feedback displays which can, perhaps, improve significantly on the 2.8% figure.

    (Part of the problem with a suggested figure as low as 2.8% is that it makes it much more difficult to defend the claim that the meters will offer consumers “important benefits” [3, p.27]. The benefits to electricity suppliers are clearer, but ‘selling’ the idea of smart meters to the public is, I would suggest, going to be difficult when the supposed benefits are so meagre.)

    If we consider the use context of the smart meter from a consumer’s point of view, it should allow us to identify better which aspects are most important. What is a consumer going to do with the information received? How does the feedback loop actually occur in practice? How would this differ with different kinds of information?

    Levels of display
    Even aside from the actual ‘units’ debate (money / energy / CO2), there are many possible types and combinations of information that the display could show consumers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll divide them into three levels:

    (1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use / cost (self-monitoring)
    (2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs (social proof + self-monitoring)
    (3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions (simulation & feedforward + kairos + self-monitoring)

    These are by no means mutually exclusive and I’d assume that any system providing (3) would also include (1), for example.

    Nevertheless, it is likely that (1) would be the cheapest, lowest-common-denominator system to roll out to millions of homes, without (2) or (3) included – so if thought isn’t given to these other levels, it may be that (1) is all consumers get.

    I’ve done mock-ups of the sort of thing each level might display (of course these are just ideas, and I’m aware that a) I’m not especially skilled in interface design, despite being very interested in it; and b) there’s no real research behind these) in order to have something to visualise / refer to when discussing them.

    Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use, cost
    (1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use and cost

    I’ve tried to express some of the concerns I have over a very simple, cheap implementation of (1) in a scenario, which I’m not claiming to be representative of what will actually happen – but the narrative is intended to address some of the ways this kind of display might be useful (or not) in practice:

    Jenny has just had a ‘smart meter’ installed by someone working on behalf of her electricity supplier. It comes with a little display unit that looks a bit like a digital alarm clock. There’s a button to change the display mode to ‘cumulative’ or ‘historic’ but at present it’s set on ‘realtime’: that’s the default setting.

    Jenny attaches it to her kitchen fridge with the magnet on the back. It’s 4pm and it’s showing a fairly steady value of 0.5 kW, 6 pence per hour. She opens the fridge to check how much milk is left, and when she closes the door again Jenny notices the figure’s gone up to 0.7 kW but drops again soon after the door’s closed, first to 0.6 kW but then back down to 0.5 kW again after a few minutes. Then her two teenage children, Kim and Laurie arrive home from school – they switch on the TV in the living room and the meter reading shoots up to 0.8 kW, then 1.1 kW suddenly. What’s happened? Jenny’s not sure why it’s changed so much. She walks into the living room and Kim tells her that Laurie’s gone upstairs to play on his computer. So it must be the computer, monitor, etc.

    Two hours later, while the family’s sitting down eating dinner (with the TV on in the background), Jenny glances across at the display and sees that it’s still reading 1.1 kW, 13 pence per hour.

    “Is your PC still switched on, Laurie?” she asks.
    “Yeah, Mum,” he replies
    “You should switch it off when you’re not using it; it’s costing us money.”
    “But it needs to be on, it’s downloading stuff.”

    Jenny’s not quite sure how to respond. She can’t argue with Laurie: he knows a lot more than her about computers. The phone rings and Kim puts the TV on standby to reduce the noise while talking. Jenny notices the display reading has gone down slightly to 1.0 kW, 12 pence per hour. She walks over and switches the TV off fully, and sees the reading go down to 0.8 kW.

    Later, as it gets dark and lights are switched on all over the house, along with the TV being switched on again, and Kim using a hairdryer after washing her hair, with her stereo on in the background and Laurie back at his computer, Jenny notices (as she loads the tumble dryer) that the display has shot up to 6.5 kW, 78 pence per hour. When the tumble dryer’s switched on, that goes up even further to 8.5 kW, £1.02 per hour. The sight of the £ sign shocks her slightly – can they really be using that much electricity? It seems like the kids are costing her even more than she thought!

    But what can she really do about it? She switches off the TV and sees the display go down to 8.2 kW, 98 pence per hour, but the difference seems so slight that she switches it on again – it seems worth 4 pence per hour. She decides to have a cup of tea and boils the kettle that she filled earlier in the day. The display shoots up to 10.5 kW, £1.26 pence per hour. Jenny glances at the display with a pained expression, and settles down to watch TV with her tea. She needs a rest: paying attention to the display has stressed her out quite a lot, and she doesn’t seem to have been able to do anything obvious to save money.

    Six months later, although Jenny’s replaced some light bulbs with compact fluorescents that were being given away at the supermarket, and Laurie’s new laptop has replaced the desktop PC, a new plasma TV has more than cancelled out the reductions. The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

    The main point I’m trying to get across there is that with a very simple display, the possible feedback loop is very weak. It relies on the consumer experimenting with switching items on and off and seeing the effect it has on the readings, which – while it will initially have a certain degree of investigatory, exploratory interest – may well quickly pall when everyday life gets in the way. Now, without the kind of evidence that’s likely to come out of research programmes such as the CHARM project [10], it’s not possible to say whether levels (2) or (3) would fare any better, but giving a display the ability to provide more detailed levels of information – particularly if it can be updated remotely – massively increases the potential for effective use of the display to help consumers decide what to do, or even to think about what they’re doing in the first place, over the longer term.

    Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

    (2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

    A level (2) display would (in a much less cluttered form than what I’ve drawn above!) combine information about ‘what we’re doing’ (self-monitoring) with a reference, a norm – what other people are doing (social proof), either people in the same neighbourhood (to facilitate community discussion), or a more representative comparison such as ‘other families like us’, e.g. people with the same number of children of roughly the same age, living in similar size houses. There are studies going back to the 1970s (e.g. [11, 12]) showing dramatic (2 × or 3 ×) differences in the amount of energy used by similar families living in identical homes, suggesting that the behavioural component of energy use can be significant. A display allowing this kind of comparison could help make consumers aware of their own standing in this context.

    However, as Wesley Schultz et al [13] showed in California, this kind of feedback can lead to a ‘boomerang effect’, where people who are told they’re doing better than average then start to care less about their energy use, leading to it increasing back up to the norm. It’s important, then, that any display using this kind of feedback treats a norm as a goal to achieve only on the way down. Schultz et al went on to show that by using a smiley face to demonstrate social approval of what people had done – affective engagement – the boomerang effect can be mitigated.

    Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

    (3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

    A level (3) display would give consumers feedforward [14] – effectively, simulation of what the impact of their behaviour would be (switching on this device now rather than at a time when there’s a lower tariff – Economy 7 or a successor), and tips about how to use things more efficiently at the right moment (kairos), and in the right kind of environment, for them to be useful. Whereas ‘Tips of the Day’ in software frequently annoy users [15] because they get in the way of a user’s immediate task, with something relatively passive such as a smart meter display, this could be a more useful application for them. The networked capability of the smart meter means that the display could be updated frequently with new sets of tips, perhaps based on seasonal or weather conditions (“It’s going to be especially cold tonight – make sure you close all the curtains before you go to bed, and save 20p on heating”) or even special tariff changes for particular periods of high demand (“Everyone’s going to be putting the kettle on during the next ad break in [major event on TV]. If you’re making tea, do it now instead of in 10 minutes; time, and get a 50p discount on your next bill”).

    Disaggregated data: identifying devices
    This level (3) display doesn’t require any ability to know what devices a consumer has, or to be able to disaggregate electricity use by device. It can make general suggestions that, if not relevant, a consumer can ignore.

    But what about actually disaggregating the data for particular devices? Surely this must be an aim for a really ‘smart’ meter display. Since [4, p.52] notes – in the context of discussing privacy – that “information from smart meters could… make it possible…to determine…to a degree, the types of technology that were being used in a property,” this information should clearly be offered to consumers themselves, if the electricity suppliers are going to do the analysis (I’ve done a bit of a possible mockup, using a more analogue dashboard style).

    Disaggregated data dashboard

    Whether the data are processed in the meter itself, or upstream at the supplier and then sent back down to individual displays, and whether the devices are identified from some kind of signature in their energy use patterns, or individual tags or extra plugs of some kind, are interesting technology questions, but from a consumer’s point of view (so long as privacy is respected), the mechanism perhaps doesn’t matter so much. Having the ability to see what device is using what amount of electricity, from a single display, would be very useful indeed. It removes the guesswork element.

    Now, Sentec’s Coracle technology [16] is presumably ready for mainstream use, with an agreement signed with Onzo [17], and ISE’s signal-processing algorithms can identify devices down to the level of makes and models [18], so it’s quite likely that this kind of technology will be available for smart meters for consumers fairly soon. But the question is whether it will be something that all customers get – i.e. as a recommendation of the outcome of the DECC consultation – or an expensive ‘upgrade’. The fact that the consultation doesn’t mention disaggregation very much worries me slightly.

    If disaggregated data by device were to be available for the mass-distributed displays, clearly this would significantly affect the interface design used: combining this with, say a level (2) type social proof display could – even if via a website rather than on the display itself – let a consumer compare how efficient particular models of electrical goods are in use, by using the information from other customers of the supplier.

    In summary, for Q13 – and I’m aware I haven’t addressed the “energy use, money, CO2 etc” aspect directly – there are people much better qualified to do that – I feel that the more ability any display has to provide information of different kinds to consumers, the more opportunities there will be to do interesting and useful things with that information (and the data format and API must be open enough to allow this). In the absence of more definitive information about what kind of feedback has the most behaviour-influencing effect on what kind of consumer, in what context, and so on, it’s important that the display be as adaptable as possible.

    Q14 Do you have comments regarding the accessibility of meters/display units for particular consumers (e.g. vulnerable consumers such as the disabled, partially sighted/blind)?

    The inclusive design aspects of the meters and displays could be addressed through an exclusion audit, applying something such as the University of Cambridge’s Exclusion Calculator [19] to any proposed designs. Many solutions which would benefit particular consumers with special needs would also potentially be useful for the population as a whole – e.g. a buzzer or alarm signalling that a device has been left on overnight which isn’t normally, or (with disaggregation capability) notifying the consumer that, say, the fridge has been left open, would be pretty useful for everyone, not just the visually impaired or people with poor memory.

    It seems clear that having open data formats and interfaces for any device will allow a wider range of things to be done with the data, many of which could be very useful for vulnerable users. Still, fundamental physical design questions about the device – how long the batteries last for, how easy they are to replace for someone with poor eyesight or arthritis, how heavy the unit is, whether it will break if dropped from hand height – will all have an impact on its overall accessibility (and usefulness).

    Thinking of ‘particular consumers’ more generally, as the question asks, suggests a few other issues which need to be addressed:

    – A website-only version of the display data (as suggested at points in the consultation document) would exclude a lot of consumers who are without internet access, without computer understanding, with only dial-up (metered) internet, or simply not motivated or interested enough to check – i.e., it would be significantly exclusionary.

    – Time-of-Use (ToU) pricing will rely heavily on consumers actually understanding it, and what the implications are, and changing their behaviour in accordance. Simply charging consumers more automatically, without them having good enough feedback to understand what’s going on, only benefits electricity suppliers. If demand- or ToU-related pricing is introduced – “the potential for customer confusion… as a result of the greater range of energy tariffs and energy related information” [4, p. 49] is going to be significant. The design of the interface, and how the pricing structure works, is going to be extremely important here, and even so may still exclude a great many consumers who do not or cannot understand the structure.

    – The ability to disable supply remotely [4, p. 12, p.20] will no doubt provoke significant reaction from consumers, quite apart from the terrible impact it will have on the most vulnerable consumers (the elderly, the very poor, and people for whom a reliable electricity supply is essential for medical reasons), regardless of whether they are at fault (i.e. non-payment) or not. There WILL inevitably be errors: there is no reason to suppose that they will not occur. Imagine the newspaper headlines when an elderly person dies from hypothermia. Disconnection may only occur in “certain well-defined circumstances” [3, p. 28] but these will need to be made very explicit.

    – “Smart metering potentially offers scope for remote intervention… [which] could involve direct supplier or distribution company interface with equipment, such as refrigerators, within a property, overriding the control of the householder” [4, p. 52] – this simply offers further fuel for consumer distrust of the meter programme (rightly so, to be honest). As Darby [9] notes, “the prospect of ceding control over consumption does not appeal to all customers”. Again, this remote intervention, however well-regulated it might be supposed to be if actually implemented, will not be free from error. “Creating consumer confidence and awareness will be a key element of successfully delivering smart meters” [4, p.50] does not sit well with the realities of installing this kind of channel for remote disconnection or manipulation in consumers’ homes, and attempting to bury these issues by presenting the whole thing as entirely beneficial for consumers will be seen through by intelligent people very quickly indeed.

    – Many consumers will simply not trust such new meters with any extra remote disconnection ability – it completely removes the human, the compassion, the potential to reason with a real person. Especially if the predicted energy saving to consumers is as low as 2.8% [4, p.18], many consumers will (perhaps rightly) conclude that the smart meter is being installed primarily for the benefit of the electricity company, and simply refuse to allow the contractors into their homes. Whether this will lead to a niche for a supplier which does not mandate installation of a meter – and whether this would be legal – are interesting questions.

    Dan Lockton, Researcher, Design for Sustainable Behaviour
    Cleaner Electronics Research Group, Brunel Design, Brunel University, London, June 2009

    [1] Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute, 1999.

    [2] DECC. Impact Assessment of smart / advanced meters roll out to small and medium businesses, May 2009.

    [3] DECC. A Consultation on Smart Metering for Electricity and Gas, May 2009.

    [4] DECC. Impact Assessment of a GB-wide smart meter roll out for the domestic sector, May 2009.

    [5] Fischer, J. and Kestner, J. ‘Watt Watchers’, 2008.

    [6] DOTT / live|work studio. ‘Low Carb Lane’, 2007.

    [7] BERR. Impact Assessment of Smart Metering Roll Out for Domestic Consumers and for Small Businesses, April 2008.

    [8] O’Leary, N. and Reynolds, R. ‘Current Cost: Observations and Thoughts from Interested Hackers’. Presentation at OpenTech 2008, London. July 2008.

    [9] Darby S. The effectiveness of feedback on energy consumption. A review for DEFRA of the literature on metering, billing and direct displays. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. April 2006.

    [10] Kingston University, CHARM Project. 2009

    [11] Socolow, R.H. Saving Energy in the Home: Princeton’s Experiments at Twin Rivers. Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge MA, 1978

    [12] Winett, R.A., Neale, M.S., Williams, K.R., Yokley, J. and Kauder, H., 1979 ‘The effects of individual and group feedback on residential electricity consumption: three replications’. Journal of Environmental Systems, 8, p. 217-233.

    [13] Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. and Griskevicius, V., 2007.
    ‘The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms’. Psychological Science, 18 (5), p. 429-434.

    [14] Djajadiningrat, T., Overbeeke, K. and Wensveen, S., 2002. ‘But how, Donald, tell us how?: on the creation of meaning in interaction design through feedforward and inherent feedback’. Proceedings of the 4th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. ACM Press, New York, p. 285-291.

    [15] Business of Software discussion community (part of ‘Joel on Software’), ‘”Tip of the Day” on startup, value to the customer’, August 2006

    [16] Sentec. ‘Coracle: a new level of information on energy consumption’, undated.

    [17] Sentec. ‘Sentec and Onzo agree UK deal for home energy displays’, 28th April 2008

    [18] ISE Intelligent Sustainable Energy, ‘Technology’, undated

    [19] Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit: Exclusion Calculator, 2007-8

    frog design on Design with Intent

    Robert Fabricant of frog design – with whom I had a great discussion a couple of weeks ago in London – has an insightful new article up at frog’s Design Mind, titled, oddly enough, ‘Design with Intent: how designers can influence behaviour’ – which tackles the question of how, and whether, designers can and should see their work as being directed towards behaviour change, and the power that design can have in this kind of application.

    It builds on a trend evident in frog’s own work in this field, most notably the Project Masiluleke initiative (which seems to have been incredibly successful in behaviour change terms), as well as a theme Robert’s identified talking to a range of practitioners as well as young designers: “We’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behaviour from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement.”

    The recognition of this nascent trend echoes some of the themes of transformation design – a manifesto developed by Hilary Cottam’s former RED team at the Design Council – and also fits well into what’s increasingly called social design, or socially conscious design – a broad, diverse movement of designers from many disciplines, from service design to architecture, who are applying their expertise to social problems from healthcare to environment to education to communication. With the mantra that ‘we cannot not change the world’, groups such as Design21 and Project H Design, along with alert chroniclers such as Kate Andrews, are inspiring designers to see the potential that there is for ‘impact through direct social engagement’: taking on the mantle of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller, motivated by the realisation that design can be more than ‘the high pitched scream of consumer selling‘, more than simply reactive. Nevertheless, Robert’s focus on influencing people’s behaviour (much as I’ve tried to make clear with my own work on Design with Intent over the last few years), is an explicit emerging theme in itself, and catching the interest of forward-looking organisations such as the RSA.


    User centred design, constraint and reality

    One of the issues Robert discusses is a question I’ve put to the audience in a number of presentations recently – fundamentally, is it still ‘User-Centred Design’ when the designer’s aim is to change users’ behaviour rather than accommodating it? As he puts it, “we influence behaviour and social practice from a distance through the products and services that we create based on our research and understanding of behaviour. We place users at the centre and develop products and services to support them. With UCD, designers are encouraged not to impose their own values on the experience.” Thus, “committing to direct behaviour design [my italics] would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centred design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”

    Now, ‘direct behaviour design’ as a concept is redolent of determinism in architecture, or the more extreme end of behaviourism, where people (users / inhabitants / subjects) are seen as, effectively, components in a designed system which will respond to their environment / products / conditioning in a known, predictable way, and can thus be directed to behave in particular ways by changing the design of the system. It privileges the architect, the designer, the planner, the hidden persuader, the controller as a kind of director of behaviour, standing on the top floor observing what he’s wrought down below.

    I’ll acknowledge that, in a less extreme form, this is often the intent (if not necessarily the result) behind much design for behaviour change (hence my definition for Design with Intent: ‘design that’s intended to influence, or result in, certain user behaviour’). But in practice, people don’t, most of the time, behave as predictably as this. Our behaviour – as Kurt Lewin, James Gibson, Albert Bandura, Don Norman, Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and a whole line of psychologists from different fields have made clear – is a (vector) function of our physical environment (and how we perceive and understand it), our social environment (and how we perceive and understand it) and our cognitive decision processes about what to do in response to our perceptions and understanding, working within a bounded rationality that (most of the time) works pretty well. If we perceive that a design is trying to get us to behave in a way we don’t want, we display reactance to it. This is going to happen when you constrain people against pursuing a goal: even the concept of ‘direct behaviour design’ itself is likely to provoke some reactance from you, the reader. Go on: you felt slightly irritated by it, didn’t you?*

    SIM Card poka-yoke

    In some fields, of course, design’s aim really is to constrain and direct behaviour absolutely – e.g. “safety critical systems, like air traffic control or medical monitors, where the cost of failure [due to user behaviour] is never acceptable” (from Cairns & Cox, p.16). But decades of ergonomics, human factors and HCI research suggests that errorproofing works best when it helps the user achieve the goal he or she already has in mind. It constrains our behaviour, but it also makes it easier to avoid errors we don’t want. We don’t mind not being able to run the microwave oven with the door open (even though we resented seatbelt interlocks). We don’t mind being only being able to put a SIM card in one way round. The design constraint doesn’t conflict with our goal: it helps us achieve it. (It would be interesting to know of cases in Japanese vs. Western manufacturing industry where employees resented the introduction of poka-yoke measures – were there any? What were the specific measures that irritated?)

    Returning to UCD, then, I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour. Some of the most insightful current work on influencing user behaviour, from people such as Ed Elias at Bath and Tang Tang at Loughborough [PPT], starts with achieving a deeper understanding of user behaviour with existing products and systems, to identify better how to improve the design; it seems as though companies such as Onzo are also taking this approach.

    Is design ever neutral?

    Robert also makes the point that “every [design] decision we make exerts an influence of some kind, whether intended or not”. This argument parallels one of the defences made by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to criticism of their libertarian paternalism concept: however you design a system, whatever choices you decide to give users, you inevitably frame understanding and influence behaviour. Even not making a design decision at all influences behaviour.

    staggered crossing

    If you put chairs round a table, people will sit down. You might see it as supporting your users’ goals – they want to be able to sit down – but by providing the chairs, you’ve influenced their behaviour. (Compare Seth Godin’s ‘no chair meetings’.) If you constrain people to three options, they will pick one of the three. If you give them 500 options, they won’t find it easy to choose well. If you give them no options, they can’t make a choice, but might not realise that they’ve been denied it. And so on. (This is sometimes referred to as ‘choice editing’, a phrase which provokes substantial reactance!) If you design a pedestrian crossing to guide pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers, you’ve privileged drivers over pedestrians and reinforced the hegemony of the motor car. If you don’t, you’ve shown contempt for pedestrians’ needs. Richard Buchanan and Johan Redström have both also dealt with this aspect of ‘design as rhetoric’, while Kristina Niedderer’s ‘performative objects’ intended to increase user mindfulness of the interactions occurring.

    Thaler and Sunstein’s argument (heavily paraphrased, and transposed from economics to design) is that as every decision we make about designing a system will necessarily influence user behaviour, we might as well try and put some thought into influencing the behaviour that’s going to be best for users (and society)**. And that again, to me, seems to come within the scope of user-centred design. It’s certainly putting the user – and his or her behaviour – at the centre of the design process. But then to a large extent – as Robert’s argued before – all (interaction) design is about behaviour. And perhaps all design is really interaction design (or ought to be considered as such during at least part of the process).

    Persuasion, catalyst and performance design

    Robert identifies three broad themes in using design to influence behaviour – persuasion design, catalyst design and performance design. ‘Persuasion design’ correlates very closely with the work on persuasive technology and persuasive design which has grown over the past decade, from B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford to a world-wide collaboration of researchers and practitioners – including designers and psychologists – meeting at the Persuasive conferences (2010’s will be in Copenhagen), of which I’m proud to be a very small part. Robert firmly includes behavioural economics and choice architecture in his description of Persuasion Design, which is something that (so far at least) has not received an explicit treatment in the persuasive technology literature, although individual cognitive biases and heuristics have of course been invoked. I think I’d respectfully argue that choice architecture as discussed in an economic context doesn’t really care too much about persuasion itself: it aims to influence behaviours, but doesn’t explicitly see changing attitudes as part of that, which is very much part of persuasion.

    ‘Catalyst design’ is a great term – I’m not sure (other than as the name of lots and lots of small consultancies) whether it has any precedent in the design literature or whether Robert coined it himself (something Fergus Bisset asked me the other day on reading the article). On first sight, catalyst design sounds as though it might be identical with Buckminster Fuller’s trimtab metaphor – a small component added to a system which initiates or enables a much larger change to happen more easily (what I’ve tried to think of as ‘enabling behaviour‘). However, Robert broadens the discussion beyond this idea to talk about participatory and open design with users (such as Jan Chipchase‘s work – or, if we’re looking further back, Christopher Alexander and his team’s groundbreaking Oregon Experiment). In this sense, the designer is the catalyst, facilitating innovation and behaviour change. User-led innovation is a massive, and growing, field, with examples of both completely ground-up development (with no ‘designer as catalyst’ involved) and programmes where a designer or external expert can, through engaging with people who use and work with a system, really help transform it (Clare Brass’s SEED Foundation’s HiRise project comes to mind here). But it isn’t often spoken about explicitly in terms of behaviour change, so it’s interesting to see Robert present it in this context.

    Finally, ‘performance design’, as Robert explains it, involves designers performing in some way, becoming immersed in the lives of the people for whom they are designing. From a behaviour change perspective, empathising with users’ mental models, understanding what motivates users during a decision-making process, and why certain choices are made (or not made), must make it easier to identify where and how to intervene to influence behaviour successfully.

    Implications for designers working on behaviour change

    It’s fantastic to see high-profile, influential design companies such as frog explicitly recognising the opportunities and possibilities that designers have to influence user behaviour for social benefit. The more this is out in the open as a defined trend, a way of thinking, the more examples we’ll have of real-life thinking along these lines, embodied in a whole wave of products and services which (potentially) help users, and help society solve problems with a significant behavioural component. (And, more to the point, give us a degree of evidence about which techniques actually work, in which contexts, with which users, and why – there are some great examples around at present, both concepts and real products – e.g. as collated here by Debra Lilley – but as yet we just don’t have a great body of evidence to base design decisions on.) It will also allow us, as users, to become more familiar with the tactics used to influence our behaviour, so we can actively understand the thinking that’s gone into the systems around us, and choose to reject or opt out of things which aren’t working in our best interests.

    The ‘behavioural layer’ (credit to James Box of Clearleft for this term) is something designers need to get to grips with – even knowing where to start when you’re faced with a design problem involving influencing behaviour is something we don’t currently have a very good idea about. With my Design with Intent toolkit work, I’m trying to help this bit of the process a bit, alongside a lot of people interested, on many levels, in how design influences behaviour. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how frog and other consultancies develop expertise and competence in this field, how they choose to recruit the kind of people who are already becoming experts in it – and how they sell that expertise to clients and governments.

    Update: Robert responds – The ‘Ethnography Defense’

    Dan Lockton, Design with Intent / Brunel University, June 2009

    *TU Eindhoven’s Maaike Roubroeks used this technique to great effect in her Persuasive 2009 presentation.
    **The debate comes over who decides – and how – what’s ‘best’ for users and for society. Governments don’t necessarily have a good track record on this; neither do a lot of companies.

    The Hacker’s Amendment


    Congress shall pass no law limiting the rights of persons to manipulate, operate, or otherwise utilize as they see fit any of their possessions or effects, nor the sale or trade of tools to be used for such purposes.

    From Artraze commenting on this Slashdot story about the levels of DRM in Windows 7.

    I think it maybe needs some qualification about not using your things to cause harm to other people, but it’s an interesting idea. See also Mister Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights from Make magazine a couple of years ago.