All posts filed under “Gadgets

Full, tilt

Balancing bowls. Image from Royal VKB websiteJan Hoekstra’s Balancing Bowls for Royal VKB (via Boing Boing) are an interesting ‘portion control/guidance’ solution – as Cory Doctorow puts it:

The tilt is tiny, all of 3 degrees, and the net effect is very satisfying — you gradually add snacks to the “light” side until it makes a soft and very definite *click* as it falls.

This kind of ‘very mild persuasion’ example is a great demonstration of how a simple physical property can be used to inform the user – the conventional modern solution in this area might be to monitor users’ behaviour, e.g. by weighing the amount of food put into the bowl, and then display it electronically, with an indication of whether a pre-set portion size has been exceeded. But these bowls simply tilt, with no electronics or moving parts (other than the bowl itself) necessary. It’s an elegant poka-yoke style solution.

Portion perception (and unit bias) is a fascinating area – we’ve looked briefly at it a few times – but I hope to explore it in more detail in due course, along with a review of Dr Brian Wansink‘s Mindless Eating – in a post about how cognitive biases could be used in designing behavioural change.

Do you really need to print that?

Do you really need to print that?
Do you really need to print that?

This is not difficult to do, once you know how. Of course, it’s not terribly useful, since a) most people don’t read the display on a printer unless an error occurs, or b) you’re only likely to see it once you’ve already sent something to print.

Is this kind of very, very weak persuasion – actually worthwhile? From a user’s point of view, it’s less intrusive than, say, a dialogue box that asks “Are you sure you want to print that? Think of the environment” every time you try to print something (which would become deeply irritating for many users), but when applied thoughtfully, as (in a different area of paper consumption) in Pete Kazanjy’s These Come From Trees initiative, or even in various e-mail footers* (below), there may actually be some worthwhile influence on user behaviour. It’s not ‘micropersuasion’ in Steve Rubel’s sense, exactly, but there is some commonality.

Please consider the environment

I’m thinking that addressing the choices users make when they decide to print (or not print) a document or email could be an interesting specific example to investigate as part of my research, once I get to the stage of user trials. How effective are the different strategies in actually reducing paper/energy/toner/fuser/ink consumption and waste generation? Would better use of ‘Printer-friendly’ style sheets for webpages save a lot of unnecessary reprints due to cut-off words and broken layouts? Should, say, two pages per sheet become the default when a dicument goes above a certain number of pages? Should users be warned if widows (not so much orphans) are going to increase the number of sheets needed, or should the leading be automatically adjusted (by default) to prevent this? What happens if we make it easier to avoid printing banner ads and other junk? What happens if we make the paper tray smaller so the user is reminded of just how much paper he/she is getting through? What happens if we include a display showing the cost (financially) of the toner/ink, paper and electricity so far each day, or for each user? What happens if we ration paper for each user and allow him or her to ‘trade’ with other users? What happens if we give users a ‘reward’ for reaching targets of reducing printer usage, month-on-month? And so on. (The HP MOPy Fish – cited in B J Fogg’s Persuasive Technology – is an example of the opposite intention: a system designed to encourage users to print more, by rewarding them.)

Printing is an interesting area, since it allows the possibility of testing out both software and hardware tactics for causing behaviour change, which I’m keen to do.

Water on the membrane

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

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

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

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

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

Biting Apple

BBC News headline, 28 September 2007

Interesting to see the BBC’s summary of the current iPhone update story: “Apple issues an update which damages iPhones that have been hacked by users”. I’m not sure that’s quite how Apple’s PR people would have put it, but it’s interesting to see that whoever writes those little summaries for the BBC website found it easiest to sum up the story in this way. This is being portrayed as Apple deliberately, strategically damaging the phones, rather than an update unintentionally causing problems with unlocked or modified phones.

Regardless of what the specific issue is here, and whether unmodified iPhones have also lost functionality because of some problem with the update, can’t we just strip out all this nonsense? How many people who wanted an iPhone also wanted to be locked in to AT&T or whatever the local carrier will be in each market? Anyone? Who wants to be locked in to anything? What a waste of technical effort, sweat and customer goodwill: it’s utterly pathetic.

This is exactly what Fred Reichheld‘s ‘Bad profits’ idea calls out so neatly:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more–and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

If your iPhone’s just turned into the most stylish paperweight in the office, are you likely to recommend it to a colleague?

More to the point, if Apple had moved – in the first place – into offering telecom services to go with the hardware, with high levels of user experience and a transparent pricing system, how many iPhone users and Mac evangelists wouldn’t have at least considered changing?

On the level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dishonourable discharge?

Nokia phone with battery visible

Long overdue, I’m currently reading Bruce Schneier‘s excellent Beyond Fear, and realising that in many ways, security thinking overlaps with architectures of control: the goal of so many systems is to control users’ behaviour or to deny the user the ability to perform certain actions. I’ll post a fuller comparison and analysis in due course, but one example Bruce mentions in passing seemed worth blogging separately:

Nokia spends about a hundred times more money per phone on battery security than on communications security. The security system senses when a consumer uses a third-party battery and switches the phone into maximum power-consumption mode; the point is to ensure that consumers buy only Nokia batteries.

Nokia is prepared to spend a considerable amount of money solving a security problem that it perceives – it loses revenue if customers buy batteries from someone else – even though that solution is detrimental to consumers.

As a battery authentication method, this is more subtle than the systems we’ve looked at before, which actually refuse to allow the device to operate if a non-original-manufacturer battery (or perhaps charger) is used.

Nokia’s system attempts to persuade the customer that the new (cheaper) battery he or she has bought is “no good” by making the phone discharge the battery more quickly – in an extremely underhanded way. From the point of view of the (uninformed) consumer, though, it makes Nokia look good. “Oh, that cheap battery I bought is rubbish, it doesn’t seem to hold its charge. Nokia make them so much better, guess I should stick to them in future.”

But if the Nokia batteries were genuinely ‘better’ than the cheap replacement ones, surely this kind of underhanded tactic wouldn’t be necessary?

P.S. I have no idea whether this Nokia ‘trick’ is real/common/still used, as Beyond Fear has no references, or whether other manufacturers do something similar (as opposed to outright battery authentication-and-denial). I’ll ask a friend at Nokia.

P.P.S. Jason Kottke also noted this tactic back in 2003.