All posts filed under “Good design

Angular measure

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug

A few years ago I went to a talk at the RCA by Alex Lee, president of OXO International. Apart from a statistic about how many bagel-slicing finger-chopping accidents happen each year in New York city, what stuck in my mind were the angled measuring jugs he showed us, part of the well-known Good Grips range of inclusively designed kitchen utensils.

The clever angled measuring scale – easily visible from above, as the jug is filled – seems such an obvious idea. As the patents (US 6,263,732; US 6,543,284) put it:

The indicia on an upwardly directed surface of the at least one ramp allows a user to look downwardly into the measuring cup to visually detect the volume level of the contents in the measuring cup, thereby eliminating the need to look horizontally at the cup at eye level.

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug

Now, this is an extremely simple way to improve the process of using a measuring cup / jug. It’s good if you find it hard to bend down to look at the side of the vessel. It’s helpful if you’re standing over it, pouring stuff into it. It reduces parallax error – so potentially improving accuracy – and it also, simply, makes it easier to be accurate.

In this sense, then, improved / easier-to-read scales can influence user behaviour. I guess that’s obvious: if it’s easy to use something in a particular way, it’s more likely that it will be used that way. It’s a persuasive interface, in an extremely simple form.

Kenwood JK450/455 kettleSo, the question is, if I build an electric kettle with an angled scale like this, will it make it more likely that people use it more efficiently, i.e. fill it with the amount of water they need? If you’re standing with the kettle under the tap, putting water in, is this kind of angled scale going to make it easier to put the right amount in?

Kenwood sells a kettle which has angled scale markings, the JK450/455 (right), though they’re implemented differently to (and more cheaply than) the OXO method, simply being printed on the side of the kettle body. It’s still a clever idea. This review suggests an energy saving of around 10% compared with Kenwood’s claimed “up to 35%” but of course this saving very much depends on how inefficient the user was previously.

I think something along the lines of either the OXO or Kenwood designs (but not infringing the patents!) is worth an extended trial later this year – watch this space.

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug
Thanks to Michael for the Buckfast.

Heating debate

Thermostat with friendCentral heating systems have interfaces, and many of us interact with them every day, even if only by experiencing their effects.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement. They’re systems where (unlike, say, a car) we don’t generally get instantaneous feedback on the changes we make to settings or the interactions we have with the interface. It’s a slow feedback loop. We don’t necessarily have correct mental models of how they work, yet the systems cost us (a lot of) money. How effectively do we use them? Around 60% of UK domestic energy use goes on space heating, and 24% on water heating. (See this Building Research Establishment report [PDF] for more detailed breakdowns.) That 84% cost me and my girlfriend £430 last year. It’s worth thinking about from a financial point of view, regardless of the environmental aspects.

Frankie Roberto and colleagues at Rattle Research have carried out a brilliant exercise in exploratory design thinking about central heating*:

Heating systems are something we all interact with, especially in the depths of winter where we depend on them, and yet there seems to have been very little evolution in the design of their interfaces. What’s more, with an ever increasing focus on energy efficiency, both from an environmental and economic standpoint, there’s a need for heating systems and their interfaces to be smarter, more efficient and transparent.


Design Monday #1 – Central Heating (short version) from Rattle on Vimeo.

Read the full post.

The Rattle team think through existing systems and consider a number of possible revisions to improve the way that information is presented to users, and the level of control that it might be useful for users to have. This is a great piece of work, impressive and very thorough, and it’s interesting to see how their thinking evolved: I get the impression that (as service designers) they’re a lot more focused on users’ needs than the designers of many heating systems are. It’s also an exciting thing for a design company to be able to take time to address problems outside their immediate sphere, since they’re bringing a whole new level of domain expertise to it.

The ‘I’m working’ indicator is a really good idea – it reminds me of some higher-end car tyre air pumps at petrol stations where you can just set the pressure you want to achieve, and the pump cuts out (and alerts you) when it reaches it. But the idea of doing away with the ‘desired temperature’ setting and just having warmer/colder is also interesting – “forc[ing] people to always make decisions based upon how they’re feeling right now”.

Equally the ‘shift to service’ approach of having an API and making clever use of it has a big potential to help in energy saving (and cost saving for the user), especially if the usage data were (anonymised or otherwise) available for analysis. Just being able to tell users “it’s costing you £X more to heat your home than it does for a similar family in a similar house down the road – if you insulated better you could save £X every month” would be an interesting mechanism for persuasion. As with so many things, it relies on having that API or other interface available in the first place…

Folk theory of thermostats

The ‘folk theory of thermostats’ which Frankie mentions, popularised in Don Norman’s The Psychology / Design of Everday Things, has long intrigued me:

There are two commonly held folk theories about thermostats: the timer theory and the valve theory. The timer theory proposes that the thermostat simply controls the relative proportion of time that the device stays on. Set the thermostat midway, and the device is on about half the time; set it all the way up and the device is on all the time. Hence, to heat or cool something most quickly, set the thermostat so that the device is on all the time. The valve theory proposes that the thermostat controls how much heat (or cold) comes out of the device. Turn the thermostat all the way up, and you get the maximum heating or cooling. The correct story is that the thermostat is just an on-off switch. Setting the thermostat at one extreme cannot affect how long it takes to reach the desired temperature.

People’s mental models of heating systems are often stereotyped or played with (as we’ve discussed before here), but as Willett Kempton found out in a classic study, there are some nuanced versions of the theories, which, in practice, are perhaps not as silly as Norman suggests. People satisfice.

Say you come in from outdoors, and are cold. Because of the delay in your exposed skin warming up to room temperature, it surely does warm you more quickly if you stand near something that’s hotter than you actually want to be, e.g. a log fire / stove. So the heuristic of ‘turning up the heat to more than you need, in order to feel warmer more quickly’ is pretty understandable, especially when the temperature controlling the thermostat is the temperature of the thermocouple/probe/whatever and not actually the body temperature of the users themselves. (That would be a good innovation in itself, of course!) Am I wrong?

Given that a lot of people do try to control heating systems as if they worked on the valve model, would it be sensible to develop one which did? Do they already exist?

*Rattle’s second ‘Design Monday’ session, on ‘Lunch’, is also well worth a look.

Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence’:

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

Staggering insight

Staggered crossing in Bath

I’ve mentioned a few times, perhaps more often in presentations than on the blog, the fact that guidelines for the design of pedestrian crossings in the UK [PDF] recommend that where a crossing is staggered, pedestrians should be routed so that they have to face traffic, thus increasing the likelihood of noticing oncoming cars, and indeed of oncoming drivers noticing the pedestrians:

5.2.5 Staggered crossings on two-way roads should have a left handed stagger so that pedestrians on the central refuge are guided to face the approaching traffic stream.

When I gave this example of Design with Intent at Lancaster, the discussion – led, I think, by Lucy Suchman and Patricia Clough – turned to how this arrangement inevitably formalised and reinforced the embedded hegemony of the motor car in society, and so on: that the motorist is privileged over the pedestrian and the pedestrian must submit by watching out for cars, rather than the other way around.

Now, all that is arguably true – I had seen this example as merely a clever, sensible way to use design to influence user behaviour for safety, for everyone’s benefit (both pedestrians and drivers) without it costing any more than, say, a crossing staggered the opposite way round – but this is, maybe, the nature of this whole field of Design with Intent: lots of disciplines potentially have perspectives on it and what it means. What a traffic engineer or an ergonomist or a mistake-proofer sees as a safety measure, a sociologist may see as a designed-in power relation. What Microsoft saw as a tool for helping users was seen as patronising and annoying (at least by the most vociferous users). It’s all interesting, because it all broadens the number of interpretations and considerations applied to everything, and – if I’m honest – force me to think on more levels about every example.

Multiple lenses are helpful to designers otherwise stuck at whatever focal length the client’s prescribed.

Back to the crossings, though: the above crossing in Bath is a bit unusual in how it’s arranged with so many control panels for pedestrians. But in general, with simple Pelican and Puffin crossings in the UK, there is a design feature even more obvious, which only struck me* the same day I photographed the above crossing in Bath: the pedestrian signal control panel is usually also to the right of where pedestrians stand waiting to cross, i.e. (with UK driving on the left), in order to press the button, pedestrians have to turn to face the oncoming traffic.

The guidelines actually mention this as helping people with poor vision, but it would seem that it really assists all users, even if only slightly. It means you can watch the traffic as you decide whether or not you actually need to press the button, and will be more likely to be standing in a position where you can see the oncoming traffic at the point when you walk out into the road.

5.1.7 To assist blind and partially sighted pedestrians, as they approach the crossing, the primary push button/indicator panel should normally be located on the right hand side. The alignment should encourage them to face oncoming vehicles. The centre of the push button should be between 1.0 and 1.1 metres above the footway level.

This is the sort of ‘hidden’ intentional, strategic design detailing which fascinates me. It is obvious, it is quotidian, but it’s also thoughtful.

Staggered crossing in Bath

*Looking back through my notebooks, I see that someone actually mentioned this to me at a seminar at Sheffield Hallam in September 2007 but I forgot about it: many thanks to whoever it was, and I should be better at reading through my notes next time!

London Design Festival: Greengaged

Greengaged skip

Design CouncilThe London Design Festival always throws up some interesting events, especially involving clever people trying new things in design and sharing their experiences and expertise.

This year, the Design Council are running Greengaged, a “sustainability hub… developed and organised by [re]design, thomas.matthews and Kingston University with Arup and Three Trees Don’t Make A Forest”. It’s a series of talks and workshops about ecodesign and sustainable issues in design.

On Tuesday I went, along with Alex Plant, for the ‘Behaviour Change’ talks, part of the ‘Gauging the Green’ day, where Unchained‘s Lea Simpson, More AssociatesLuke Nicholson, IDEO London‘s Andrea Koerselman and Fiona Bennie from Forum for the Future all talked about their work on using design to change behaviour.

[Apologies: YouTube have since removed the clip due to an infringement claim from Candid Camera, Inc. So here’s an alternative link – it may not last either, though, but if you search for “candid camera” elevator I’m sure you’ll be able to find it]

Lea Simpson started with this great Candid Camera clip from 196x demonstrating how easily social proof can be used to influence behaviour. Lea argued three important points relevant to behaviour change (many thanks to Christian McLening for taking better notes than I did):

1. Behaviour change requires behaviour (i.e. the behaviour of others: social effects are critical, as we respond to others’ behaviour which in turn affects our own; targeting the ‘right’ people allows behaviour to spread)

2. Behaviour and motivation are two different things: To change behaviour, you need to understand and work with people’s motivations – which may be very different for different people.

3. Desire is not enough: lots of people desire to behave differently, but it needs to be very easy for them to do it before it actually happens.

Luke Nicholson: Photo by Kate Andrews
Luke Nicholson’s presentation: photo by the indefatigable Kate Andrews.

Luke Nicholson talked about More‘s work on enabling the public to understand energy use and carbon footprints via home monitoring systems – as he put it, there are “some invisible forces going round your home, and this is a lens onto them”. More’s ‘energy lens’ – which can be positioned on a window, hence linking energy consumption and climate/the weather in users’ minds, and making it as easy to check “what the energy’s like today” as “what the weather’s like today” – has recently been spun out as Onzo – who look to be employing a couple of very talented Brunel Design graduates.

More Associates: Energy Literacy

Luke also talked about More’s research with energy literacy – can we create a vernacular for better public understanding of energy, carbon, current, and so on? The above slide showed the idea of ‘pips’ and ‘blocks’ as some kind of accounting unit for energy and carbon, respectively, easily comparable to pounds (sterling) for cost; there was also an interesting series of diagrams using different shapes and sizes to explain simply, visually, the difference between high-current-drawing appliances and those which draw lower currents. Changing consumer demand for new products was also addressed with the idea of a ‘Kept’ sticker which could be affixed to products such as phones, to announce “I’m keeping this”.

A lot of this really does seem to be about framing – and joining up the agendas of different groups (consumers, the electricity industry, manufacturers, governments) to provide a new resultant pointing in the desired direction. As Luke said, “We’re playing into cultures that don’t exist yet.”

Andrea Koerselman, IDEO

Andrea Koerselman and Fiona Bennie introduced their ‘i-team – local innovation on climate change’ project, a service design collaboration between IDEO and Forum for the Future, working with councils and local authorities to inspire behaviour change on issues such as driving to work, reducing electricity usage, and so on. This involves a lot of user observation – an IDEO speciality, of course – and an Inspiration-Insight-Ideation-Implementation process, as in the slide above. Talking to Fiona afterwards, she mentioned that it’s quite a novel experience for many councils to be involved in generating ideas without explicit returns-on-investment or outcomes defined, and so the ‘Ideation’ stage was going to be especially interesting.

Overall, this was a very interesting and worthwhile programme of talks – and this is just a snapshot of the many taking place this week and next in London. Tomorrow, I’m off to some of System Reload’s workshops, and on Monday, back at the Design Council, Tracy Bhamra and Emma Dewberry, among others, will be talking about sustainable design education. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

The detail of everyday interaction

A kettle

Understanding what people really do when they carry out some ‘simple’ task, as opposed to what designers assume they do, is important. Even something as mundane as boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea or coffee is fraught with variability, slips, mistaken assumptions and so on, and can be studied in some depth to see what’s really going on, or could be going on (e.g. this analysis from 1998 by my co-supervisor, Neville Stanton and Chris Baber). Everyday tasks can be complex.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

So I was fascinated and very impressed with Telescopic Text from Joe Davis (found via Kate Andrews‘ eclectically excellent Anamorphosis)

This is very clever stuff – well worth exploring.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

As Joe’s meta description for the page says, this is “an exploration of scale and levels of detail. How much or little is contained within the tiniest, most ordinary of moments.” What scripts are embedded here for the user in this system of kettle, mist, mug, stale biscuits?

The dominating level of detail reminds me a bit of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel almost entirely about interaction between people and environments. Or perhaps some of Atrocity Exhibition/Crash-era Ballard, where interactions between people, objects and spaces are broken down endlessly, obsessively.

Joe Davis: Telescopic Text

Back to kettles for a moment: they’re going to feature more heavily on the blog over the next year, in various forms and on many levels. More than almost any other energy-using household product, they’re ripe for the ‘Design for Sustainable Behaviour‘ wand to be waved over them, since almost all the wasted energy (and water) is due to user behaviour rather than technical inefficiency. It’ll be more interesting than it sounds!