Category Archives: Hidden persuaders

Cialdini on the Beach

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

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

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

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

Encouraging donations, Santa Barbara

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

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

Encouraging donations, Santa Barbara

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

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

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

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

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!

Salt licked?

Salt shakers. Image from Daily MailSalt shakers. Image from Daily Mail

UPDATE: See the detailed response below from Peter of Gateshead Council, which clarifies, corrects and expands upon some of the spin given by the Mail articles. The new shakers were supplied to the chip shop staff for use behind the counter: “Our main concern was around the amount of salt put on by staff seasoning food on behalf of customers before wrapping it up… Our observations… confirmed that customers were receiving about half of the recommended daily intake of salt in this way. We piloted some reduced hole versions with local chip shops who all found that none of their customers complained about the reduced saltiness.”

A number of councils in England have given fish & chip shops replacement salt shakers with fewer holes – from the Daily Mail:

Research has suggested that slashing the holes from the traditional 17 to five could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half.

And so at least six councils have ordered five-hole shakers – at taxpayers’ expense – and begun giving them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas. Leading the way has been Gateshead Council, which spent 15 days researching the subject of salty takeaways before declaring the new five-hole cellars the solution.

Officers collected information from businesses, obtained samples of fish and chips, measured salt content and ‘carried out experiments to determine how the problem of excessive salt being dispensed could be overcome by design’. They decided that the five-hole pots would reduce the amount of salt being used by more than 60 per cent yet give a ‘visually acceptable sprinkling’ that would satisfy the customer.

OK. This is interesting. This is where the unit bias, defaults, libertarian paternalism and industrial design come together, in the mundanity of everyday interaction. It’s Brian Wansink’s ‘mindless margin’ being employed strategically, politically – and just look at the reaction it’s got from the public (and from Littlejohn). A BBC story about a similar initiative in Norfolk also gives us the industry view:

A spokesman for the National Federation of Fish Friers called the scheme a “gimmick” and said customers would just shake the containers more.

Graham Adderson, 62, who owns the Downham Fryer, in Downham Market, said: “I think the scheme is hilarious. If you want to put salt on your fish and chips and there are only four holes, you’re just going to spend longer putting more on.”

I’m assuming Gateshead Council’s research took account of this effect, although there are so many ways that users’ habits could have been formed through prior experience that this ‘solution’ won’t apply to all users. There might be some customers who always put more salt on, before even tasting their food. There might be people who almost always think the fish & chips they get are too heavily salted anyway – plenty of people, anecdotally at least, used to buy Smith’s Salt ‘n’ Shake and not use the salt at all.

And there are probably plenty of people who will, indeed, end up consuming less salt, because of the heuristic of “hold salt shaker over food for n seconds” built up over many years of experience.

Overall: I actually quite like this idea: it’s clever, simple, and non-intrusive, but I can see how the interpretation, the framing, is crucial. Clearly, when presented in the way that the councils media have done here (as a government programme to eliminate customer choice, and force us all down the road decided by health bureaucrats), the initiative’s likely to elicit an angry reaction from a public sick of a “nanny state” interfering in every area of our lives. Politicians jumping on the Nudge bandwagon need to be very, very careful that this isn’t the way their initiatives are perceived and portrayed by the press (and many of them will be, of course): it needs to be very, very clear how each such measure actually benefits the public, and that message needs to be given extremely persuasively.

Final thought: Many cafés, canteens and so on have used sachets of salt, that customers apply themselves, for many years. The decision made by the manufacturers about the size of these portions is a major determinant of how much salt is used, because of the unit bias (people assume that one portion is the ‘right’ amount), and, just as with washing machine detergent, manipulation of this portion size could well be used as part of a strategy to influence the quantity used by customers. But would a similar salt sachet strategy (perhaps driven by manufacturers rather than councils) have provoked similar reactions? I’m not sure that it would. ‘Nanny manufacturer’ is less despised than ‘nanny state’, I think, certainly in the UK.

What do you think?

Richard Thaler at the RSA

Richard H Thaler at the RSA

Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge (which is extremely relevant to the Design with Intent research), gave a talk at the RSA in London today, and, though only mentioned briefly, he clearly drew the links between design and behaviour change. Some notes/quotes I scribbled down:
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So long, and thanks for all the rubbish

Kiitos . Tack . Thank you

It cost nothing to put this (trilingual) thank-you message on this litter bin at Helsinki Airport. But does this kind of message – a very simple injunctive norm – have more effect on user behaviour than the absence of a message? To what extent does it make you more likely to use the bin? To what extent is a message of appreciation affective?

See also [both PDFs] ‘Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment’, an extremely interesting paper by Robert Cialdini, and ‘Persuasive Trash Cans’ [EDIT: Thanks to Ian Mason for the non-paywall link] by Eindhoven’s Yvonne de Kort, Teddy McCalley and Cees Midden, which reviews this field and then compares the effectiveness of different kinds of messages. This quote is worth noting:

The focus theory of normative conduct… posits that norms affect human behavior systematically and significantly but only in situations where the norm is salient (focal) for the individual. In other words, this theory suggests that individuals may well have internalized an antilittering norm, but without activation through attention-focus procedures, it will not necessarily guide behavior in a prosocial direction.

Motel 6cc

Dove Cream Shower Motel EditionDove Cream Shower Motel Edition

The plastic* of this built-in Dove shower cream bottle I encountered in a Finnish hotel recently was significantly stiffer than the consumer retail version. The idea is that you press the side of the bottle where indicated to dispense some cream, but it didn’t deform anywhere near as easily as expected, with the result that the ‘portion size’ of the product was much smaller than you might dispense if you were at home.

Is this deliberate? The hotel wants to spend less on Dove, so it wants customers to use less of it, and the manufacturer obliges by making a bottle that’s more difficult to squeeze? Whereas with the retail version, the manufacturer wants the customer to use as much as possible, as quickly as possible?

Is it a similar (but inverse) tactic to the Lather, Rinse, Repeat effect?

Or am I reading too much into it? Is it just that the bottle is going to have to last longer, with multiple refills, so stiffer plastic’s used?

*HDPE, I think