Category Archives: Hidden persuaders

Designing Safe Living

New Sciences of Protection logo Lancaster University’s interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Studies (no, not that one) has been running a research programme, New Sciences of Protection, culminating in a conference, Designing Safe Living, on 10-12 July, “investigat[ing] ‘protection’ at the intersections of security, sciences, technologies, markets and design.”

The keynote speakers include the RCA’s Fiona Raby, Yahoo!’s Benjamin Bratton and Virginia Tech’s Timothy Luke, and the conference programme [PDF, 134 kB] includes some intriguing sessions on subjects such as ‘The Art/Design/Politics of Public Engagement’, ‘Designing Safe Citizens’, ‘Images of Safety’ and even ‘Aboriginal Terraformation (performance panel)’.

I’ll be giving a presentation called ‘Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design’ on the morning of Saturday 12 July in a session called ‘Control, Design and Resistance’. There isn’t a paper to accompany the presentation, but here’s the abstract I sent in response to being invited by Mark Lacy:

Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design
Dan Lockton, Brunel Design, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH

“Design can be used to shape user behaviour. Examples from a range of fields – including product design, architecture, software and manufacturing engineering – show a diverse set of approaches to shaping, guiding and forcing users’ behaviour, often for intended socially beneficial reasons of ‘protection’ (protecting users from their own errors, protecting society from ‘undesirable’ behaviour, and so on). Artefacts can have politics. Commercial benefit – finding new ways to extract value from users – is also a significant motivation behind many behaviour-shaping strategies in design; social and commercial benefit are not mutually exclusive, and techniques developed in one context may be applied usefully in others, all the while treading the ethical line of persuasion-vs-coercion.

Overall, a field of ‘Design with Intent’ can be identified, synthesising approaches from different fields and mapping them to a range of intended target user behaviours. My research involves developing a ‘suggestion tool’ for designers working on social behaviour-shaping, and testing it by application to sustainable/ecodesign product use problems in particular, balancing the solutions’ effectiveness at protecting the environment, with the ability to cope with emergent behaviours.”

The programme’s rapporteur, Jessica Charlesworth, has been keeping a very interesting blog, Safe Living throughout the year.

I’m not sure what my position on the idea of ‘designing safe living’ is, really – whether that’s the right question to ask, or whether ‘we’ should be trying to protect ‘them’, whoever they are. But it strikes me that any behaviour, accidental or deliberate, however it’s classified, can be treated/defined as an ‘error’ by someone, and design can be used to respond accordingly, whether viewed through an explicit mistake-proofing lens or simply designing choice architecture to suggest the ‘right’ actions over the ‘wrong’ ones.

The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Products

Affective product

A few people, products and experiences have impressed on me the importance of affect, of evoking an emotional response, in persuasion and behaviour change (I’ll admit I haven’t yet addressed how best to incorporate this into the DwI Method). There’s a lot of interesting work on emotional design, and emotionally durable design, which I do need to investigate further. Indeed, next week, I’ll be attending what sounds like a useful seminar at Central St Martins (no apostrophe), ‘Introducing the Affective in Sustainable Design‘, arranged by Kristina Borjesson.

But it struck me that – assuming the field can be reduced into a simple prescription – what would be useful is a manual called The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Products, leveraging the Stephen Covey-style title. When I say ‘products’, I really ought to say ‘systems’ – services, customer experiences and environments should all be considered in this.

What could those 7 (or n) habits be?

(Actually, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Products would be pretty useful, too. As would The Seven Habits of Highly Affective Peoplesomeone on Everything2 had a go…)

Exploiting the desire for order

I met a lot of remarkable people in Finland, and some of them – they know who they are – have given me a lot to think about, in a good way, about lots of aspects of life, psychology and its relation to design. Thanks to everyone involved for a fantastic time: I was kind-of aware of the idea of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow before, but something about the combination of week-long permanent sunlight, very little sleep, great hospitality and a hell of a lot of interesting, clever people, brought home to me the reality of the phenomenon, or one quite like it.

A couple of the people it was great to meet were Loove Broms and Magnus Bång of the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, who have worked (among other things) on innovative ways to provide users with feedback on their energy use, beyond ‘traditional’ interfaces. We’ve seen a few of the Institute’s STATIC! projects before on the blog before, but it was very interesting to be introduced to some more recent concepts from the AWARE project. They’re all well worth a look, but one in particular intrigues me, primarily because of how simple the idea is:

Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII
The Puzzle Switch – designed by Loove Broms and Karin Ehrnberger. One type is shown above; below, a different design in ‘On’ (left) and ‘Off’ (right) positions.Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII   Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII

The AWARE Puzzle Switchlower part of this page – really is as simple as a a series of light switches where it is very obvious when they are switched on, and which “encourage people to switch off their light, by playing with people’s built-in desire for order.”

Where else can we use this idea? The Puzzle Switch does it safely, in a way that, for example, having a lever hanging off the wall at a crazy angle (which would equally suggest to people that they ‘put it right’) would not. Is the key somehow to make it clearer to users that high-energy usage states are not ‘defaults’ in any way? That accompanying any energy use, there needs to be some kind of visible disorder (as with the irritating flashing standby lights) to cause users to notice and consciously to assess what’s going on?

Lights reminding you to turn things off

Standby indicators - Duncan DrennanStandby indicators - Duncan Drennan

Duncan Drennan
, who writes the very thoughtful Art of Engineering blog, notes something extremely interesting: standby lights, if they’re annoying/visible enough, can actually motivate users to switch the device off properly:

Our DVD player has (to me) the most irritating standby light that I have ever seen on any device. When on, the light is constantly illuminated, but when in standby the light flashes continuously (at a slow rate). This drives me mad, but results in an interesting action – it causes me to turn it off at the plug when I am not using it (which is most of the time). Suddenly one little flashing light has resulted in more energy saving than having no light.

As he notes, designing a system with an indicator which actually draws power to inform you of… ‘nothing’ … actually may not be as inefficient as a from-first-principles efficiency design process would suggest, because of that human reaction. Similarly to the Static! project’s Power-Aware Cord, you may need to use a little extra energy to make people realise how much they’re using without thinking. Although:

There is one problem with this, it only works on people who care. If I did not care about saving energy, then I would just leave the laptop plugged in and the DVD player on. That means that you have to consider how your users will handle this kind of subtle feedback and determine whether turning the light off, or encouraging unplugging, results in more energy savings.

Sometimes the most obvious design decisions may not be the ones which result in the greatest energy saving.

This is a very astute observation indeed.

Are there any other examples where this sort of effect can be usefully employed? How similar is this to the ‘useful landmine’ concept where you deliberately force/provoke/annoy yourself into taking actions you otherwise wouldn’t bother/would forget to do?

Nudges and the power of choice architecture

Nudge book cover
An ‘advance uncorrected page proof’ of Nudge I managed to get off Abebooks. Thanks to Hien Nguyen for the photo.

Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is a publishing sensation of the moment, no doubt helped by Thaler’s work advising Barack Obama (many thanks to Johan Strandell for originally pointing me in Thaler and Sunstein’s direction). I’ve been reading the book in some detail over the last month or so, and while a full section-by-section review of its implications/applicability to ‘Design with Intent’ is in the works, this morning I saw that the Nudge blog’s John Balz had linked here with a post about the Oxford benches, so it seemed apposite to talk about it briefly.

Behavioural economics has/ought to have a lot of parallels with design psychology and usability research: it is effectively looking at how people’s cognitive biases actually cause them to understand, interpret and use economic systems, not necessarily in line with the intentions of the systems’ designers, and not necessarily in accordance with rational man theory. It’s clear there’s a lot in common with examining how people actually understand and use technology and designed elements of the world around them, and there would seem to be a continual bottom-up and top-down iteration of understanding as the field develops: what users actually do is studied, then inferences are made about the thought processes that lead to that behaviour, then the experiment/system/whatever is refined to take into account those thought processes, and what users actually do is then tested again, and so on. This is very much the way that many conscientious user-focused design consultancies work, in fact, often using ethnography and in-context user observation to determine what’s really going on in users’ heads and their interactions with technology.

Dan Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational is an excellent recent book which lays bare many of the cognitive biases and heuristics guiding everyday human decision-making, and he does take the step of suggesting a number of extremely interesting ‘improvements’ to systems which would enable them to match the way people really make decisions – which are, effectively, examples of Design with Intent as I’d define it.

But Thaler and Sunstein go further: Nudge is pretty much an elaborated series of applying techniques derived from understanding these biases to various social and economic ‘problems’, and discussion of how guiding (nudging) people towards ‘better’ choices could have a great impact overall without restricting individual freedom to make different choices. They call it libertarian paternalism and in itself the idea is not without controversy, at least when presented politically, even if it seems intuitively to be very much a part of everyday life already: when we ask someone, anyone, for advice, we are asking to have our decision guided. BJ Fogg might call it as tunnelling; Seth Godin might express it in terms of permission marketing.

Choice architecture

For Thaler and Sunstein, choice architecture is the key: the way that sets of choices are designed, and the way that they are presented to people(/users) is the basis of shaping decisions. (There’s a massive parallel here with designing affordances and perceived affordances into systems, which isn’t difficult to draw.) The establishment of ‘choice architects’, as Thaler and Sunstein describe them, within companies and governments – people with specialised domain knowledge, but also understanding of biases, heuristics and how they affect their customers’ decisions, and how to frame the choices in the ‘right’ way – is an intriguing suggestion.

Clearly, any system which intentionally presents a limited number of choices is in danger of creating false dichotomies and decoy effects – either accidentally or deliberately (e.g. this [PDF, 300 kB]). Manipulation of defaults raises similar questions (Rajiv Shah is doing some great work in this area). But, depending on the degree of ‘paternalism’ (or coercion) intended, it may be that intentionally misleading choice architecture might be considered ‘ethical’ under some circumstances. Who knows?

We’ll look at Nudge in more detail in a future post, but suffice to say: it is a very interesting book – my copy’s annotated with over a hundred torn-up bits of Post-It note at present – and it seems to be placing designers, of various kinds, at the centre of taking these ideas further for social benefit.

Design with Intent presentation from Persuasive 2008

EDIT: I’ve now added the audio! Thanks everyone for the suggestions on how best to do it; the audio is hosted on this site rather than the Internet Archive as the buffering seemed to stall a bit too much. Let me know if you have any problems.

I’ve put my presentation from Persuasive 2008 on SlideShare, – because of the visual style it really needs to be listened to, or viewed alongside the text (below, or in the comments when viewing it on the SlideShare site). Alternatively, just download it [PPT, 11.6 Mb] – it comes with the notes.

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