Category Archives: Innovation

Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1

Brainstorming  brainstorming

Back in the darkest days of my PhD, I started blogging extracts from the thesis as it was being written, particularly the literature review. It helped keep me motivated when I was at a very low point, and seemed to be of interest to readers who were unlikely to read the whole 300-page PDF or indeed the publications. Possibly because of the amount of useful terms in the text making them very Google-able, these remain extremely popular posts on this blog. So I thought I would continue, not quite where I left off, but with a few extracts that might actually be of practical use to people working on design, new ideas, and understanding people’s behaviour.

The first article (to be split over two parts) is about toolkits (and similar things, starting with an exploration of idea generation methods), prompted by much recent interest in the subject via projects such as Lucy Kimbell, Guy Julier, Jocelyn Bailey and Leah Armstrong’s Mapping Social Design Research & Practice and Nesta’s Development Impact & You toolkit, and some of our discussions at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for the Creative Citizens project about different formats for summarising information effectively. (On this last point, I should mention the Sustainable Cultures Engagement Toolkit developed in 2012-13 by my colleagues Catherine Greene and Lottie Crumbleholme, with Johnson Controls, which is now available online (12.5MB PDF).)

The article below is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the field, but was focused specifically on aspects which I felt were relevant for a ‘design for behaviour change’ toolkit, which became Design with Intent. I should also note that since the below was written, mostly in 2010-11, a number of very useful articles have collected together toolkits, card decks and similar things. I recommend: Venessa Miemis’s 21 Card Decks, Hanna Zoon’s Depository of Design Toolboxes, Joanna Choukeir’s Design Methods Resources, Stephen Anderson’s answer on this Quora thread, Ola Möller’s 40 Decks of Method Cards for Creativity, and Public Policy Lab’s list of Toolkits for Public Service Design. I’m sure there are others.


Problem-solving and problem-framing



“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artefacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”
Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969 (p.129 of 1981 MIT press 2nd edition)

Designers solve problems, but they are by no means alone in that. As Jack Schulze of BERG comments, ”so do dentists” (Kicker Studio, 2009). Design is not, then, identical to problem-solving, but it certainly involves addressing issues that are seen (by someone) as problems and developing new or changed products, services or environments (seen by someone as solutions) in response. This review is not going to fall into the ‘What is design?’ rabbit-hole, since that has been more than adequately explored by other authors, but it is important to understand how design processes can work, in order to identify the most useful characteristics for the proposed toolkit. [which became Design with Intent]

The view of design as being entirely about ‘problem-solving’—which, at its most mechanistic, is ”basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal”—as espoused by Simon (1969/1981, p.223, and to some extent in the above quote), has become unfashionable in design research, and not just because of the implied lack of creativity in the process.[1] In particular, the reaction against the ‘problem-solving’ view follows Schön’s (1983) concept of The Reflective Practitioner, whose “inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. He does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as he frames a problematic situation” (p.68).

Thus, design is seen as being as much about problem-framing as problem-solving, an exploration and co-evolution of both the problem and solution ‘spaces’ (Maher et al, 1996), questioning and refining the problem, changing focus and the boundaries of the problem as part of the process of generating solutions. [2]
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What’s happening with the toolkit (Part 1)

Design with Intent cards v.0.9

It’s 8 months since the Design with Intent Toolkit v.0.9 went online and I’ve had incredibly useful feedback from a whole range of people who’ve tried it out on different kinds of briefs and problems. As mentioned a couple of months ago, the toolkit poster PDF (which has 12 ‘headline’ design patterns, compared with the 47 in total online) reached a very high number of downloads from Brunel’s research archive website (before the admins removed the statistics package!), which is immensely pleasing and kind of humbling. If you downloaded it and found it useful (or not useful), please do get in touch and tell me why.

Design with Intent cards v.0.9Design with Intent cards v.0.9

Latterly, a few people have been trying out an IDEO Method Card-style card deck version of the toolkit (as pictured here), including all the patterns, colour-coded by lens, with a simplified bit of text about each one. I haven’t made these available publicly mainly because the quality isn’t great (most of the images are only 72dpi, coming from the website, and poorly cropped for the card format), and I’ve been trying a couple of variations of text, card size, etc. Initially I put these together primarily for quick card-sorting exercises as part of the workshop trials I’ve been running, but they ended up more popular than the poster format. Thanks to brainstorming sessions at IDEO London and the RSA, exercises with Brunel’s MSc Integrated Product Design and BSc / BA Design students (as part of the Sustainable Design and Environmentally Sensitive Design modules), and a trial as part of Design for Conversion kindly organised by Arjan Haring, I now have a better idea of what would make the cards more useful. In parallel, I’ve also been trying to ‘patternize’ some additional design techniques which have been used to influence behaviour, to increase the scope of the toolkit.

Design with Intent cards v.0.9 in use at Design for ConversionDesign with Intent cards v.0.9 in use at Design for Conversion
The DwI cards in use at Design for Conversion – photos by haijeson on Flickr (1, 2)

Inspired partly by Crumlish & Malone’s Designing Social Interfaces which is a great book (a neat companion to Jenifer Tidwell’s incredible Designing Interfaces, also from O’Reilly) with a companion wiki, I’ve decided to go down the route of producing v.0.95 of the toolkit as a Creative Commons-licensed set of 100 downloadable cards, with a printed version available to buy, and an accompanying wiki with a page on each pattern, serving as an evolving, referenceable container for new examples, tips on implementation, data on effectiveness, and so on, as they come to light, as well as new patterns, new ways of grouping them and new uses for this kind of approach.

The cards will be relatively simple, with each pattern posed as a question, as used in Nedra Weinreich’s DwI-based worksheet. The intention is that the cards can actively provoke innovative behaviour change design ideas, with a single (hopefully photogenic) example on each, while the wiki can act as a kind of ‘further reading’ resource. A future version (v.1.0?) of the cards will include this extra information on the back of each card (and then binding the cards together would pretty much produce a book), but at this stage – if I’m ever going to get this PhD finished in time – the extra info will be added to the wiki over time rather than being on the v.0.95 cards themselves, to reduce the time pressure on getting it all done.

As v.0.95 more than doubles the number of patterns in v.0.9 – a mixture of splitting up existing patterns into more finely-grained variants, and adding ideas which people have suggested or pointed out since I put v.0.9 together – there are quite a few where I don’t (yet) have a very good example or image. As such, there are opportunities for anyone with good photos or suggestions for examples to have an input and be involved – as the next post will explain in more detail.

Design with Intent cards v.0.9Design with Intent cards v.0.9
A version of the card deck I (rather laboriously!) spray-mounted onto Post-It backing, so the cards could be used to annotate sketches or ideas recorded during a brainstorming session.

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.

People

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.

Next week: a simplified Design with Intent toolkit, v.0.9

The ‘Design with Intent method‘, on which I’m working as the first part of my PhD, has been fairly sparsely reported on this blog. This is intended to be an innovation method for helping designers faced with “behaviour change” problems come up with useful solutions, or in situations where helping users to use a product or system more efficiently would be worthwhile. The ideas that have gone into it are (mostly) the ‘positive’ side of what we’ve discussed on the blog for the last few years.

The brief series of posts from last summer about getting people to do things in a particular order, which more recently got some attention from Kati London’s ‘Persuasive Technologies: Designing the Human‘ class at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (with some very interesting student commentary) was based on a relatively early iteration of the method. At some point, I’ll draw up a comparison between the iterations of the method, even if simply for my own clarity of mind – it’s helpful to record why I changed different aspects along the way.

The initial plan had been for it to be almost TRIZ-like in terms of ‘prescribing’ relevant design techniques to help achieve particular target behaviours. The first few iterations of the method thus took the form of a kind of hierarchical decision tree. Live|Work‘s very helpful advice to me last summer to reduce the prescriptive nature slightly by having a kind of illustrated ‘idea space’ led – in due course – to the version tested in the pilot studies carried out in late 2008 and earlier this year. What the studies showed, among other things (to be reported in the Persuasive 2009 paper!) was that many designers, when asked to come up with concept solutions, don’t really like working from categories and rules and hierarchies, even where they would be useful. Some do (and with impressively exhaustive efficiency), but many don’t: they preferred to use the method as a kind of well of inspiration, without necessarily using it in any kind of procedural way.

So – and there’s another reason for this, too, which I’ll be able to announce at some point – it seemed sensible to redesign the method to accommodate both modes of working: a ‘prescription mode’ for the more procedure-driven designer, and an ‘inspiration mode’ for the designer who prefers less bounded creativity (a bit more like IDEO’s method cards, but not quite as unstructured as the Oblique Strategies). The inspiration mode is essentially a very simplified, flattened set of design patterns loosely grouped into different ‘lenses’ representing views on influencing behaviour, but with no real structure beyond that. It’s more of a ‘toolkit’ than a method, and because of its relative simplicity it seems worth releasing to get some feedback without too much more work. The “eight design patterns for errorproofing” post from a few weeks back is a kind of preview of part of it.

On Monday morning, then, there’ll be a large poster available to download on the blog, and I’ll do a series of posts forming the online component of the toolkit. So please, feel free to comment, make suggestions for improvements or better examples, or pick holes in it!

P.S. I’m aware the blog needs a bit of housekeeping in terms of making the sidebar work properly again in IE, fixing the very out-of-date blogroll, and my appalling sloth in replying to people who’ve very kindly sent very interesting links and ideas. I will try to get round to it all soon.

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.

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