All posts filed under “Invention

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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Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

Some thoughts on classifications

Over the last couple of years, this site has examined, mentioned, discussed or suggested around 250 examples of ‘control’ features or methods designed into products, systems and environments – many of which have come from readers’ suggestions and comments on earlier posts. I’d resisted classifying them too much, since my original attempt wasn’t entirely satisfactory, and it seemed as though it might be better to amass a large quantity of examples and then see what emerged, rather than try to fit every example into a pre-defined framework.

As I start work on the PhD, though, it becomes more important to formalise, to some extent, the characteristics of the different examples, in order to identify trends and common intentions (and solutions) across different fields. My thinking is that while the specific strategy behind each example may be completely disparate, there are, on some levels, commonalities of intention.

Abstracting to the general…

For example, paving an area with pebbles to make it uncomfortable for barefoot protesters to congregate – U Texas, Austin and a system which curtails a targeted individual’s mobility by remotely disabling a public transport pay-card have very different specific strategies, but the overall intention in both cases is to restrict access based on some characteristic of the user, whether it’s bare feet or some data field in an ID system. In one case the intended ‘strength’ of the method is fairly weak (it’s more about discouragement); in the other the intended strength is high: this individual’s freedom must be curtailed, and attempted circumvention must be detected.

In the case of the pebbles, we might describe the method as something like “Change of material or surface texture or characteristic”, which would also apply to, for example, rumble strips on a road; the method of disabling the pay-card might be described as “Authentication-based function lockout”, which could also describe, say, a padlock, at least on the level of keyholder authentication rather than actual identity verification. (Note, though, that the rumble strip example doesn’t match the access-restriction intention, instead being about making users aware of their speed. Similar methods can be used to achieve different aims.)

…and back to the specific again

Of course, this process of abstracting from the specific example (with a specific strategy) to a general principle (both intention, and method) can then be reversed, but with a different specific strategy in mind. The actual specific strategy is independent of the general principle. Readers familiar with TRIZ will recognise this approach – from this article on the TRIZ Journal website:

TRIZ research began with the hypothesis that there are universal principles of creativity that are the basis for creative innovations that advance technology. If these principles could be identified and codified, they could be taught to people to make the process of creativity more predictable. The short version of this is:

Somebody someplace has already solved this problem (or one very similar to it.)
Creativity is now finding that solution and adapting it to this particular problem.

Much of the practice of TRIZ consists of learning these repeating patterns of problems-solutions, patterns of technical evolution and methods of using scientific effects, and then applying the general TRIZ patterns to the specific situation that confronts the developer.

So, following on from the above examples, where else is restricting access based on some characteristic of the user ‘useful’ to some agency or other? (Clearly there are many instances where most readers will probably feel that restricting access in this way is very undesirable, and I agree.) But let’s say, from the point of view of encouraging / persuading / guiding / forcing users into more environmentally friendly behaviour (which is the focus of my PhD research), that it would be useful to use some characteristic of a user to restrict or allow access to something which might cause unnecessary environmental impact.

An in-car monitoring system could adjust the sensitivity (or the response curve) of the accelerator pedal so that a habitually heavy-footed driver’s fuel use is reduced, whilst not affecting someone who usually drives economically anyway. (A persuasive, rather than controlling alternative would be a system which monitors driver behaviour over time and gives feedback on how to improve economy, such as the Foot-LITE being developed at Brunel by Dr Mark Young). Or perhaps a householder who throws away a lot of rubbish one week (which is recorded by the bin) is prevented from throwing away as much the next week – each taxpayer is given a certain allocation of rubbish per year, and this is enforced by an extension of the ‘bin-top spy’ already being introduced to prevent the bin being opened once the limit has been reached (OK, cue massive fly-tipping: it’s not a good idea – but you can bet someone, somewhere, has thought of it).

Both of the above ‘control’ examples strike me as technical overkill, unnecessarily intrusive and unnecessarily coercive, but thinking on a simpler level and extending the ‘characteristic of the user’ parameter to include characteristics of an object borne by the user (such as the key mentioned earlier), we might include everything from the circular slots and flaps on bottle banks (which make it more difficult to put other types of rubbish in – restricting access based on a characteristic of what the user’s trying to put in it), to narrower parking spaces or physical width restrictions to prevent (or discourage) wider vehicles (such as 4x4s) from being used in city centres.

At this stage, these thoughts are fairly undeveloped, and I’m sure the methods of classification will evolve and mature, but even writing a post such as this helps to clarify the ideas in my mind. The real test of any system such as this is whether it can be used to suggest or generate worthwhile new ideas, and so far I haven’t reached this level.

Plug: Wilson Brothers’ blog

Nike bike by the Wilson Brothers

Bit of a design-related plug: London designer/maker Ben Wilson (with whom I’m currently working on a project for Sir Clive Sinclair) and his brothers, Oscar and Luke, have just launched their own collaborative photo blog, which I helped set up using WordPress.com, a mildly modified Sandbox theme and automatic email-to-blog (via Flickr) to allow the simplest method of photoblogging I could think of.

Between them the Wilson brothers take a lot of great photos of interesting and inspirational design, places, vehicles and people, as well as chronicling their own projects, and I think the blog’s going to get quite a bit of attention. The blog’s starting with a look at the building of a one-off bike commissioned by Nike (shown above), with some extraordinary detailing (cut leather decals and intricate stainless steel lugs).

Friday quote: Precedents (the flipside)

'The Briton' door closer.

As a flipside, perhaps, to the quote on precedents from a couple of weeks ago:

If there is something really cool, and you can’t understand why somebody hasn’t done it before, it’s because you haven’t done it yourself.

(From Lion Kimbro‘s fascinating How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think.)

The way I interpret that is that every previous person who has come up with the idea has been dissuaded by the same thought, viz. ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that before?’ and thus this is the problem.

When you come up with an idea, whether as a designer, engineer, scientist, thinker, writer, programmer, educator, anything, two of the biggest objections you’ll face are:

a) I bet that’s not original. Therefore, it’s no good.
b) Why hasn’t anyone done that before? It can’t be any good.

But in an abstract sense, we shouldn’t be put off by the existence or non-existence of precedents. It can be useful to learn from others’ success (and failures), of course, but independent thought and development (even if unknowingly following others’ work) so often seem to be at the heart of genuine progress.

Image: ‘The Briton’ door closer, from an era when it was considered worth branding and having pride in the design of a product such as this.

Shaping behaviour: Part 2

Dashboard of 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST, on B1098 somewhere near March
Speedometer, rev counter and fuel and temperature gauges on the dashboard of my 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST. Photo taken on B1098 alongside Sixteen Foot Drain, Isle of Ely, England.

In part 1 of ‘Shaping behaviour’, we took a look at ‘sticks and carrots’ as approaches for shaping (or changing) people’s behaviour. It’s especially worth reading and thinking about the comments on that post as there are some very thoughtful analyses which go beyond my rather cursory treatment. ‘Shaping behaviour’ is a vast field, encompassing pretty much all of politics, advertising and marketing alongside much of religion, education, psychology (and psychiatry?), product and graphic design.

The ‘sticks, carrots and speedometers’ classification was originally mentioned to me as a possible method by Chris Vanstone, of the UK Design Council’s former research arm, RED. The idea is that you can get people to change their behaviour by persuading (or forcing) them with ‘sticks’ (punishment/disincentives), ‘carrots’ (rewards) or ‘speedometers’ (showing them the results of their actions, how they’re doing, or how well they could be doing if they changed their behaviour). Having looked at sticks and carrots – and found the classification rather limiting – let’s take a look at speedometers.

Some gauges provide information which directly relates to a user’s actions at that time. An actual speedometer or rev counter allows the user to determine what effect his or her actions are having on a vehicle, and take corrective action if the information displayed is outside the ‘correct’ range (of course there are other factors, such as the resistance to motion from drag or going uphill, and if one can hear the engine, a rev counter’s perhaps not really necessary, but I digress). Other gauges, such as fuel or temperature gauges (see photo at top) show us information over which we can’t have so much direct influence (or, in the case of a clock, say, no influence…) but about which we need to take action if certain levels are reached. Certainly, we change our behaviour as a result of taking in the information displayed. Usually. And the speedometer can of course be a metaphor for other methods of feedback or information displays – which I’ll get to later on.

Energy use

Sticking with physical gauges for the moment, in recent times there’s been a lot of design effort put into devices which monitor and display our energy or fuel use, with the hope that they’ll persuade us to change our behaviour, or bring to our attention which devices (e.g. in a home) are more power-hungry than others in an immediately persuasive way. The Design Council’s Future Currents project, which investigated a range of interesting techniques and design approaches, put the idea well:

Energy is invisible, which makes it difficult to control. We can give people the tools to monitor their own energy use. Studies show that if people can see what they’re using, they use up to 15% less energy.

An anecdote in Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy claims an even larger reduction:

The manager of a housing co-op was increasingly frustrated with her tenants. No matter how much she reminded and badgered them… the tenants would not, could not reduce their energy consumption. Finally she hit an idea. What would happen, she wondered, if the electricity meters were moved from the basement to a conspicuous spot right beside the front door, so that each time the tenants left or entered their home, they could see how fast their meter was whirring? The meters were moved. Lo and behold, within a few weeks electricity consumption fell 30 percent.

(It’s not clear whether there were individual meters so tenants could see each other’s consumption – that kind of control by embarrassment, or social pressure, may be effective in this free-rider or unequal contribution situation.)

Wattbox by Gary Lockton, 1992 You make waste visible. From Design Anarchy by Kalle Lasn
Wattson - image from diykyoto.com Example 'greenness gauge' from Design Council's Future Currents website
Flower Lamp Power Aware Cord
Above left: Wattbox by Gary Lockton, Brunel University, 1992, a simple unit which displayed the cost of electricity being used as well as estimated bills; Above right: ‘You make waste visible’ from Kalle Lasn’s Design Anarchy; Centre left: Wattson, from DIYKyoto; Centre right: An example ‘greenness gauge’ from the Design Council’s Future Currents project; Bottom left: Static! Flower Lamp ‘blooms’ when a household has reduced its power consumption for a period; Bottom right: Static! Power Aware Cord glows with an intensity related to the power being used. First image courtesy of Paul Turnock; other images from the websites linked.

The convergence of new monitoring and connectivity technologies such as home wireless networks and RFID, with the pressure to scrutinise our environmental impact, has meant that there are more opportunities for potentially persuasive, interesting ways of approaching this area. Tom Coates has some good thoughts on this, and the relation to continuous monitoring of other parts of our (and others’) lives, and how fascinating it can be. Wattson (thanks to both Richard Reynolds and Michelle Douglas for originally bringing this to my attention) takes an especially ‘designer’ approach, becoming a coffee-table talking point as well as showing (in different display modes) the power currently being used, the costs, and, via a coloured glow projected onto the table below, a non-numerical indication of the intensity of power usage. Similarly playful methods are used in some of the Static! projects from Stockholm’s Interactive Institute – perhaps, in fact, when the ‘event’ which occurs as the ‘speedometer’ registers more desirable values is exciting in itself, the technique is closer to a ‘carrot’ than a speedometer.

EU energy label A mess of adaptors
Left: The Energy Label, required on certain products/packaging in the EU; Right: A typical mess of adaptors powering home electronic equipment. Here we have a scanner, a power drill charger, a printer (plug hidden), a battery charger and a cutting plotter. How easy is it for a consumer to audit the power usage of this kind of mess?

The related debate over standby buttons on home electrical equipment which I covered briefly in July last year, brought home an important point to me, as someone who’s worked on quite a few consumer electronic products powered from adaptors: many users think that if a red LED is on when the product is ‘off’, that little LED is all that’s being powered. That’s quite an important issue when it comes to consumers having a better understanding of their home energy use.

When seeing the Wattson and Future Currents projects for the first time, I was tempted to say “well, why don’t people just look at the power ratings on the appliances they buy?” but soon realised that that’s a pretty entrenched engineering mindset rearing itself in my mind. People don’t want to have to look on a label on the back of the product. They mostly don’t think about energy use when buying products. Even the use of ‘green’ labelling on the front of products (e.g. the EU label shown above) doesn’t hit home the actual monetary costs of different devices over typical usage periods. In this sense, monitoring devices which really get the user interested in using products more efficiently do seem to be very much worth it, even when they themselves use more power than strictly ‘necessary’.

(There are a few points I’d like to make about home lighting and ‘energy saving’ light bulbs, especially since some aspects of the recent blogosphere commentary made me think a little further, but they can wait for another day…)

Economy gauges

Economy vacuum gauge MPG meter from Toyota Camry
Left: A traditional analogue vacuum gauge showing ‘fuel economy’. Image from brochure for Reliant Rialto 2, 1984; Right: Toyota’s Eco Drive meter from the Camry – image from HybridCars.com. As an aside, I have no idea how 35-40 mpg can be considered ‘excellent’! What year is this?

Moving away from home electricity consumption, the increased prevalence of electronic in-car trip computers, usually built-in, has meant that second-by-second fuel economy read-outs are much more common, and can again inspire a kind of self-challenge to maximise economy while driving. As the miles-per-gallon (or perhaps L/100 km) figure drops (or increases) with every blip on the accelerator or rapid acceleration from the traffic lights, drivers really can train themselves to change their behaviour (indeed, I know a couple of people who are constantly shifting their gaze from the road ahead down to, alternately, the speedometer and the miles per gallon figure, to see “how well they are doing”, which is not necessarily ideal). Economy gauges in cars are nothing new – vacuum gauges were quite a popular home-fit accessory at one time, but they generally did not directly relate to the fuel consumption per distance travelled, merely the vacuum in the inlet manifold, hence the amount of fuel-air mixture being drawn through, whether or not the car were moving.

An alternative type of economy gauge was that once used by Volvo and other manufacturers, which compared the engine’s rpm (or the gearbox rpm?) to the gear selected (manual only, I presume) and illuminated a gearstick icon when the driver was in the ‘wrong’ gear, i.e. driving at less than optimum efficiency. Even more simply, some car companies used to mark the ‘gearchange points’ on the speedometer with dots at certain speeds – assuming the driver could not tell from the engine note that the gear engaged was too high or low, the dots would at least give some indication, though of course different driving conditions and loads would make the dots’ positions guidelines rather than absolutes. (I do have photographs of both these designs, somewhere, but will have to post them at some point in the future.)

Speedometers and control

Certainly, then, physical speedometers and gauges can have an effect on users’ behaviour and can encourage people to change; technology seems to be making this easier and more interesting and engaging. There are so many opportunities; already in some countries, there are roadside speed displays to make motorists aware of their speed (which present a fun challenge for drivers, or indeed cyclists, wanting to see what they can achieve) – how long before we have roadside CO2 monitoring (with displays)?

But are any of these ‘architectures of control’?

In the sense that they are methods of persuasion rather than methods of restriction or enforcement, they are on one side of a line with rigid control on the other, but when we look at techniques such as the control by embarrassment, or social pressure mentioned earlier, we can see that there is some kind of continuum related to how the information displayed by the speedometer (of whatever form) is used: if only you can see your personal energy usage habits within a house, you can make the choice whether or not to change your behaviour, but if the rest of your household can also see your habits, and see that you’re costing them unnecessary money, the pressure on you to change is much greater.

That, I think, is where the ‘control’ element comes in. Say that every household’s yearly carbon emissions (however this were to be calculated) were monitored. If the information were available to the householders, it may give them food for thought, and may inspire changing behaviour. If the information were available to the government, it may lead to taxation, and may lead to changing behaviour. If the information were legally required to be displayed on an illuminated sign outside the house, so neighbours could see who was “getting away with more carbon emissions”, it may (perhaps) lead to people changing behaviour too, or risk recriminations from the community, possibly worse than just social embarrassment. This last case is pretty much speedometer + blackmail, and I would say that that crosses the line to become control. If you want to fit in, and not be censured by others, you have to conform. That is an architecture of control, very much so, and hence we can see that speedometers, as with many other possible design elements, can be used as part of systems of control, but are not in themselves necessarily political. It’s the way they’re used that makes them, possibly, controversial.

The speedometer metaphor

Metaphorically, of course, a speedometer can be any method of making users aware of their behaviour, or the link between their behaviour and some other effect. Many of the examples studied and created by Stanford’s Captology / Persuasive Technology lab fall into this area, offering users feedback on their actions, or encouraging them to behave in a certain way (e.g. giving up smoking) through highlighting causal relationships.

But isn’t this, to some extent, what all persuasion is about, if we allow our ‘speedometer’ to have, in some situations, only two values (on/’good’ vs off/’bad’)? Everything ‘persuasive’, from advertising campaigns to counselling, is about saying “A is happening/not happening because you’re doing/not doing B; it will be better/stop happening if you stop/start doing C.” A speedometer is saying “You’re doing OK because this is the result of your actions” or “Look at the results of your actions – you need to change what you’re doing!”

Is it true, then to say that any situation where one entity (person/animal/plant) is trying to change the behaviour of another entity is resolved either by control (forcing the change in behaviour) or persuasion (inspiring the change in behaviour), or a combination of the two (e.g. by tricking the entity into changing behaviour)?

Or is that too simplistic?