All posts filed under “Observation

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!

Thoughtful Acts

Push Table, Jennifer Hing
Above & below: ‘Push’ Table by Jennifer Hing.
Push Table, Jennifer Hing

Jane Fulton Suri‘s wonderful Thoughtless Acts? chronicles, visually, “those intuitive ways we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking” – effectively, examples of valid affordances perceived by users, which were not designed intentionally.

Observing how people actually ‘make use’ of/hack the products, systems and environments around thememergent user behaviour – and extracting lessons and ideas which can then be applied developing new and improved products, is a cornerstone of IDEO’s human factors strategy, and it seems to have been very successful. It’s an intelligent way of designing.

So I was excited to see, at New Designers last week, some inspired projects based around exactly this kind of thinking.

Jennifer Hing (Manchester Metropolitan, Three Dimensional Design) has dedicated her work to just this principle (as she puts it, “I design around people’s natural behaviour, bending objects around the fine details of living”) with a pair of beautifully simple, efficient pieces of furniture, the ‘Push’ Table and Hallway Stand, both of which intentionally afford users what they’d like to do anyway, at just the right moment:

Clearing the table is a simple task made complicated by the search for an alternative surface to temporarily relocate anything removed. An easy and desirable solution is to push everything off the surface and out the way, yet this movement is contrary to what culture, experience and common sense has taught us.

This table is based around the ‘pushing’ action. The sloped surface gently catches falling items, containing them until next required. It allows the most basic and initial response to clearing the table to take place.

As someone whose filing system consists mostly of using every horizontal surface I can find to deposit strata of tools, books, papers, components, etc, the utility of the Push Table resonates very much. I can even imagine building (adjustable) separators into the sloped section, to allow a primitive physical filing system to emerge (but see also Anna Harris’s Ifiltro, discussed below).

Push Table, Jennifer Hing
Above: ‘Push’ Table; Below: Hallway Stand by Jennifer Hing.
Hallway Stand, Jennifer HingHallway Stand, Jennifer Hing

The hallway… holds strong routines in preparation for departure, individual to everyone. It can range from busy and hectic to quiet and empty within seconds, it experiences different weights of traffic depending on the time of day and is the instant dumping ground for anything that may arrive through the front door. It is an intense yet brief environment… The Hallway Stand is the amalgamated solution to many of the little actions and issues we have in that particular environment. It provides one collected place for coats, shoes, bags, keys, post and anything else we allow to loiter there. The aim is to simplify and contain this highly functional area.

It’s angled so it can be leant against any wall, with the shelf/drawer/oddment tray horizontal, and has an array of peg-type hooks that by the look of it could be used for lots of different things. Again, almost inviting emergent behaviour. Jennifer’s personal statement is also, very rarely for a new graduate designer, clear and eloquent about what she wants to do: “I want to make better use of and develop people’s initiative alongside bringing ease and fluidity to everyday actions.” I wish her the best of luck: this approach to design really is an open door waiting to be pushed, if only you can find where to push.

My Table, Tiina Hakala
Above & below: My Table by Tiina Hakala
My Table, Tiina HakalaMy Table, Tiina Hakala

Tiina Hakala‘s My Table embodies some similar thinking (as does her Stor chair):

This project started as a research how people misuse items, for example how we often sit on tables or hang our clothes on door handles. This ‘unintentional design’ worked as an inspiration for My Table. We often use our desks for something totally different than working… I tried to keep this in mind and find a storing solution for the endless items, lamps, pens, paper folders, etc, we keep on our desks.

My Table offers endless possibilities to customize your workspace. The re-configurable sheet metal parts slide between two tabletops that allow you to move them around and organize them in an order that fits perfectly for you.

Again, this is a clever and neat approach – the variety of parts reminded me of the kinds of add-on bins, brackets and workpiece holders often found around machine tools where experienced machinists have adapted their environment to match their workflow. (Looking in detail at how other people set up their workshops/studios/desktops (in all senses) is endlessly fascinating.) Tiina’s system uses a table top with a slot all the way round to hold the tab on the add-on parts, but a system with adjustable clamps (sprung or threaded) could also work very well, if perhaps not as elegantly.

In addition to the utility value, there’s also the ‘personalisation’ benefit, as Tiina (UCCA Rochester, Furniture & Product Design) mentions on her website: arranging these holders, lamps, bins, hooks and so on does allow a workspace to match the user’s mental model much more closely, while displaying some personality. (Still, I’ve held by the “messy desk a sign of a sophisticated mind” philosophy ever since seeing a newspaper article with that title stuck to the underside of another kid’s desk lid at the age of 8 or 9.)

ifiltro, Anna Harris
Above & below: Ifiltro table by Anna Harris
ifiltro, Anna Harris

The Ifiltro table, by Anna Harris, is very clever indeed. As the accompanying cards explained:

Remove items from your pockets – Drop or place the contents onto the Ifiltro table top – Small items such as keys and money will filter through to a drawer below.

I don’t know if Anna’s thinking was along the same lines as Jennifer and Tiina’s, but the design’s addressing a very similar area, and it’s something that’s simple and, fundamentally, elegant.

It reminds me of an example I saw in a (GCSE?) design & technology textbook, where a student’s design for a ‘machine to sort two different sizes of marbles’ (a brief which may conjure up images of sensors, comparators, gates, etc) was simply two diverging steel rails made out of coat hangers, with two trays underneath, so that as they rolled along the rails, smaller marbles dropped into the first tray and larger marbles into the second. We don’t see that sort of design thinking often enough – I guess it’s a kind of analogue computing (I know I’ve gone on about it before).

What do all these projects have in common? They’re fundamentally about matching the product’s affordances to what the user would like to be able to do in a situation, based on observations of users’ behaviour and unintended perceived affordances found in artefacts. That’s quite a mouthful. We could call it designing for behaviour, maybe. It’s design to match behaviour rather than design to cause behaviour (which is most of what I talk about on this site).

But then, the affordance of, say, the sloping section on Jennifer’s table, means that a user will perceive it and be more likely (probably) to use it, than sweep stuff onto the floor. So it does ’cause’ user behaviour, in a way, as does all design.

I’ll come back to this idea, as once we start looking at products with more technological content, it perhaps becomes easier to distinguish the ideas of ‘product behaviour’, ‘user behaviour’ and ‘overall behaviour’ (an idea I’m grateful to Ed Elias for).

Normalising paranoia

This is brilliant. Chloë Coulson, Erland Banggren and Ben Williams, three Ravensbourne graduates, have put together a project looking at the “culture of fear”, the media’s use of this, and how it affects our everyday state of mind.

The outcome is a catalogue, WellBeings™ [PDF link] accompanying a specially printed newspaper, The Messenger, designed to be used with special rose-tinted spectacles – simple, yet very clever:

Feeling brave? Read the paper as usual. Feeling fragile? Put on the rose-tinted spectacles to block out the bad news stories which are printed in the same hue as the lenses so it becomes invisible.

The products in the catalogue cater for people made increasingly paranoid by aspects of modern society, by ‘normalising’ paranoia – ranging from H-ear-Phones which allow you to hear what others are saying about you, to Rear-View Mirror spectacles to allow you to keep an eye on who might be following you. As Chloë puts it:

The whole project is about questioning attitudes – should we live in fear – are we safer that way, or should we live for now and not worry about what could happen.

There are also a couple of products in there which are actually defensive weapons – a pepper spray disguised as a perfume atomiser, and house-key-cum-knuckleduster, and these seem to go beyond mere paranoia. All of these products are very plausible, and indeed, some of them are probably commercially viable. Whilst none of these is an architecture of control as such, I felt that they deserved inclusion here – pertinent to the sousveillance discussion, and also the idea of users turning products against instrusive aspects of society, from relatively simple items such as the Knee Defender (prevent the person in front of you on an aircraft reclining his or her seat) to Limor Fried’s Design Noir work on using electronic devices to create social defence mechanisms.

Equally – while perhaps not the focus of the project – the rose-tinted spectacles idea parallels closely the phenomenon of increasing self-selection of the news we expose ourselves to, as the internet and hundreds of TV channels allow segmentation like never before. The idea of a newspaper bringing readers only ‘good’ news has been tried a number of times (a recent example one-off) and has inspired some interesting pieces, but modern media permits many more coloured filters than simply rose-tinting. Clearly, to a large extent, deliberate use of this segmentation can permit intentional reinforcement, entrenchment, even inspiration of certain views and behaviours. Self-selected exposure to propaganda is a curious phenomenon, but one with enormous power.

Smile, you’re on Countermanded Camera

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

We’ve looked before at a number of technologies and products aimed at ‘preventing’ photography and image recording in some way, from censoring photographs of ‘copyrighted content’ and banknotes, to Georgia Tech’s CCD-flooding system.

Usually these systems are about locking out the public, or removing freedoms in some way (a lot of organisations seem to fear photography), but a few ‘fightback’ devices have been produced, aiming to empower the individual against others (e.g. Hewlett-Packard’s ‘paparazzi-proof’ camera) or against authority (e.g. the Backflash system intended to render a car number plate unreadable when photographed by a speed camera). The field of sousveillance – lots of interesting articles by Régine Debatty here – is also a ‘fightback’ in a parallel vein.

Taking the fightback idea further, into the realms of everyware, Miquel Mora’s IDentity Protection System, shown last month at the RCA’s Great Exhibition (many thanks to Katrin Svabo Bech for the tip-off), aims to offer the individual a way to control how his or her image is recorded – again, Régine from We Make Money Not Art:

With IDPS (IDentity Protection System), interaction designer Miquel Mora is proposing a new way to protect our visual identity from the invasion of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. He had a heap of green stickers that could stick to your jacket. Or anywhere else. The sticker blurred your image on the video screen.

“With the IDPS project I wanted to sparkle [sic.] debate about all the issues related to identity privacy,” explains Miquel. “Make people think about how our society has become a complete surveillance machine. Our identities have already been stored as data in many servers ready to be tracked. And our self image is our last resort. So we really need tools to protect our privacy. We need tools that can allow us to hide or reveal our visual image. We must have the control over it.”

“For example in one scenario a girl is wearing a tooth jewellery with IDPS technology embedded. So when she smiles she reveals it and it triggers the camera to protect her. With IDPS users can always feel comfortable, knowing that with a simple gesture like smiling, they are in control. The IDPS technology could be embedded in all kind of items, from simple badges to clothes or jewellery. For the working prototype I’m using Processing to track the stickers and pixelate the image around when it founds one.”

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

While the use of stickers or similar tags (why not RFID?) which can be embedded in items such as jewellery is a very neat idea aesthetically, I am not sure what economic/legal incentive would drive CCTV operators or manufacturers to include something such as IDPS in their systems and respect the wishes of users. CCTV operators generally do not want anyone to be able to exclude him or herself from being monitored and recorded, whether that’s by wearing a hoodie or a smart black hat with maroon ribbon. Or indeed a veil of some kind.

Something which actively fought back against unwanted CCTV or other surveillance intrusion, such as reversing the Georgia Tech system in some way (e.g. detecting the CCD of a digital security camera, and sending a laser to blind it temporarily, or perhaps some kind of UV strobe) would perhaps be more likely to ‘succeed’, although I’m not sure how legal it would be. Still, with RCA-quality interaction designers homing in on these kinds of issues, I think we’re going to see some very interesting concepts and solutions in the years ahead…

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 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 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?

Some links: miscellaneous, pertinent to architectures of control

Ulises Mejias on ‘Confinement, Education and the Control Society’ – fascinating commentary on Deleuze’s societies of control and how the instant communication and ‘life-long learning’ potential (and, I guess, everyware) of the internet age may facilitate control and repression:

“This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.”

Slashdot on ‘A working economy without DRM?’ – same debate as ever, but some very insightful comments

Slashdot on ‘Explaining DRM to a less-experienced PC user’ – I particularly like SmallFurryCreature’s ‘Sugar cube’ analogy

‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ by Karl Fogel – extremely clear analysis of the history of copyright and, especially, the way it has been presented to the public over the centuries

(Via BoingBoing) The Entertrainer – a heart monitor-linked TV controller: your TV stays on with the volume at a usable level only while you keep exercising at the required rate. Similar concept to Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes