Category Archives: Design attitudes

Report: Most people just trying to get by

Cubicles (image by Michael Lokner, used under CC licence)

Most people, for most of their day, are trying to get by. Every day is essentially a series of problems, some minor, some major, some requiring more thought than others. Some we care a lot about; some we wish we didn’t have to. Some are welcome; some we even bring on ourselves because we enjoy solving them; others are deeply unwelcome. Some we care about initially, but then find we no longer do; some we don’t care about to start with, but they become important to us over time.
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Sort some cards and win a copy of The Hidden Dimension

The Hidden Dimension

UPDATE: Thanks everyone – 10 participants in just a few hours! The study’s closed now – congratulations to Ville Hjelm whose book is now on its way…

If you’ve got a few minutes spare, are interested in the Design with Intent techniques, and fancy having a 1/10 chance of winning a brand-new copy of The Hidden Dimension, Edward T Hall’s classic 1966 work on proxemics (very worthwhile reading if you’re involved in any way with the design of environments, either architecturally or in an interaction design sense), then please do have a go at this quick card-sorting exercise [now closed].

It makes use of the pinball / shortcut / thoughtful user models I introduced in the last post, so it would probably make sense to have that page open alongside the exercise. The DwI techniques will be presented to you distinct from the ‘lenses’ (Errorproofing, Cognitive etc) so don’t worry about them.

The free WebSort account I’m using for this only allows 10 participants, so be quick and get a chance of winning the book! Once 10 people have done it, I’ll draw one of the participants out of some kind of hat or bucket and email you to get your postal address.

The purpose here (a closed card-sort, to use Donna Spencer‘s terminology) is, basically, to find out whether the pinball / shortcut / thoughtful models allow the DwI techniques to be assigned to particular ways of thinking about users – that make sense to a reasonable proportion of designers. There’s no right or wrong answer, but if 80% of you tell me that one technique seems to fit well with one model, while for another there’s no agreement at all, then that’s useful for me to know in developing the method.

Thanks for your help!

Card sorting

Cover photo from Amazon

Modelling users: Pinballs, shortcuts and thoughtfulness

The different approaches to influencing people’s behaviour outlined in the Design with Intent toolkit are pretty diverse. Working out how to apply them to your design problem, and when they might be useful, probably requires you, as a designer, to think of “the user” or “users” in a number of different ways in relation to the behaviour you’re trying to influence. I’ve thought about this a bit, and reckon there are maybe three main ways of thinking about users – models, if you like – that are relevant here. (These are distinct from the enabling / motivating / constraining idea.)

The ‘Pinball’ User

In this case, you think of users as, pretty much, very simple components of your system, to be shunted and pushed and pulled around by what you design, whether it’s physical or digital architecture. This view basically doesn’t assume that the user thinks at all, beyond basic reflex responses: the user’s a pinball (maybe a slightly spongey one) pushed and pulled this way and that, but with no requirement for understanding coming from within [1,2].

While things like deliberately uncomfortable benches or the Mosquito act against the Pinball User – effectively treating users like animals – this view need not always take such a negative approach – lots of safety systems, even down to making sure different shape connectors are used on medical equipment to prevent mistaken connections, don’t mind whether the user understands what’s going on or not: it’s in everyone’s interests to influence behaviour on the most basic level possible, without requiring thought.

The ‘Shortcut’ User

Here, you think of users as being primarily interested in getting things done in the easiest way possible, with the least effort. So you assume that they’ll take shortcuts [3], or make decisions based on intuitive judgements (Is this like something I’ve used before? How does everyone else use this? I expect this does what it looks like it does), habits, and recognising simple patterns that influence how they behave.

The Shortcut User is assumed not to want to think too much about what’s going on behind the scenes, beyond getting things done. He or she’s not always thinking about the best way of doing things, but a way that seems to work [4]. If systems are designed well to accommodate this, they can feel very easy to use, intuitively usable, and influence user behaviour through these kinds of shortcut mechanisms rather than anything deeper [5]. But there’s clearly potential for manipulation, or leading users into behaviour they wouldn’t choose for themselves if they weren’t taking the shortcuts.

The ‘Thoughtful’ User

Thoughtful Users are assumed to think about what they are doing, and why, analytically: open to being persuaded through reasoned arguments [6] about why some behaviours are better than others, maybe motivating them to change their attitudes about a subject as a precursor to changing their behaviour mindfully. If you think of your users as being Thoughtful, you will probably be presenting them with information and feedback which allows them to explore the implications of what they’re doing, and understand the world around them better.

Most of us like to model ourselves as Thoughtful Users, even though we know we don’t always fit the model. It’s probably the same with most people: so knowing when it’s appropriate to assume that users are being mindful of their behaviour, and when they’re not, will be important for the ‘success’ of a design.


Of course there are many other ways you can model the user. But these seem like they might be useful ways of thinking, and of classifying the actual design techniques for influencing behaviour [PDF] according to what assumptions they make about users. I will try to test their validity / usefulness as part of my trials.

See the next post for how you can get involved with that…

From an academic psychology (or behavioural economics) point of view, the boundaries between these models of the user are maybe too blurry. Shortcut User is assumed to be pretty much like a System 1 thinker, while Thoughtful User is System 2. Straying inadvisedly into areas I know little about, Pinball User may well be assumed to be a user only using the R-complex, though I’m not sure this fits especially well. But if the distinctions are useful to designers, in the context of actually developing products and services, that (to be honest) is what matters from my point of view.

To develop the three models described above, I was inspired by this Interactions article (also here) by Hugh Dubberly, Paul Pangaro and Usman Haque, which draws on some of Kenneth Boulding’s General Systems Theory [PDF] to characterise a range of ordered system ‘combinations’ in which the user can be a part. The Pinball User corresponds pretty much to the ‘Reacting’ system; the Thoughtful User is a ‘Learning’ system; the Shortcut User is perhaps a special case of a ‘Regulating’ system (self-regulating negative feedback to damp variation, to minimise effort, boundedly rational).

I haven’t yet explored applying Leonard Talmy’s Force Dynamics, as suggested by Simon Winter to these aspects of modelling the user / interaction. I will do, in due course.

[1] Perhaps analogous to Lawrence Lessig’s ‘pathetic dot’
[2] I’m grateful to Sebastian Deterding for the explicit concept of user-as-pinball
[3] Heuristics & biases (Kahneman & Tversky)
[4] Satisficing (Simon)
[5] Peripheral route persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo)
[6] Central route persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo)

Pinball photo by ktpupp on Flickr, CC-licensed. Shortcut photo (desire path) by Alan Stanton on Flickr, CC-licensed. Thoughtful photo by Esther Dyson on Flickr, CC-licensed.

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.


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.

Nudges and the power of choice architecture

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

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

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

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

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

Choice architecture

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

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

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

“Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)

Image from Your Local Guardian website

Adrian Short let me know about something going on in Sutton, Surrey, at the same time both fundamentally pathetic and indicative of the mindset of many public authorities in ‘dealing with’ emergent behaviour:

An area in Rosehill, known locally as “the steps”, is to be re-designed to stop young people sitting there.

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it.

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

It’s well worth reading the readers’ comments, since – to many people’s apparent shock – Emma, a ‘young person’, actually read the article and responded with her thoughts and concerns, spurring the debate into what seems to be a microcosm of the attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and paranoia that define modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people’. The councillor quoted above responded too – near the bottom of the page – and Adrian’s demolition of his ‘understanding’ of young people is direct and eloquent:

One thing young people and older people have in common is a desire to be left alone to do their own thing, provided that they are not causing trouble to others. People like Emma and her friends are not. They do not want to be told that they can go to one place but not another. They do not want to be cajoled, corralled and organised by the state — they get enough of that at school. They certainly do not want to be disadvantaged as a group because those in charge — you — are unable to deal appropriately with a tiny minority of troublemakers in their midst.

EDIT: Adrian sends me a link to the council’s proposal [PDF, 55 kb] which contains a few real gems – as he puts it:

I really have no idea how they can write things like this with a straight face:

“It is normal practice to provide handrails to assist pedestrians. However, these have purposely been omitted from the proposals, as they could provide loiterers with something to lean against.”

and then,

“The scheme will cater for all sections of the local community.”