Category Archives: Public money

Designers, literature, abstracts and Concretes

Trinity College Dublin Library, by A little coffee with my cream and sugar on Flickr

Last week, I put a quick survey online asking how actual designers make use of academic literature.

It provoked some interesting discussion on Twitter as well as two great blog posts from Dr Nicola Combe and Clearleft’s Andy Budd exploring different aspects of the question: ways to get access to academic research, and the frustrations of the relationship between design practice and academia. Comments on Andy’s article from Vicky Teinaki and Sebastian Deterding helped draw out some of the issues in more detail (and highlighted some of the differences between fields). Kevin Couling has also blogged from the perspective of an engineer, drawing on Nicola’s post. Steven Shorrock pointed to his work with Amy Chung and Ann Williamson addressing similar issues, much more rigorously, within human factors and ergonomics [PDF]. Someone also reminded me that I’d already blogged about related issues back in 2007.

As of now, about 50 people have filled in the survey, a mixture of digital, physical and service design practitioners: thank you everyone, and thanks too to people who emailed comments in addition.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of survey responses (Google Docs) so far. I’ve had some good suggestions for other places to publicise it, so I’ll do this in due course to get a wider scope of practitioners’ opinions.
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How do actual designers use academic literature?

The whole point of doing research is to extract reliable knowledge from either the natural or artificial world, and to make that knowledge available to others in re-usable form.

Nigel Cross, ‘Design Research: A Disciplined Conversation’, Design Issues 15(2), 1999, p.9 [PDF link]

>>>Link to a very quick survey

It’s incredibly sad that it took Aaron Swartz’s death, but the issue of open access to academic literature has been dramatically brought to the fore again, coincident with interesting practical developments, some ‘official’ and some less so. The movement towards open access is not going to stop, and in some academic disciplines will leave the ‘landscape’ of journals and publication methods very different.
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‘Smart meters': some thoughts from a design point of view

Here’s my (rather verbose) response to the three most design-related questions in DECC’s smart meter consultation that I mentioned earlier today. Please do get involved in the discussion that Jamie Young’s started on the Design & Behaviour group and on his blog at the RSA.

Q12 Do you agree with the Government’s position that a standalone display should be provided with a smart meter?

Meter in the cupboard

Free-standing displays (presumably wirelessly connected to the meter itself, as proposed in [7, p.16]) could be an effective way of bringing the meter ‘out of the cupboard‘, making an information flow visible which was previously hidden. As Donella Meadows put it when comparing electricity meter placements [1, pp. 14-15] this provides a new feedback loop, “delivering information to a place where it wasn’t going before” and thus allowing consumers to modify their behaviour in response.

“An accessible display device connected to the meter” [2, p.8] or “series of modules connected to a meter” [3, p. 28] would be preferable to something where an extra step has to be taken for a consumer to access the data, such as only having a TV or internet interface for the information, but as noted [3, p.31] “flexibility for information to be provided through other formats (for example through the internet, TV) in addition to the provision of a display” via an open API, publicly documented, would be the ideal situation. Interesting ‘energy dashboard’ TV interfaces have been trialled in projects such as live|work‘s Low Carb Lane [6], and offer the potential for interactivity and extra information display supported by the digital television platform, but it would be a mistake to rely on this solely (even if simply because it will necessarily interfere with the primary reason that people have a television).

The question suggests that a single display unit would be provided with each meter, presumably with the householder free to position it wherever he or she likes (perhaps a unit with interchangeable provision for a support stand, a magnet to allow positioning on a refrigerator, a sucker for use on a window and hook to allow hanging up on the wall would be ideal – the location of the display could be important, as noted [4, p. 49]) but the ability to connect multiple display units would certainly afford more possibilities for consumer engagement with the information displayed as well as reducing the likelihood of a display unit being mislaid. For example, in shared accommodation where there are multiple residents all of whom are expected to contribute to a communal electricity bill, each person being aware of others’ energy use (as in, for example, the Watt Watchers project [5]) could have an important social proof effect among peers.

Open APIs and data standards would permit ranges of aftermarket energy displays to be produced, ranging from simple readouts (or even pager-style alerters) to devices and kits which could allow consumers to perform more complex analysis of their data (along the lines of the user-led innovative uses of the Current Cost, for example [8]) – another route to having multiple displays per household.

Q13 Do you have any comments on what sort of data should be provided to consumers as a minimum to help them best act to save energy (e.g. information on energy use, money, CO2 etc)?

Low targets?
This really is the central question of the whole project, since the fundamental assumption throughout is that provision of this information will “empower consumers” and thereby “change our energy habits” [3, p.13]. It is assumed that feedback, including real-time feedback, on electricity usage will lead to behaviour change: “Smart metering will provide consumers with tools with which to manage their energy consumption, enabling them to take greater personal responsibility for the environmental impacts of their own behaviour” [4, p.46]; “Access to the consumption data in real time provided by smart meters will provide consumers with the information they need to take informed action to save energy and carbon” [3, p.31].

Nevertheless, with “the predicted energy saving to consumers… as low as 2.8%” [4, p.18], the actual effects of the information on consumer behaviour are clearly not considered likely to be especially significant (this figure is more conservative than the 5-15% range identified by Sarah Darby [9]). It would, of course, be interesting to know whether certain types of data or feedback, if provided in the context of a well-designed interface could improve on this rather low figure: given the scale of the proposed roll-out of these meters (every household in the country) and the cost commitment involved, it would seem incredibly short-sighted not to take this opportunity to design and test better feedback displays which can, perhaps, improve significantly on the 2.8% figure.

(Part of the problem with a suggested figure as low as 2.8% is that it makes it much more difficult to defend the claim that the meters will offer consumers “important benefits” [3, p.27]. The benefits to electricity suppliers are clearer, but ‘selling’ the idea of smart meters to the public is, I would suggest, going to be difficult when the supposed benefits are so meagre.)

If we consider the use context of the smart meter from a consumer’s point of view, it should allow us to identify better which aspects are most important. What is a consumer going to do with the information received? How does the feedback loop actually occur in practice? How would this differ with different kinds of information?

Levels of display
Even aside from the actual ‘units’ debate (money / energy / CO2), there are many possible types and combinations of information that the display could show consumers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll divide them into three levels:

(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use / cost (self-monitoring)
(2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs (social proof + self-monitoring)
(3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions (simulation & feedforward + kairos + self-monitoring)

These are by no means mutually exclusive and I’d assume that any system providing (3) would also include (1), for example.

Nevertheless, it is likely that (1) would be the cheapest, lowest-common-denominator system to roll out to millions of homes, without (2) or (3) included – so if thought isn’t given to these other levels, it may be that (1) is all consumers get.

I’ve done mock-ups of the sort of thing each level might display (of course these are just ideas, and I’m aware that a) I’m not especially skilled in interface design, despite being very interested in it; and b) there’s no real research behind these) in order to have something to visualise / refer to when discussing them.

Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use, cost
(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use and cost

I’ve tried to express some of the concerns I have over a very simple, cheap implementation of (1) in a scenario, which I’m not claiming to be representative of what will actually happen – but the narrative is intended to address some of the ways this kind of display might be useful (or not) in practice:

Jenny has just had a ‘smart meter’ installed by someone working on behalf of her electricity supplier. It comes with a little display unit that looks a bit like a digital alarm clock. There’s a button to change the display mode to ‘cumulative’ or ‘historic’ but at present it’s set on ‘realtime’: that’s the default setting.

Jenny attaches it to her kitchen fridge with the magnet on the back. It’s 4pm and it’s showing a fairly steady value of 0.5 kW, 6 pence per hour. She opens the fridge to check how much milk is left, and when she closes the door again Jenny notices the figure’s gone up to 0.7 kW but drops again soon after the door’s closed, first to 0.6 kW but then back down to 0.5 kW again after a few minutes. Then her two teenage children, Kim and Laurie arrive home from school – they switch on the TV in the living room and the meter reading shoots up to 0.8 kW, then 1.1 kW suddenly. What’s happened? Jenny’s not sure why it’s changed so much. She walks into the living room and Kim tells her that Laurie’s gone upstairs to play on his computer. So it must be the computer, monitor, etc.

Two hours later, while the family’s sitting down eating dinner (with the TV on in the background), Jenny glances across at the display and sees that it’s still reading 1.1 kW, 13 pence per hour.

“Is your PC still switched on, Laurie?” she asks.
“Yeah, Mum,” he replies
“You should switch it off when you’re not using it; it’s costing us money.”
“But it needs to be on, it’s downloading stuff.”

Jenny’s not quite sure how to respond. She can’t argue with Laurie: he knows a lot more than her about computers. The phone rings and Kim puts the TV on standby to reduce the noise while talking. Jenny notices the display reading has gone down slightly to 1.0 kW, 12 pence per hour. She walks over and switches the TV off fully, and sees the reading go down to 0.8 kW.

Later, as it gets dark and lights are switched on all over the house, along with the TV being switched on again, and Kim using a hairdryer after washing her hair, with her stereo on in the background and Laurie back at his computer, Jenny notices (as she loads the tumble dryer) that the display has shot up to 6.5 kW, 78 pence per hour. When the tumble dryer’s switched on, that goes up even further to 8.5 kW, £1.02 per hour. The sight of the £ sign shocks her slightly – can they really be using that much electricity? It seems like the kids are costing her even more than she thought!

But what can she really do about it? She switches off the TV and sees the display go down to 8.2 kW, 98 pence per hour, but the difference seems so slight that she switches it on again – it seems worth 4 pence per hour. She decides to have a cup of tea and boils the kettle that she filled earlier in the day. The display shoots up to 10.5 kW, £1.26 pence per hour. Jenny glances at the display with a pained expression, and settles down to watch TV with her tea. She needs a rest: paying attention to the display has stressed her out quite a lot, and she doesn’t seem to have been able to do anything obvious to save money.

Six months later, although Jenny’s replaced some light bulbs with compact fluorescents that were being given away at the supermarket, and Laurie’s new laptop has replaced the desktop PC, a new plasma TV has more than cancelled out the reductions. The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

The main point I’m trying to get across there is that with a very simple display, the possible feedback loop is very weak. It relies on the consumer experimenting with switching items on and off and seeing the effect it has on the readings, which – while it will initially have a certain degree of investigatory, exploratory interest – may well quickly pall when everyday life gets in the way. Now, without the kind of evidence that’s likely to come out of research programmes such as the CHARM project [10], it’s not possible to say whether levels (2) or (3) would fare any better, but giving a display the ability to provide more detailed levels of information – particularly if it can be updated remotely – massively increases the potential for effective use of the display to help consumers decide what to do, or even to think about what they’re doing in the first place, over the longer term.

Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

(2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

A level (2) display would (in a much less cluttered form than what I’ve drawn above!) combine information about ‘what we’re doing’ (self-monitoring) with a reference, a norm – what other people are doing (social proof), either people in the same neighbourhood (to facilitate community discussion), or a more representative comparison such as ‘other families like us’, e.g. people with the same number of children of roughly the same age, living in similar size houses. There are studies going back to the 1970s (e.g. [11, 12]) showing dramatic (2 × or 3 ×) differences in the amount of energy used by similar families living in identical homes, suggesting that the behavioural component of energy use can be significant. A display allowing this kind of comparison could help make consumers aware of their own standing in this context.

However, as Wesley Schultz et al [13] showed in California, this kind of feedback can lead to a ‘boomerang effect’, where people who are told they’re doing better than average then start to care less about their energy use, leading to it increasing back up to the norm. It’s important, then, that any display using this kind of feedback treats a norm as a goal to achieve only on the way down. Schultz et al went on to show that by using a smiley face to demonstrate social approval of what people had done – affective engagement – the boomerang effect can be mitigated.

Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

(3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

A level (3) display would give consumers feedforward [14] – effectively, simulation of what the impact of their behaviour would be (switching on this device now rather than at a time when there’s a lower tariff – Economy 7 or a successor), and tips about how to use things more efficiently at the right moment (kairos), and in the right kind of environment, for them to be useful. Whereas ‘Tips of the Day’ in software frequently annoy users [15] because they get in the way of a user’s immediate task, with something relatively passive such as a smart meter display, this could be a more useful application for them. The networked capability of the smart meter means that the display could be updated frequently with new sets of tips, perhaps based on seasonal or weather conditions (“It’s going to be especially cold tonight – make sure you close all the curtains before you go to bed, and save 20p on heating”) or even special tariff changes for particular periods of high demand (“Everyone’s going to be putting the kettle on during the next ad break in [major event on TV]. If you’re making tea, do it now instead of in 10 minutes; time, and get a 50p discount on your next bill”).

Disaggregated data: identifying devices
This level (3) display doesn’t require any ability to know what devices a consumer has, or to be able to disaggregate electricity use by device. It can make general suggestions that, if not relevant, a consumer can ignore.

But what about actually disaggregating the data for particular devices? Surely this must be an aim for a really ‘smart’ meter display. Since [4, p.52] notes – in the context of discussing privacy – that “information from smart meters could… make it possible…to determine…to a degree, the types of technology that were being used in a property,” this information should clearly be offered to consumers themselves, if the electricity suppliers are going to do the analysis (I’ve done a bit of a possible mockup, using a more analogue dashboard style).

Disaggregated data dashboard

Whether the data are processed in the meter itself, or upstream at the supplier and then sent back down to individual displays, and whether the devices are identified from some kind of signature in their energy use patterns, or individual tags or extra plugs of some kind, are interesting technology questions, but from a consumer’s point of view (so long as privacy is respected), the mechanism perhaps doesn’t matter so much. Having the ability to see what device is using what amount of electricity, from a single display, would be very useful indeed. It removes the guesswork element.

Now, Sentec’s Coracle technology [16] is presumably ready for mainstream use, with an agreement signed with Onzo [17], and ISE’s signal-processing algorithms can identify devices down to the level of makes and models [18], so it’s quite likely that this kind of technology will be available for smart meters for consumers fairly soon. But the question is whether it will be something that all customers get – i.e. as a recommendation of the outcome of the DECC consultation – or an expensive ‘upgrade’. The fact that the consultation doesn’t mention disaggregation very much worries me slightly.

If disaggregated data by device were to be available for the mass-distributed displays, clearly this would significantly affect the interface design used: combining this with, say a level (2) type social proof display could – even if via a website rather than on the display itself – let a consumer compare how efficient particular models of electrical goods are in use, by using the information from other customers of the supplier.

In summary, for Q13 – and I’m aware I haven’t addressed the “energy use, money, CO2 etc” aspect directly – there are people much better qualified to do that – I feel that the more ability any display has to provide information of different kinds to consumers, the more opportunities there will be to do interesting and useful things with that information (and the data format and API must be open enough to allow this). In the absence of more definitive information about what kind of feedback has the most behaviour-influencing effect on what kind of consumer, in what context, and so on, it’s important that the display be as adaptable as possible.

Q14 Do you have comments regarding the accessibility of meters/display units for particular consumers (e.g. vulnerable consumers such as the disabled, partially sighted/blind)?

The inclusive design aspects of the meters and displays could be addressed through an exclusion audit, applying something such as the University of Cambridge’s Exclusion Calculator [19] to any proposed designs. Many solutions which would benefit particular consumers with special needs would also potentially be useful for the population as a whole – e.g. a buzzer or alarm signalling that a device has been left on overnight which isn’t normally, or (with disaggregation capability) notifying the consumer that, say, the fridge has been left open, would be pretty useful for everyone, not just the visually impaired or people with poor memory.

It seems clear that having open data formats and interfaces for any device will allow a wider range of things to be done with the data, many of which could be very useful for vulnerable users. Still, fundamental physical design questions about the device – how long the batteries last for, how easy they are to replace for someone with poor eyesight or arthritis, how heavy the unit is, whether it will break if dropped from hand height – will all have an impact on its overall accessibility (and usefulness).

Thinking of ‘particular consumers’ more generally, as the question asks, suggests a few other issues which need to be addressed:

– A website-only version of the display data (as suggested at points in the consultation document) would exclude a lot of consumers who are without internet access, without computer understanding, with only dial-up (metered) internet, or simply not motivated or interested enough to check – i.e., it would be significantly exclusionary.

– Time-of-Use (ToU) pricing will rely heavily on consumers actually understanding it, and what the implications are, and changing their behaviour in accordance. Simply charging consumers more automatically, without them having good enough feedback to understand what’s going on, only benefits electricity suppliers. If demand- or ToU-related pricing is introduced – “the potential for customer confusion… as a result of the greater range of energy tariffs and energy related information” [4, p. 49] is going to be significant. The design of the interface, and how the pricing structure works, is going to be extremely important here, and even so may still exclude a great many consumers who do not or cannot understand the structure.

– The ability to disable supply remotely [4, p. 12, p.20] will no doubt provoke significant reaction from consumers, quite apart from the terrible impact it will have on the most vulnerable consumers (the elderly, the very poor, and people for whom a reliable electricity supply is essential for medical reasons), regardless of whether they are at fault (i.e. non-payment) or not. There WILL inevitably be errors: there is no reason to suppose that they will not occur. Imagine the newspaper headlines when an elderly person dies from hypothermia. Disconnection may only occur in “certain well-defined circumstances” [3, p. 28] but these will need to be made very explicit.

– “Smart metering potentially offers scope for remote intervention… [which] could involve direct supplier or distribution company interface with equipment, such as refrigerators, within a property, overriding the control of the householder” [4, p. 52] – this simply offers further fuel for consumer distrust of the meter programme (rightly so, to be honest). As Darby [9] notes, “the prospect of ceding control over consumption does not appeal to all customers”. Again, this remote intervention, however well-regulated it might be supposed to be if actually implemented, will not be free from error. “Creating consumer confidence and awareness will be a key element of successfully delivering smart meters” [4, p.50] does not sit well with the realities of installing this kind of channel for remote disconnection or manipulation in consumers’ homes, and attempting to bury these issues by presenting the whole thing as entirely beneficial for consumers will be seen through by intelligent people very quickly indeed.

– Many consumers will simply not trust such new meters with any extra remote disconnection ability – it completely removes the human, the compassion, the potential to reason with a real person. Especially if the predicted energy saving to consumers is as low as 2.8% [4, p.18], many consumers will (perhaps rightly) conclude that the smart meter is being installed primarily for the benefit of the electricity company, and simply refuse to allow the contractors into their homes. Whether this will lead to a niche for a supplier which does not mandate installation of a meter – and whether this would be legal – are interesting questions.

Dan Lockton, Researcher, Design for Sustainable Behaviour
Cleaner Electronics Research Group, Brunel Design, Brunel University, London, June 2009

[1] Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute, 1999.

[2] DECC. Impact Assessment of smart / advanced meters roll out to small and medium businesses, May 2009.

[3] DECC. A Consultation on Smart Metering for Electricity and Gas, May 2009.

[4] DECC. Impact Assessment of a GB-wide smart meter roll out for the domestic sector, May 2009.

[5] Fischer, J. and Kestner, J. ‘Watt Watchers’, 2008.

[6] DOTT / live|work studio. ‘Low Carb Lane’, 2007.

[7] BERR. Impact Assessment of Smart Metering Roll Out for Domestic Consumers and for Small Businesses, April 2008.

[8] O’Leary, N. and Reynolds, R. ‘Current Cost: Observations and Thoughts from Interested Hackers’. Presentation at OpenTech 2008, London. July 2008.

[9] Darby S. The effectiveness of feedback on energy consumption. A review for DEFRA of the literature on metering, billing and direct displays. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. April 2006.

[10] Kingston University, CHARM Project. 2009

[11] Socolow, R.H. Saving Energy in the Home: Princeton’s Experiments at Twin Rivers. Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge MA, 1978

[12] Winett, R.A., Neale, M.S., Williams, K.R., Yokley, J. and Kauder, H., 1979 ‘The effects of individual and group feedback on residential electricity consumption: three replications’. Journal of Environmental Systems, 8, p. 217-233.

[13] Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. and Griskevicius, V., 2007.
‘The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms’. Psychological Science, 18 (5), p. 429-434.

[14] Djajadiningrat, T., Overbeeke, K. and Wensveen, S., 2002. ‘But how, Donald, tell us how?: on the creation of meaning in interaction design through feedforward and inherent feedback’. Proceedings of the 4th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. ACM Press, New York, p. 285-291.

[15] Business of Software discussion community (part of ‘Joel on Software’), ‘”Tip of the Day” on startup, value to the customer’, August 2006

[16] Sentec. ‘Coracle: a new level of information on energy consumption’, undated.

[17] Sentec. ‘Sentec and Onzo agree UK deal for home energy displays’, 28th April 2008

[18] ISE Intelligent Sustainable Energy, ‘Technology’, undated

[19] Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit: Exclusion Calculator, 2007-8

Anti-teenager “pink lights to show up acne”

Pink lights in Mansfield. Photo from BBC

In a similar vein to the Mosquito, intentionally shallow steps (and, superficially at least–though not really–blue lighting in toilets, which Raph d’Amico dissects well here), we now have residents’ associations installing pink lighting to highlight teenagers’ acne and so drive them away from an area:

Residents of a Nottinghamshire housing estate have installed pink lights which show up teenagers’ spots in a bid to stop them gathering in the area.

Members of Layton Burroughs Residents’ Association, Mansfield say they have bought the lights in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour. The lights are said to have a calming influence, but they also highlight skin blemishes.

The National Youth Agency said it would just move the problem somewhere else. Peta Halls, development officer for the NYA, said: “Anything that aims to embarrass people out of an area is not on. “The pink lights are indiscriminate in that they will impact on all young people and older people who do not, perhaps, have perfect skin.

I had heard about this before (thanks, Ed!) but overlooked posting it on the blog – other places the pink lights have been used include Preston and Scunthorpe, to which this quote refers (note the youths=yobs equation):

Yobs are being shamed out of anti-social behaviour by bright pink lights which show up their acne.

The lights are so strong they highlight skin blemishes and have been successful in moving on youths from troublespots who view pink as being “uncool.”

Manager Dave Hey said: “With the fluorescent pink light we are trying to embarass young people out of the area. “The pink is not seen as particularly macho among young men and apparently it highlights acne and blemishes in the skin.

A North Lincolnshire Council spokesman said: “[…]”On the face of it this sounds barmy. But do young people really want to hang around in an area with a pink glow that makes any spots they have on their face stand out?”

With the Mansfield example making the news, it’s good to see that there is, at least, quite a lot of comment pointing out the idiocy of the hard-of-thinking who believe that this sort of measure will actually ‘solve the problem of young people’, whatever that might mean, as well as the deeply discriminatory nature of the plan. For example, this rather dim (if perhaps tongue-in-cheek) light in the Nottingham Evening Post has been comprehensively rebutted by a commenter:

Trying to use someone’s personal looks against them simply because they meet up with friends and have a social life…

If this is the case then I would personally love to see adults banned from meeting up in pubs, parties and generally getting drunk. I would also love to see something making fun of their elderlyness and wrinkle problems.

I don’t understand why Britain hates its young people so much. But I can see it storing up a great deal of problems for the future.

Photo from this BBC story

Salt licked?

Salt shakers. Image from Daily MailSalt shakers. Image from Daily Mail

UPDATE: See the detailed response below from Peter of Gateshead Council, which clarifies, corrects and expands upon some of the spin given by the Mail articles. The new shakers were supplied to the chip shop staff for use behind the counter: “Our main concern was around the amount of salt put on by staff seasoning food on behalf of customers before wrapping it up… Our observations… confirmed that customers were receiving about half of the recommended daily intake of salt in this way. We piloted some reduced hole versions with local chip shops who all found that none of their customers complained about the reduced saltiness.”

A number of councils in England have given fish & chip shops replacement salt shakers with fewer holes – from the Daily Mail:

Research has suggested that slashing the holes from the traditional 17 to five could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half.

And so at least six councils have ordered five-hole shakers – at taxpayers’ expense – and begun giving them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas. Leading the way has been Gateshead Council, which spent 15 days researching the subject of salty takeaways before declaring the new five-hole cellars the solution.

Officers collected information from businesses, obtained samples of fish and chips, measured salt content and ‘carried out experiments to determine how the problem of excessive salt being dispensed could be overcome by design’. They decided that the five-hole pots would reduce the amount of salt being used by more than 60 per cent yet give a ‘visually acceptable sprinkling’ that would satisfy the customer.

OK. This is interesting. This is where the unit bias, defaults, libertarian paternalism and industrial design come together, in the mundanity of everyday interaction. It’s Brian Wansink’s ‘mindless margin’ being employed strategically, politically – and just look at the reaction it’s got from the public (and from Littlejohn). A BBC story about a similar initiative in Norfolk also gives us the industry view:

A spokesman for the National Federation of Fish Friers called the scheme a “gimmick” and said customers would just shake the containers more.

Graham Adderson, 62, who owns the Downham Fryer, in Downham Market, said: “I think the scheme is hilarious. If you want to put salt on your fish and chips and there are only four holes, you’re just going to spend longer putting more on.”

I’m assuming Gateshead Council’s research took account of this effect, although there are so many ways that users’ habits could have been formed through prior experience that this ‘solution’ won’t apply to all users. There might be some customers who always put more salt on, before even tasting their food. There might be people who almost always think the fish & chips they get are too heavily salted anyway – plenty of people, anecdotally at least, used to buy Smith’s Salt ‘n’ Shake and not use the salt at all.

And there are probably plenty of people who will, indeed, end up consuming less salt, because of the heuristic of “hold salt shaker over food for n seconds” built up over many years of experience.

Overall: I actually quite like this idea: it’s clever, simple, and non-intrusive, but I can see how the interpretation, the framing, is crucial. Clearly, when presented in the way that the councils media have done here (as a government programme to eliminate customer choice, and force us all down the road decided by health bureaucrats), the initiative’s likely to elicit an angry reaction from a public sick of a “nanny state” interfering in every area of our lives. Politicians jumping on the Nudge bandwagon need to be very, very careful that this isn’t the way their initiatives are perceived and portrayed by the press (and many of them will be, of course): it needs to be very, very clear how each such measure actually benefits the public, and that message needs to be given extremely persuasively.

Final thought: Many cafés, canteens and so on have used sachets of salt, that customers apply themselves, for many years. The decision made by the manufacturers about the size of these portions is a major determinant of how much salt is used, because of the unit bias (people assume that one portion is the ‘right’ amount), and, just as with washing machine detergent, manipulation of this portion size could well be used as part of a strategy to influence the quantity used by customers. But would a similar salt sachet strategy (perhaps driven by manufacturers rather than councils) have provoked similar reactions? I’m not sure that it would. ‘Nanny manufacturer’ is less despised than ‘nanny state’, I think, certainly in the UK.

What do you think?

“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.”

Wow.