Category Archives: Service design

‘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

frog design on Design with Intent

Robert Fabricant of frog design – with whom I had a great discussion a couple of weeks ago in London – has an insightful new article up at frog’s Design Mind, titled, oddly enough, ‘Design with Intent: how designers can influence behaviour’ – which tackles the question of how, and whether, designers can and should see their work as being directed towards behaviour change, and the power that design can have in this kind of application.

It builds on a trend evident in frog’s own work in this field, most notably the Project Masiluleke initiative (which seems to have been incredibly successful in behaviour change terms), as well as a theme Robert’s identified talking to a range of practitioners as well as young designers: “We’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behaviour from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement.”

The recognition of this nascent trend echoes some of the themes of transformation design – a manifesto developed by Hilary Cottam’s former RED team at the Design Council – and also fits well into what’s increasingly called social design, or socially conscious design – a broad, diverse movement of designers from many disciplines, from service design to architecture, who are applying their expertise to social problems from healthcare to environment to education to communication. With the mantra that ‘we cannot not change the world’, groups such as Design21 and Project H Design, along with alert chroniclers such as Kate Andrews, are inspiring designers to see the potential that there is for ‘impact through direct social engagement’: taking on the mantle of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller, motivated by the realisation that design can be more than ‘the high pitched scream of consumer selling‘, more than simply reactive. Nevertheless, Robert’s focus on influencing people’s behaviour (much as I’ve tried to make clear with my own work on Design with Intent over the last few years), is an explicit emerging theme in itself, and catching the interest of forward-looking organisations such as the RSA.

People

User centred design, constraint and reality

One of the issues Robert discusses is a question I’ve put to the audience in a number of presentations recently – fundamentally, is it still ‘User-Centred Design’ when the designer’s aim is to change users’ behaviour rather than accommodating it? As he puts it, “we influence behaviour and social practice from a distance through the products and services that we create based on our research and understanding of behaviour. We place users at the centre and develop products and services to support them. With UCD, designers are encouraged not to impose their own values on the experience.” Thus, “committing to direct behaviour design [my italics] would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centred design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”

Now, ‘direct behaviour design’ as a concept is redolent of determinism in architecture, or the more extreme end of behaviourism, where people (users / inhabitants / subjects) are seen as, effectively, components in a designed system which will respond to their environment / products / conditioning in a known, predictable way, and can thus be directed to behave in particular ways by changing the design of the system. It privileges the architect, the designer, the planner, the hidden persuader, the controller as a kind of director of behaviour, standing on the top floor observing what he’s wrought down below.

I’ll acknowledge that, in a less extreme form, this is often the intent (if not necessarily the result) behind much design for behaviour change (hence my definition for Design with Intent: ‘design that’s intended to influence, or result in, certain user behaviour’). But in practice, people don’t, most of the time, behave as predictably as this. Our behaviour – as Kurt Lewin, James Gibson, Albert Bandura, Don Norman, Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and a whole line of psychologists from different fields have made clear – is a (vector) function of our physical environment (and how we perceive and understand it), our social environment (and how we perceive and understand it) and our cognitive decision processes about what to do in response to our perceptions and understanding, working within a bounded rationality that (most of the time) works pretty well. If we perceive that a design is trying to get us to behave in a way we don’t want, we display reactance to it. This is going to happen when you constrain people against pursuing a goal: even the concept of ‘direct behaviour design’ itself is likely to provoke some reactance from you, the reader. Go on: you felt slightly irritated by it, didn’t you?*

SIM Card poka-yoke

In some fields, of course, design’s aim really is to constrain and direct behaviour absolutely – e.g. “safety critical systems, like air traffic control or medical monitors, where the cost of failure [due to user behaviour] is never acceptable” (from Cairns & Cox, p.16). But decades of ergonomics, human factors and HCI research suggests that errorproofing works best when it helps the user achieve the goal he or she already has in mind. It constrains our behaviour, but it also makes it easier to avoid errors we don’t want. We don’t mind not being able to run the microwave oven with the door open (even though we resented seatbelt interlocks). We don’t mind being only being able to put a SIM card in one way round. The design constraint doesn’t conflict with our goal: it helps us achieve it. (It would be interesting to know of cases in Japanese vs. Western manufacturing industry where employees resented the introduction of poka-yoke measures – were there any? What were the specific measures that irritated?)

Returning to UCD, then, I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour. Some of the most insightful current work on influencing user behaviour, from people such as Ed Elias at Bath and Tang Tang at Loughborough [PPT], starts with achieving a deeper understanding of user behaviour with existing products and systems, to identify better how to improve the design; it seems as though companies such as Onzo are also taking this approach.

Is design ever neutral?

Robert also makes the point that “every [design] decision we make exerts an influence of some kind, whether intended or not”. This argument parallels one of the defences made by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to criticism of their libertarian paternalism concept: however you design a system, whatever choices you decide to give users, you inevitably frame understanding and influence behaviour. Even not making a design decision at all influences behaviour.

staggered crossing

If you put chairs round a table, people will sit down. You might see it as supporting your users’ goals – they want to be able to sit down – but by providing the chairs, you’ve influenced their behaviour. (Compare Seth Godin’s ‘no chair meetings’.) If you constrain people to three options, they will pick one of the three. If you give them 500 options, they won’t find it easy to choose well. If you give them no options, they can’t make a choice, but might not realise that they’ve been denied it. And so on. (This is sometimes referred to as ‘choice editing’, a phrase which provokes substantial reactance!) If you design a pedestrian crossing to guide pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers, you’ve privileged drivers over pedestrians and reinforced the hegemony of the motor car. If you don’t, you’ve shown contempt for pedestrians’ needs. Richard Buchanan and Johan Redström have both also dealt with this aspect of ‘design as rhetoric’, while Kristina Niedderer’s ‘performative objects’ intended to increase user mindfulness of the interactions occurring.

Thaler and Sunstein’s argument (heavily paraphrased, and transposed from economics to design) is that as every decision we make about designing a system will necessarily influence user behaviour, we might as well try and put some thought into influencing the behaviour that’s going to be best for users (and society)**. And that again, to me, seems to come within the scope of user-centred design. It’s certainly putting the user – and his or her behaviour – at the centre of the design process. But then to a large extent – as Robert’s argued before – all (interaction) design is about behaviour. And perhaps all design is really interaction design (or ought to be considered as such during at least part of the process).

Persuasion, catalyst and performance design

Robert identifies three broad themes in using design to influence behaviour – persuasion design, catalyst design and performance design. ‘Persuasion design’ correlates very closely with the work on persuasive technology and persuasive design which has grown over the past decade, from B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford to a world-wide collaboration of researchers and practitioners – including designers and psychologists – meeting at the Persuasive conferences (2010′s will be in Copenhagen), of which I’m proud to be a very small part. Robert firmly includes behavioural economics and choice architecture in his description of Persuasion Design, which is something that (so far at least) has not received an explicit treatment in the persuasive technology literature, although individual cognitive biases and heuristics have of course been invoked. I think I’d respectfully argue that choice architecture as discussed in an economic context doesn’t really care too much about persuasion itself: it aims to influence behaviours, but doesn’t explicitly see changing attitudes as part of that, which is very much part of persuasion.

‘Catalyst design’ is a great term – I’m not sure (other than as the name of lots and lots of small consultancies) whether it has any precedent in the design literature or whether Robert coined it himself (something Fergus Bisset asked me the other day on reading the article). On first sight, catalyst design sounds as though it might be identical with Buckminster Fuller’s trimtab metaphor – a small component added to a system which initiates or enables a much larger change to happen more easily (what I’ve tried to think of as ‘enabling behaviour‘). However, Robert broadens the discussion beyond this idea to talk about participatory and open design with users (such as Jan Chipchase‘s work – or, if we’re looking further back, Christopher Alexander and his team’s groundbreaking Oregon Experiment). In this sense, the designer is the catalyst, facilitating innovation and behaviour change. User-led innovation is a massive, and growing, field, with examples of both completely ground-up development (with no ‘designer as catalyst’ involved) and programmes where a designer or external expert can, through engaging with people who use and work with a system, really help transform it (Clare Brass’s SEED Foundation’s HiRise project comes to mind here). But it isn’t often spoken about explicitly in terms of behaviour change, so it’s interesting to see Robert present it in this context.

Finally, ‘performance design’, as Robert explains it, involves designers performing in some way, becoming immersed in the lives of the people for whom they are designing. From a behaviour change perspective, empathising with users’ mental models, understanding what motivates users during a decision-making process, and why certain choices are made (or not made), must make it easier to identify where and how to intervene to influence behaviour successfully.

Implications for designers working on behaviour change

It’s fantastic to see high-profile, influential design companies such as frog explicitly recognising the opportunities and possibilities that designers have to influence user behaviour for social benefit. The more this is out in the open as a defined trend, a way of thinking, the more examples we’ll have of real-life thinking along these lines, embodied in a whole wave of products and services which (potentially) help users, and help society solve problems with a significant behavioural component. (And, more to the point, give us a degree of evidence about which techniques actually work, in which contexts, with which users, and why – there are some great examples around at present, both concepts and real products – e.g. as collated here by Debra Lilley – but as yet we just don’t have a great body of evidence to base design decisions on.) It will also allow us, as users, to become more familiar with the tactics used to influence our behaviour, so we can actively understand the thinking that’s gone into the systems around us, and choose to reject or opt out of things which aren’t working in our best interests.

The ‘behavioural layer’ (credit to James Box of Clearleft for this term) is something designers need to get to grips with – even knowing where to start when you’re faced with a design problem involving influencing behaviour is something we don’t currently have a very good idea about. With my Design with Intent toolkit work, I’m trying to help this bit of the process a bit, alongside a lot of people interested, on many levels, in how design influences behaviour. It will be interesting over the next few years to see how frog and other consultancies develop expertise and competence in this field, how they choose to recruit the kind of people who are already becoming experts in it – and how they sell that expertise to clients and governments.

Update: Robert responds – The ‘Ethnography Defense’

Dan Lockton, Design with Intent / Brunel University, June 2009

*TU Eindhoven’s Maaike Roubroeks used this technique to great effect in her Persuasive 2009 presentation.
**The debate comes over who decides – and how – what’s ‘best’ for users and for society. Governments don’t necessarily have a good track record on this; neither do a lot of companies.

Two events next week

Next Wednesday evening, 27th May, I’ll be giving a presentation about Design with Intent at SkillSwap Brighton’s ‘Skillswap Goes Behavioural’ alongside Ben Maxwell from Onzo (pioneers of some of the most interesting home energy behaviour change design work going on at present). I hope I’ll be able to give a thought-provoking talk with plenty of ideas and examples that can be practically applied in interaction, service design and user experience. Thanks to James Box of Clearleft for organising this.

Walkway

Then on Thursday 28th, I’m honoured to be talking as part of a symposium in Loughborough University’s Radar Arts Programme‘s ‘Architectures of Control‘ themed events exploring how our lives are impacted by social and environmental controls.

The symposium is interspersed with the performance of Mark Titchner’s ‘Debating Society and Run’, which sounds intriguing. In the symposium I’ll be talking alongside Professor David Canter, who seems to have had an incredible career ranging from environmental to offender profiling (inspiration for Cracker, etc) and Alexa Hepburn, senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Loughborough. Again, I hope my presentation does justice to the event and other participants! Thanks to Nick Slater for inviting me.

The week after (4th June) I’ll be giving a presentation at UFI in Sheffield, best known for its Learndirect courses. I’m hoping to be able to run a bit of a very rapid idea-generation workshop as part of this talk, something of an ultra-quick trial of the DwI toolkit

The ‘You Are Here’ Use-mark

You are here - Florence, Italy

Who really needs a “You Are Here” marker when other visitors’ fingers have done the work for you?

(Above, in Florence; below, in San Francisco)

You are here - San Francisco, California

Use-marks, like desire paths, are a kind of emergent behaviour record of previous users’ perceptions (and perceived affordances), intentions, behaviours and preferences. (As Google’s search history is a database of intentions.)

Indeed, while we’d probably expect the “You Are Here” spot to be worn (so it’s not telling us anything especially new) can we perhaps think of use-marks / desire paths as being a physical equivalent of revealed preferences? (Carl Myhill almost makes this point in this great paper [PDF].)

And (I have to ask), to what extent does the presence of wear and use-marks by previous users influence the use decisions and behaviour of new users (social proof)? If you see a well-trodden path, do you follow it? Do you pick a dog-eared library book to read because it is presumably more interesting than the ones that have never been read? What about where you’re confused by a new interface on, say, a ticket machine? Can you pick it up more quickly by (consciously or otherwise) observing how others have worn or deformed it through prior use?

Can we design public products / systems / services which intentionally wear to give cues to future users? How (other than “Most read stories today”) can we apply this digitally?

Heating debate

Thermostat with friendCentral heating systems have interfaces, and many of us interact with them every day, even if only by experiencing their effects.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement. They’re systems where (unlike, say, a car) we don’t generally get instantaneous feedback on the changes we make to settings or the interactions we have with the interface. It’s a slow feedback loop. We don’t necessarily have correct mental models of how they work, yet the systems cost us (a lot of) money. How effectively do we use them? Around 60% of UK domestic energy use goes on space heating, and 24% on water heating. (See this Building Research Establishment report [PDF] for more detailed breakdowns.) That 84% cost me and my girlfriend £430 last year. It’s worth thinking about from a financial point of view, regardless of the environmental aspects.

Frankie Roberto and colleagues at Rattle Research have carried out a brilliant exercise in exploratory design thinking about central heating*:

Heating systems are something we all interact with, especially in the depths of winter where we depend on them, and yet there seems to have been very little evolution in the design of their interfaces. What’s more, with an ever increasing focus on energy efficiency, both from an environmental and economic standpoint, there’s a need for heating systems and their interfaces to be smarter, more efficient and transparent.


Design Monday #1 – Central Heating (short version) from Rattle on Vimeo.

Read the full post.

The Rattle team think through existing systems and consider a number of possible revisions to improve the way that information is presented to users, and the level of control that it might be useful for users to have. This is a great piece of work, impressive and very thorough, and it’s interesting to see how their thinking evolved: I get the impression that (as service designers) they’re a lot more focused on users’ needs than the designers of many heating systems are. It’s also an exciting thing for a design company to be able to take time to address problems outside their immediate sphere, since they’re bringing a whole new level of domain expertise to it.

The ‘I’m working’ indicator is a really good idea – it reminds me of some higher-end car tyre air pumps at petrol stations where you can just set the pressure you want to achieve, and the pump cuts out (and alerts you) when it reaches it. But the idea of doing away with the ‘desired temperature’ setting and just having warmer/colder is also interesting – “forc[ing] people to always make decisions based upon how they’re feeling right now”.

Equally the ‘shift to service’ approach of having an API and making clever use of it has a big potential to help in energy saving (and cost saving for the user), especially if the usage data were (anonymised or otherwise) available for analysis. Just being able to tell users “it’s costing you £X more to heat your home than it does for a similar family in a similar house down the road – if you insulated better you could save £X every month” would be an interesting mechanism for persuasion. As with so many things, it relies on having that API or other interface available in the first place…

Folk theory of thermostats

The ‘folk theory of thermostats’ which Frankie mentions, popularised in Don Norman’s The Psychology / Design of Everday Things, has long intrigued me:

There are two commonly held folk theories about thermostats: the timer theory and the valve theory. The timer theory proposes that the thermostat simply controls the relative proportion of time that the device stays on. Set the thermostat midway, and the device is on about half the time; set it all the way up and the device is on all the time. Hence, to heat or cool something most quickly, set the thermostat so that the device is on all the time. The valve theory proposes that the thermostat controls how much heat (or cold) comes out of the device. Turn the thermostat all the way up, and you get the maximum heating or cooling. The correct story is that the thermostat is just an on-off switch. Setting the thermostat at one extreme cannot affect how long it takes to reach the desired temperature.

People’s mental models of heating systems are often stereotyped or played with (as we’ve discussed before here), but as Willett Kempton found out in a classic study, there are some nuanced versions of the theories, which, in practice, are perhaps not as silly as Norman suggests. People satisfice.

Say you come in from outdoors, and are cold. Because of the delay in your exposed skin warming up to room temperature, it surely does warm you more quickly if you stand near something that’s hotter than you actually want to be, e.g. a log fire / stove. So the heuristic of ‘turning up the heat to more than you need, in order to feel warmer more quickly’ is pretty understandable, especially when the temperature controlling the thermostat is the temperature of the thermocouple/probe/whatever and not actually the body temperature of the users themselves. (That would be a good innovation in itself, of course!) Am I wrong?

Given that a lot of people do try to control heating systems as if they worked on the valve model, would it be sensible to develop one which did? Do they already exist?

*Rattle’s second ‘Design Monday’ session, on ‘Lunch’, is also well worth a look.

London Design Festival: Greengaged

Greengaged skip

Design CouncilThe London Design Festival always throws up some interesting events, especially involving clever people trying new things in design and sharing their experiences and expertise.

This year, the Design Council are running Greengaged, a “sustainability hub… developed and organised by [re]design, thomas.matthews and Kingston University with Arup and Three Trees Don’t Make A Forest”. It’s a series of talks and workshops about ecodesign and sustainable issues in design.

On Tuesday I went, along with Alex Plant, for the ‘Behaviour Change’ talks, part of the ‘Gauging the Green’ day, where Unchained‘s Lea Simpson, More AssociatesLuke Nicholson, IDEO London‘s Andrea Koerselman and Fiona Bennie from Forum for the Future all talked about their work on using design to change behaviour.

[Apologies: YouTube have since removed the clip due to an infringement claim from Candid Camera, Inc. So here's an alternative link - it may not last either, though, but if you search for "candid camera" elevator I'm sure you'll be able to find it]

Lea Simpson started with this great Candid Camera clip from 196x demonstrating how easily social proof can be used to influence behaviour. Lea argued three important points relevant to behaviour change (many thanks to Christian McLening for taking better notes than I did):

1. Behaviour change requires behaviour (i.e. the behaviour of others: social effects are critical, as we respond to others’ behaviour which in turn affects our own; targeting the ‘right’ people allows behaviour to spread)

2. Behaviour and motivation are two different things: To change behaviour, you need to understand and work with people’s motivations – which may be very different for different people.

3. Desire is not enough: lots of people desire to behave differently, but it needs to be very easy for them to do it before it actually happens.

Luke Nicholson: Photo by Kate Andrews
Luke Nicholson’s presentation: photo by the indefatigable Kate Andrews.

Luke Nicholson talked about More‘s work on enabling the public to understand energy use and carbon footprints via home monitoring systems – as he put it, there are “some invisible forces going round your home, and this is a lens onto them”. More’s ‘energy lens’ – which can be positioned on a window, hence linking energy consumption and climate/the weather in users’ minds, and making it as easy to check “what the energy’s like today” as “what the weather’s like today” – has recently been spun out as Onzo – who look to be employing a couple of very talented Brunel Design graduates.

More Associates: Energy Literacy

Luke also talked about More’s research with energy literacy – can we create a vernacular for better public understanding of energy, carbon, current, and so on? The above slide showed the idea of ‘pips’ and ‘blocks’ as some kind of accounting unit for energy and carbon, respectively, easily comparable to pounds (sterling) for cost; there was also an interesting series of diagrams using different shapes and sizes to explain simply, visually, the difference between high-current-drawing appliances and those which draw lower currents. Changing consumer demand for new products was also addressed with the idea of a ‘Kept’ sticker which could be affixed to products such as phones, to announce “I’m keeping this”.

A lot of this really does seem to be about framing – and joining up the agendas of different groups (consumers, the electricity industry, manufacturers, governments) to provide a new resultant pointing in the desired direction. As Luke said, “We’re playing into cultures that don’t exist yet.”

Andrea Koerselman, IDEO

Andrea Koerselman and Fiona Bennie introduced their ‘i-team – local innovation on climate change’ project, a service design collaboration between IDEO and Forum for the Future, working with councils and local authorities to inspire behaviour change on issues such as driving to work, reducing electricity usage, and so on. This involves a lot of user observation – an IDEO speciality, of course – and an Inspiration-Insight-Ideation-Implementation process, as in the slide above. Talking to Fiona afterwards, she mentioned that it’s quite a novel experience for many councils to be involved in generating ideas without explicit returns-on-investment or outcomes defined, and so the ‘Ideation’ stage was going to be especially interesting.

Overall, this was a very interesting and worthwhile programme of talks – and this is just a snapshot of the many taking place this week and next in London. Tomorrow, I’m off to some of System Reload’s workshops, and on Monday, back at the Design Council, Tracy Bhamra and Emma Dewberry, among others, will be talking about sustainable design education. I’ll let you know how it all goes.