Category Archives: Shopping

Deliberately creating worry

A European airport

Swedish creativity lecturer Fredrik Härén mentions an interesting architecture of control anecdote in his The Idea Book:

One of the cafés in an international European airport was often full. The problem was that people sat nursing their coffees for a long time as they waited for their planes to depart. The café asked itself: How can we encourage our customers to vacate the tables more quickly?

Their first ideas were probably along the lines of uncomfortable chairs, a seat charge, clear the tables immediately and so forth. However, the idea they finally decided upon was this: to turn off the flight monitors in the café! This made people worry about missing their flights, which led to them looking for monitors that worked, thus leaving empty tables. When the café had enough empty tables, the flight monitors suddenly started working again to attract new customers.

Creating worry in the customers’ minds would certainly seem to be effective – perhaps more effective than simply deliberately uncomfortable seating, which we’ve come across a number of times before. But is it really a sensible tactic? Won’t those customers, if they use the airport again, consciously avoid “that café where we nearly missed out flight last time because they turned the monitors off”? Has it occurred to the café operators that, perhaps, their customers value sitting down to ‘nurse’ their coffees as part of the coffee-drinking experience?

Härén doesn’t comment on this ‘contempt for the customer’ issue directly, but he does go on to suggest more positive ways of addressing the ‘problem’:

Formulating a question in different ways can help you look at a problem from different angles. In the case above, for example, you can find new angles by putting the question in another way: How can we sell more? So, instead of finding solutions to the problem of getting people to vacate the tables more quickly, you can also come up with solutions such as set up a take-away stand so that people can have a snack or drink by the departure gates, or sell picnic bags that passengers can take onto the planes with them and so on.

Are there other ‘built environment’ examples of deliberately creating worry to force certain behaviour onto users? What about product design?

Of course, much pharmaceutical (and anti-virus software) marketing and government security/crime propaganda through the ages has taken this line (it’s almost expected), but physical examples seem rarer.

Anti-user seating in Oxford

Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Anti-user seating in Oxford
Top two photos: A bench on Cornmarket Street, Oxford; Lower two photos: A bus stop seat perch on Castle Street.

While from a very narrow specification point-of-view ‘they do their job’, what utter contempt for users these two seating examples demonstrate! The benches on Cornmarket Street are clearly intended to prevent anyone lying down on them (armrests, small radius of curvature) or indeed sitting for very long at all in comfort (height off the ground, vertical backrest, small radius of curvature). Why? Why despise the public so much?

The designer must have been given a specification requiring all the above features: I can’t believe they just arose out of aesthetic or manufacturing considerations. That bench has been engineered to restrict, control and discipline users. Was it really necessary? Does forcing the homeless to lie on the ground instead, or preventing people sitting comfortably and watching the world go by really ‘solve’ any problems?

The bus stop perch – in this particular location intended at least partially for Park & Ride users – is perhaps even worse. It’s angled such that a young child couldn’t easily sit on it without sliding off. An adult has to stretch out his or her legs just to perch. A parent couldn’t sit next to a young child. A shopper would have to put down his or her bags on the ground, since they’d slide off the perch. My girlfriend and I couldn’t rest our drinks on the bench next to us; we had to put them on the ground. OK, that’s not much of a hardship, but it’s just frustrating design, intended to serve objectives other than the users’ benefit or convenience.

You wouldn’t want to wait any longer than necessary at that bus stop. If you were making the decision about whether to drive into Oxford or take the bus to go shopping (assuming cycling not to be an option for this) the unattractiveness of perching at an angle for 15 minutes on that mean strip of perforated sheet would begin to weigh heavily against the public transport option. Sure, you might end up sitting in your car in heavy traffic for 15 minutes, but it’s your car. The seats are comfortable, it’s warm, and you can shape and adjust the environment to suit you.

I don’t want to go off on one here about solving (or easing) Britain’s transport problems, but I do feel that this kind of situation embodies some of the very important issues. By making bus users feel unwanted – despised even – you don’t enhance the image or desirability of the mode of travel. Little details such as this can make a huge difference to perceptions. The buses themselves are great, but if the experience of using the service seems to demonstrate contempt for the user, the user may develop contempt for the service.

Japan may have some of the most explicitly user-unfriendly public benches we’ve come across so far, but there’s also something rather disturbing about the sheer blandness of the bench implementations shown above. Their starkness embodies the thinking behind the design: all possible interaction methods to be reduced down to one sole, pre-defined utility function, with the user not permitted to do anything outside that intentionally myopic definition.

(Incidentally, to be fair, there were some lower seats with horizontal platforms on the other side of the bench in Cornmarket Street. They still had armrests to prevent lying down (or even sitting close to someone), but were not as awful as the curved ones.)

Objects in mirror are wider than they appear

Robert Kilroy-Silk, mirrored

This is an interesting story. Robert Kilroy-Silk (above) currently an independent MEP, has raised the issue in the European Parliament of intentionally distorting mirrors in clothes stores, specifically Marks & Spencer:

Marks and Spencer has said it is mystified by a claim by MEP Robert Kilroy-Silk that it uses “distorting” mirrors in its changing rooms.

Mr Kilroy-Silk has accused the store of misleading women with mirrors that make them look slimmer in its clothes.

He made the allegation in a written question in the European Parliament.

An M&S spokesman said: “Our mirrors are perfectly normal, standard mirrors. We are at a loss as to what he might be referring to.”

In his question, Mr Kilroy-Silk asked if it was “conceivable that within the millions of EU regulations covering virtually every aspect of life in the EU” there was not one that made it illegal for M&S to have mirrors that “deliberately distort women’s shapes”.

Now, whatever you might think of Kilroy, and M&S’s denial, it’s surely not that unlikely that intentionally distorting mirrors have been, and probably are, used in some shops, and maybe some homes too. (As the distorting M&S mirrors are apparently in the Windsor and Maidenhead stores, which are pretty local to me, I should probably go and check.) Do cosmetic surgery clinics ever have a different set of mirrors on the way in to those on the way out?

If, when designing a retail environment, you could a) increase sales and b) make customers feel better about themselves by using a ‘slimming’ mirror, why wouldn’t you? How ethical is this? It’s an underhand method of persuasion rather than physical control, but it could make a significant difference to sales, in the process making shoppers feel more positive, even if ultimately it’s deceitful. Hewlett-Packard already produces digital cameras with a ‘slimming’ mode. If it helps you modify your self-image, and you like that, then I’m not sure it’s unethical per se. It’s just part of the great embedded architecture of delusion that fuels modern consumerism. Vanity sizing – another method of persuasion in clothes retailing – is an additional aspect of this.

Mirrors are a useful persuasion and control tool for retail designers anyway, whether distorting or not. People stop or slow down when they encounter them. Sometimes it’s vanity; sometimes it’s simply useful for people to see how they look. As Paco Underhill says in the excellent Why We Buy:

Stand and watch what happens at any reflective surface – we preen like chimps, men and women alike… Mirrors slow shoppers in their tracks, a very good idea for whatever merchandise happens to be in the vicinity.

And, of course, Lawrence Lessig actually mentions the use of mirrors in an ‘architecture of control’ example, in the chapter ‘What things regulate’ of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace:

A large hotel in an American city received many complaints about the slowness of its elevators. It installed mirrors next to the elevator doors. The complaints ended.

What other uses of mirrors, or vanity devices/techniques in general, can be designed into environments to affect consumer behaviour?

Packet switching

Sainsbury's Basics Nice biscuits, well, adequate anyway

Both Dr Tom Stafford (co-author of the fantastic Mind Hacks book & blog) and Gregor Hochmuth (creator of FlickrStorm, an improved Flickr search system) have been in touch suggesting packaging/portion sizes as a significant everyday architecture of control, (or at least an aspect of design which has a major impact on consumers’ behaviour, and can be used to change it), and pointing to articles on the work of Professor Brian Wansink, of Cornell University’s Food & Brand Lab.

From the New York Times:

Dr. Wansink… probably knows more about why we put things in our mouths than anybody else. His experiments examine the cues that make us eat the way we do. The size of an ice cream scoop, the way something is packaged and whom we sit next to all influence how much we eat. His research doesn’t pave a clear path out of the obesity epidemic, but it does show the significant effect one’s eating environment has on slow and steady weight gain.

In an eight-seat lab designed to look like a cozy kitchen, Dr. Wansink offers free lunches in exchange for hard data… His research on how package size accelerates consumption led, in a roundabout way, to the popular 100-calorie bags of versions of Wheat Thins and Oreos, which are promoted for weight management. Although food companies have long used packaging and marketing techniques to get people to buy more food, Dr. Wansink predicts companies will increasingly use some of his research to help people eat less or eat better, even if it means not selling as much food. He reasons that companies will make up the difference by charging more for new packaging that might slow down consumption or that put seemingly healthful twists on existing brands. And they get to wear a halo for appearing to do their part to prevent obesity.

This bit is especially interesting to me (as an improvised-gadget kind of guy):

Dr. Wansink is particularly proud of his bottomless soup bowl, which he and some undergraduates devised with insulated tubing, plastic dinnerware and a pot of hot tomato soup rigged to keep the bowl about half full. The idea was to test which would make people stop eating: visual cues, or a feeling of fullness. People using normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. The typical bottomless soup bowl diner ate 15 ounces. Some of those ate more than a quart, and didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over.

More on that here, though sadly no pictures.

The British Psychological Society’s Digest, mentioning Wansink’s work, focuses further on the ‘visual cues’ aspect: it appears that even when the serving is larger than normal in plain sight (as opposed to a deceptive bowl), the size of the portion still does not cause people to stop when they think they’ve had enough rather than when the bowl or plate ‘tells them’ they’re finished:

In four field studies, the researchers measured the amount eaten by 379 participants, half of whom were served with a particularly large bowl or plate of food. The participants given the extra-large servings ate an average of 31 per cent more food than the control participants. But crucially, just 8 per cent of them said afterwards that they thought they’d eaten any more than they would usually do. When told they’d been given an extra-large portion, 21 per cent continued to deny they’d eaten any more than usual, and of those who accepted they had eaten more than usual, only 4 per cent attributed this to the large plate or bowl their food had come in, with most others saying they’d eaten so much because they were hungry.

“This hesitancy to acknowledge one being influenced by an external cue is common and has even been found when people are presented with tangible evidence of their bias”, the researchers said… “Altering one’s immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help us lose weight in a way that does not necessitate the discipline of dieting or the governance of another person”.

Of course, there are some other aspects to consider. There is certainly a tendency to eat what’s put in front of you because it’s perceived as bad manners not to, and there’s the extra tendency to try to ‘please’ the person running the experiment, but both of those assume that the participant realises there is more food than he or she would normally eat. Yet the above findings suggest that people genuinely don’t know how much they’ve eaten (relative to a ‘normal’ serving).

Morrisons Peaches and Sainsbury's Mango Puree

Implications for designers

The simplistic implication is that people will eat what they’re given. If you make the packet size 20% larger, people will (probably) eat 20% more in one sitting. If Burtons made Wagon Wheels a little smaller each year (that’s a UK reference, but I’m sure there are equally well-known versions of the idea worldwide), it will take a while before anyone notices that the portion is smaller.

But there are clearly limits to this, or at least a point where the consumer consciously thinks either “hang on, I’d better not eat all that in one go,” or “that wasn’t enough – I’ll have another one.” We all know this experience. Looking at the photo above, I’d happily eat two of those little tins of peaches in one go, but I’ve never got round to opening that big tin of mango purée as I can’t see that I’d eat it all in one go (if I were with someone else, I might share it).

Between those upper and lower bounds, though (which of course will differ from culture to culture, and person to person), there must be a size range within which changes are either not noticed by the consumer, or not cared about enough to cause any change in behaviour:

Number of portions required to feel full versus portion size
I’ve no real evidence for this, of course, other than my own perceptions and a general inspiration by the Wansink quotes above, but the central section of the graph, at least, seems fairly clear. For smaller and larger portions, the amount a consumer would eat at a sitting (to feel ‘full’) could either also be constant (over another interval) or have some proportionality to size, depending on the context. For example, if the package/portions in question were something easily re-sealable, or easy to store, a consumer might eat from it proportionally to size, perhaps opening it again at different times, but if the package pretty much has to be eaten all in one go, or shared, to avoid spoilage, then the relationship might be a constant.

So, if this model holds, a packaging/portion size reduction from the upper bound of the central interval to the lower bound may actually not affect the consumer’s behaviour. If he or she is used to eating the whole packet in one go, he or she will still eat the whole packet in one go, and still feel ‘full’ to the same extent. Thus, reducing packaging/portion sizes within a certain range (the most common sizes, probably) is a sensible way of gradually, subtly, reducing people’s food intake (equally, raising them within the range would have the opposite effect, again without consumers noticing so much).

This is not too dissimilar from the phenomenon of unit bias, of course – “Consumption norms promote both the tendency to complete eating a unit and the idea that a single unit is the proper portion“, but it’s important to remember the ‘within a certain range’ qualification. A tiny bowl of soup, despite being a ‘unit’, will not fool anyone.

One question which does arise from thinking about packaging and portion sizes is to what extent established sizes (weights, volumes) have affected consumers’ habits. Is it coincidence that, say, a typical bag of crisps (potato chips) in the UK used to be 1 oz (around 28g), and that that’s about the portion that most people ate in one go? In the last ten years though, cheaper brands have reduced to 25g or less, and premium brands escalated up to 38g or 45g – and yet still people eat one packet at a time, even when it may be almost double the weight of another. When the default size of spirit measures in pubs has gradually risen from 25 ml (down from 1 fl oz previously?) up to 35 ml or even doubles (50 ml) unless the customer specifies otherwise, this must have an effect on consumers’ behaviour. Most people do not spend double the time drinking a 50 ml measure that they do a 25 ml measure. They drink it in perhaps a few seconds longer, yet have imbibed double the amount of alcohol. (Equally, the shape of glasses affects perceptions of liquid quantity – more of Prof Wansink’s research.)

Hence, this choice of default can have a major effect on behaviour, and is surely a powerful control technique in itself, as an anonymous commenter on a previous post explained very well.

McVitie's Digestives forcing function McVitie's Digestives forcing function

We’ve looked in some detail before at packaging designed to increase consumption of the product, such as (perhaps) the McVitie’s packet shown above, where in practice the first five biscuits will often be eaten by the person who opens the packet, since the tear-strip is positioned so far down. Odd sized portions were a significant point of comment here – dishwasher & washing machine tablets, increase in standard wine glass sizes, Actimel bottles and large yoghourt pots were all mentioned as being in this category.

To some extent, then, the sizing of packaging and portions ought to be considered a forcing function alongside more obvious physical behaviour-shaping constraints. It could, in fact, be a very important way of promoting (forcing?) healthier eating.

(Incidentally, there’s a fascinating discussion here between Prof. Wansink and Berkeley’s Prof. Seth Roberts on ‘cool data’, i.e. designing and planning experiments and studies to attract maximum attention and interest whilst still being scientifically worthwhile. Wansink seems to have mastered that without descending into pseudoscience.)

(P.S. My apologies to both Tom and Gregor for the delay in posting about this)

Coercive atmospherics reach the bus shelter

Milk & cookies

Jonathan Zittrain discusses scented advertising in bus shelters: the California Milk Processor Board recently tried a campaign with chocolate-chip cookie-scented “aromatic strips”, intended to provoke a thirst for milk, in San Francisco before having to remove them after allergy/chemical sensitivity concerns.

The use of scent (fresh bread, coffee, ‘new car smell’ etc) as a persuasion method is nothing new in supermarkets and other retail environments – as part of coercive atmospherics, Douglas Rushkoff and Martin Howard both have interesting treatments of various approaches and results – but the balance does begin to shift when the application is so public. I would suspect a lot of the opposition in San Francisco was really more about the inescapable incursion of the commercial message into a public environment than the allergy concerns; as Jonathan puts it:

Unlike the use of even large billboards, there’s no easy way to avert your nose the way you can avert your eyes, making the advertising much more invasive.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure that a less obviously “invasive” olefactory campaign would necessarily meet too much opposition if handled correctly. Imagine an air freshener manufacturer sponsoring a clean-up of a city’s dirtiest/stinkiest bus shelters. Provided it were not overpowering, and not too sickening, would a fragranced bus shelter without a coercive angle be seen as invasive?

Or, to run closer to the milk-and-cookies example, what if, say, Nestlé were to fragrance bus shelters with chocolate milkshake scent in order to promote Nesquik? It doesn’t have the same ‘sneaky’ aspect, though I suspect it would still be pretty irritating.

The fight back: loyalty card subversion

J Sainsbury, Colliers Wood. This photo's been used before on the blog

It’s inevitable that for every attempt to cajole or impose control on users, there will be some people who seek to avoid or circumvent it. As Crosbie Fitch put it in a recent comment, “humans are designed to explore the parameters of their environment and to adapt to them”.

Supermarket loyalty cards are an interesting example of this. Whilst not a rigid method of control – more a method of persuasion – their ubiquity and fairly clear agenda make them common target for intentional avoidance, or subversion. For every person who hasn’t signed up out of just-not-being-bothered, there is probably at least one who doesn’t trust what will happen to his or her data, even if it’s only a vague feeling of unease. And there is a small segment of customers who will (admirably) attempt to manipulate the system, either for their own gain, or simply out of an inquisitive or rebellious spirit.

Image from Cockeyed.comImage from Cockeyed.com

Rob Cockerham’s ‘Ultimate Shopper’ is one of the most famous (and apparently successful) ‘white hat’ attempts to subvert a loyalty card system: Rob replicated the barcode (scanned by the cashier) from his Safeway Club card, and sent out dozens of copies of it to friends and readers of his website, with the aim of creating an ‘interesting’ customer profile on Safeway’s system: one who bought vast quantities of products each month, right across the country:

I want to take the credit for all of my shopping, and for your shopping too!

Anyone who does this will be lumping their shopping data together with mine. Together we might amass a profile of the single greatest shopper in the history of mankind.

You will still get club card savings, but you will miss out on the odd promotions they have from time to time. Actually, some promotions are awarded at the register, so you may continue to benefit from those, although the rewards will be utterly unpredictable.

Actually cloning the data on the magnetic strip, to create a more foolproof (and less detectable) set of cloned cards, would be another step. Depending on the structure of the supermarket’s loyalty scheme, there may well be thresholds above which the ‘rewards’ for customers increase substantially, and assuming the participants in the cloning scheme can work out a fair or acceptable way to share their rewards, this could mean greater benefits for all of them than actually using their cards individually.

An alternative scheme is Rob Carlson’s ‘Giant BonusCard Swap Meet‘ where card-holders from Giant (“a large supermarket chain in the Baltimore/DC area”) swap details with other card-holders in order to give themselves more privacy – from a 2003 article:

Carlson’s site works like this: You enter your Giant card number on a form. It puts this number into a pool of numbers gathered from participants. Drawing from this pool, it displays for each visitor a bar-code replica of someone else’s number, allowing the visitor to print it out and tape onto his or her own card. Should you actually take the time to do this and then visit the local Giant to use this card, you are, to Giant, someone else. If enough people do this, the argument goes, Giant’s shopper profiles are rendered muddied and ultimately useless.

A Wired article from 2003 on Rob Cockerham and Rob Carlson’s projects.

Are there other similar examples?

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