Category Archives: Sneaky

Placebo buttons, false affordances and habit-forming

Elevator graph


This is a great graph
from GraphJam, by ‘Bloobeard’. It raises the question, of course, whether the ‘door close’ buttons on lifts/elevators really do actually do anything, or are simply there to ‘manage expectations‘ or act as a placebo.

The Straight Dope has quite a detailed answer from 1986:

The grim truth is that a significant percentage of the close-door buttons [CDB] in this world, for reasons that we will discuss anon, don’t do anything at all.

In the meantime, having consulted with various elevator repairmen, I would say that apparent CDB nonfunctionality may be explained by one of the following:

(1) The button really does work, it’s just set on time delay.
Suppose the elevator is set so that the doors close automatically after five seconds. The close-door button can be set to close the doors after two or three seconds. The button may be operating properly when you push it, but because there’s still a delay, you don’t realize it.

(2) The button is broken. Since a broken close-door button will not render the elevator inoperable and thus does not necessitate an emergency service call, it may remain unrepaired for weeks.

(3) The button has been disconnected, usually because the building owner received too many complaints from passengers who had somebody slam the doors on them.

(4) The button was never wired up in the first place. One repair type alleges that this accounts for the majority of cases.

Gizmodo, more recently, contends that:

…the Door Close button is there mostly to give passengers the illusion of control. In elevators built since the early ’90s. The button is only enabled in emergency situations with a key held by an authority.

Door close button

This is clearly not always true; I’ve just tested the button in the lift down the corridor here at Brunel (installed around a year ago) and it works fine. So it would seem that enabling the functionality (or not) or modifying it (e.g. time delays) is a decision that can be made for each installation, along the lines of the Straight Dope information.

If there’s a likelihood (e.g. in a busy location) that people running towards a lift will become antagonised by those already inside pressing the button (deliberately or otherwise) and closing the door on them, maybe it’s sensible to disable it, or introduce a delay. If the installation’s in a sparsely populated corner of a building where there’s only likely to be one lift user at a time, it makes sense for the button to be functional. Or maybe for the doors to close more quickly, automatically.

But thinking about this more generally: how often are deceptive buttons/controls/options – deliberate false affordances – used strategically in interaction design? What other examples are there? Can it work when a majority of users ‘know’ that the affordance is false, or don’t believe it any more? Do people just give up believing after a while – the product has “cried Wolf” too many times?

Matt Webb (Mind Hacks, Schulze & Webb) has an extremely interesting discussion of the extinction burst in conditioning, which seems relevant here:

There’s a nice example I read, I don’t recall where, about elevators. Imagine you live on the 10th floor and you take the elevator up there. One day it stops working, but for a couple of weeks you enter the elevator, hit the button, wait a minute, and only then take the stairs. After a while, you’ll stop bothering to check whether the elevator’s working again–you’ll go straight for the stairs. That’s called extinction.

Here’s the thing. Just before you give up entirely, you’ll go through an extinction burst. You’ll walk into the elevator and mash all the buttons, hold them down, press them harder or repeatedly, just anything to see whether it works. If it doesn’t work, hey, you’re not going to try the elevator again.

But if it does work! If it does work then bang, you’re conditioned for life. That behaviour is burnt in.

I think this effect has a lot more importance in everyday interaction with products/systems/environments than we might realise at first – a kind of mild Cargo Cult effect – and designers ought to be aware of it. (There’s a lot more I’d like to investigate about this effect, and how it might be applied intentionally…)

We’ve looked before at the thermostat wars and the illusion of control in this kind of context. It’s related to the illusion of control psychological effect studied by Ellen Langer and others, where people are shown to believe they have some control over things they clearly don’t: in most cases, a button does afford us control, and we would rationally expect it to: an expectation does, presumably, build up that similar buttons will do similar things in all lifts we step into, and if we’re used to it not doing anything, we either no longer bother pressing it, or we still press it every time “on the off-chance that one of these days it’ll work”.

How those habits form can have a large effect on how the products are, ultimately, used, since they often shake out into something binary (you either do something or you don’t): if you got a bad result the first time you used the 30 degree ‘eco’ mode on your washing machine, you may not bother ever trying it again, on that machine or on any others. If pressing the door close button seems to work, that behaviour gets transferred to all lifts you use (and it takes some conscious ‘extinction’ to change it).

There’s no real conclusion to this post, other than that it’s worth investigating this subject further.

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?

Motel 6cc

Dove Cream Shower Motel EditionDove Cream Shower Motel Edition

The plastic* of this built-in Dove shower cream bottle I encountered in a Finnish hotel recently was significantly stiffer than the consumer retail version. The idea is that you press the side of the bottle where indicated to dispense some cream, but it didn’t deform anywhere near as easily as expected, with the result that the ‘portion size’ of the product was much smaller than you might dispense if you were at home.

Is this deliberate? The hotel wants to spend less on Dove, so it wants customers to use less of it, and the manufacturer obliges by making a bottle that’s more difficult to squeeze? Whereas with the retail version, the manufacturer wants the customer to use as much as possible, as quickly as possible?

Is it a similar (but inverse) tactic to the Lather, Rinse, Repeat effect?

Or am I reading too much into it? Is it just that the bottle is going to have to last longer, with multiple refills, so stiffer plastic’s used?

*HDPE, I think

Towards a Design with Intent ‘Method’ – v.0.1

As mentioned a while back, I’ve been trying to find a way to classify the numerous ‘Design with Intent’ and architectures of control examples that have been examined on this site, and suggested by readers. Since that post, my approach has shifted slightly to look at what the intent is behind each example, and hence develop a kind of ‘method’ for suggesting ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’, based on analysing hundreds of examples. I’d hesitate to call it a suggestion algorithm quite yet, but it does, in a very very rudimentary way, borrow certain ideas from TRIZ*. Below is a tentative, v.0.1 example of the kind of thought process that a ‘designer’ might be led through by using the DwI Method. I’ve deliberately chosen an common example where the usual architectures of control-type ‘solutions’ are pretty objectionable. Other examples will follow.

General view of the method diagram v.0.1

Basics of the DwI Method, v.0.1

1. Assuming you have a ‘problem’ involving the interaction between one of more users, and a product, system or environment (hereafter, the system), the first stage is to express what your intended target behaviour is. What do you actually want to achieve?

2. Attempt to describe your intended target behaviour in terms of one of the general target behaviours for the interaction, listed in the table below. (This is, of course, very much a rough work in progress at present, and these will undoubtedly change and be added to.) Your intended target behaviour may seem to map to more than one general target behaviour: this may mean that you actually have two ‘problems’ to solve.

General target behaviours v.0.1

3. You’re presented with a set of mechanisms – loosely categorised as physical, psychological, economic, legal or structural – which, it’s suggested, could be applied to achieve the general target behaviour, and thus your intended target behaviour. Some mechanisms have a narrow focus – dealing specifically with the interaction between the user and the system – and some are much wider in scope – looking outside the immediate interaction. Different mechanisms can be combined, of course: the idea here is to inspire ‘solutions’ to your ‘problem’ rather than actually specify them.

The mechanisms, illustrative v.0.1

 

An example

This example is one that I’ve covered extensively on this blog: the most common ‘solutions’ are, generally, very unfriendly, but it’s clear to most of us that the ‘wider scope’ mechanisms are, ultimately, more desirable.

Original photo by David Basanta
Sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park, London. Photo by David Basanta

Introduction

A number of benches in a city-centre park are occupied overnight or during parts of the day by homeless people. The city council/authorities (‘they’) decide that this is a problem: they don’t want homeless people sleeping on the benches in the park. Expressed differently, their intended target behaviour is no homeless people sleeping on the benches.

So, which of the general target behaviours is closest to this?

Currently the list (disclaimer: v.0.1, will change a lot, letter allocations are not significant) is:

A1:  Access, use or occupation based on user characteristics
A2:  Access, use or occupation based on user behaviour
B:   No access, use or occupation, in a specific manner, by any user
C:   User provided with functionality only when environmental criteria satisfied
D:   Separate flows and occupation; users have no influence on each other
E:   Interaction between users or groups of users
F:   No user-created blockages or congestion caused by multiple users
G:   Controlled rate of flow or passage of users
H:   User follows process or path
I:    User pays the maximum price which still results in a sale

While we might think the ‘discriminatory’ implications of A1 and A2 are relevant here given our assumptions about the authorities’ motives, in fact ‘they’ probably don’t want anyone sleeping on the benches, regardless of whether he or she’s actually homeless, just having a lunchtime nap before returning to a corner office at Goldman Sachs, or anywhere in between. They don’t mind someone sitting on the bench (grudgingly, that would seem to be its purpose), as long as it’s not for too long (that’s another ‘problem’, though with very similar ‘solutions’), but they don’t want anyone sleeping on it. It’s not exactly the same problem as preventing anyone lying down (we might imagine a bright light or loudspeaker positioned over the bench, which allows people to lie down but makes it difficult to sleep), but the problems, and most solutions, are very close.

So it turns out that B, ‘No access, use or occupation, in a specific manner, by any user’, best matches the intended target behaviour in this case:

General Target Behaviour close-up, v.0.1

From mechanisms to ‘solutions’

Looking at the diagram (PDF, 25k, or click image below), a number of possible mechanisms are suggested to achieve this target behaviour. (Again, a disclaimer: this is very much work in progress, and many mechanisms are missing at this stage.) There are physical, psychological, economic, legal and structural mechanisms, some with a narrow focus, and some much wider in scope.

Category B preview, v.0.1

I’ll try to pick out and discuss a few mechanisms – physical, psychological and structural (leaving out the legal and economic for the moment) – to demonstrate how they can be applied in the context of the bench example, but first it’s important to note two things:

  • Different mechanisms can of course be combined to produce solutions: e.g. legal mechanisms would need some kind of surveillance, either human or technological, to enforce; a ‘stick‘ approach along with a ‘carrot’ may be more effective than simply one or the other. So a fine for interacting with the system (i.e. sleeping on the bench) would probably have more effect if combined with making the alternative more attractive, e.g. providing somewhere else for people to sleep.
  • None of these mechanisms is an actual ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ directly, and even if applied rigorously, the actual effectiveness in terms of physically forcing, psychologically encouraging, or otherwise enforcing the intended target behaviour is not guaranteed. Users are not mechanical components; nor are they all rational economically. Your results will vary.
  • The most obvious physical mechanism for addressing the issue is the placing of material – to interrupt the surface of the bench, or perhaps even to cause injury (usually not done deliberately with park benches, but surely done, at least in the sense of conditioning the user not to repeat the interactions, with some pigeon spikes, barbed wire, anti-climb and various anti-sit spikes).

    Mechanisms close-up, v.0.1

    Interrupting the surface of the bench is usually done by adding central armrests (which do at least serve another function in addition), as illustrated here:

    New anti-homeless bench being installed at Richmond Station

    Belson Georgetown Bench
    A new bench with armrests being installed at Richmond Station, just as London Overground takes over from Silverlink; and the Belson Georgetown Bench, “Redesigned to face contemporary urban realities, this bench comes standard with a centre arm to discourage overnight stays in its comfortable embrace.”

    Of course, it is possible to sleep on a bench with central armrests, but it’s certainly discouraging, as the Belson quote suggests.

    Sleeping over armrests on bench, photo by Rick Abbott
    Photo by Rick Abbott

    Placing of material could equally be subtractive rather than additive – so interrupting the surface might also suggest removing elements to prevent or discourage sleeping. This could be in the form of removing every (say) third section of a bench, thus making the remaining length too short to lie down on properly (this has been done in some airport lounges), making the benches shorter altogether, or even separating the seats into ‘single-occupancy benches’ – which would seem to be suggested by the spatial mechanism:

    Short bench - image from Yumiko Hayakawa Single occupancy benches - photo by Ville Tikkanen
    “A man tries to sleep on a deliberately shortened bench at the park” – photo from this excellent article by Yumiko Hayakawa discussing anti-homeless measures in Tokyo; ‘Single-occupancy benches’ in Helsinki – photo by Ville Tikkanen

    Indeed, simply narrowing the bench (making a kind of perch), and/or removing the backrest from a bench which already has central armrests, so that someone can’t even lean back to doze, would also count in terms of removing material.

    Mechanisms close-up, v.0.1

    Designs suggested by the orientation of material mechanisms are also fairly common – most often, a simply angled seat surface, as used on many bus-stop perches or these benches:

    Angled bench - photo from Yumiko Hayakawa
    “Can’t Lie Down, Can’t Lean Back – A man has a hard time getting a break on this partitioned, forward-leaning bench at Tokyo’s Ueno Onshi park”. Photo from Yumiko Hayakawa’s article.
    Bench by Joscelyn Bingham
    The ‘Lean Seat’ by Joscelyn Bingham

    Curved surfaces, both convex and concave, can also be employed:

    Curved bench - photo from Yumiko Hayakawa Curved bench - photo from PhatalbertConvex surface tubular bench in Tokyo – photo from Yumiko Hayakawa’s article; Concave surface bus shelter perch in Shanghai – photo by Albert Sun

    And curvature can be combined with the use of armrests (and height – which suggests that spatial might also be expanded to include something like “dimensional change to alter distance between elements of system”) to create something like the ‘Oxford Cornmarket montrosity’, which might prevent people sleeping on it, but certainly doesn’t stop people occupying it in a way the designers didn’t intend:

    Monstrosity, Oxford Cornmarket

    Monstrosity in use, Oxford Cornmarket
    The ‘benches’ in Oxford’s Cornmarket Street, discussed here and here. Second photo by Stephanie Jenkins

    Looking at some of the other relevant physical mechanisms, it’s worth noting that change of environmental characteristic – ‘local temperature change’ – also finds an expression in the convex Tokyo bench pictured above – as Yumiko Hayakawa notes in the original article:

    The hard curved surface of this stainless-steel bench, too hot in summer, too cold in winter, repels all but one visitor to Ikebukuro West Park.

    We might also think of positioning a street lamp right above a bench – to make it took bright to sleep there easily at night – as a similar tactic in this vein, ‘local illumination change’.

    What about the other relevant physical mechanisms? Change of material characteristic could mean a bench that deforms in some way when someone lies on it, or maybe has an uncomfortable surface texture (nails?). But both of these would probably preclude the bench’s use for sitting, in addition to sleeping. Movement or oscillation could suggest a bench which is balanced somehow so that it requires the user’s feet to be on the ground, in a normal sitting position, to keep it stable, and which would fall over (extra degree of freedom introduced) when someone tried to lie down on it, or maybe a bench which is sited on a turntable continually rotating, or a vibrating base, so that the user’s feet on the ground are again needed for stabilising, and someone lying down would fall off. None of these is an especially realistic ‘solution’, but would all address the ‘problem’ even if simultaneously introducing others.

    (At this point, we might consider that if the ‘problem’ mainly occurs at night, we might want a bench that only becomes un-sleepable on – or unusable – at night. This would be best addressed by general target behaviour C, ‘User provided with functionality only when environmental criteria satisfied’ – many of the suggested mechanisms will be similar, but with conditional elements to them – if it is dark, or after a certain time, the bench might automatically retract into the ground, or become uncomfortable, if it weren’t already.)

    As noted on the diagram (PDF, 25k), I’ve (so far) had a bit of a mental blind-spot in coming up with wider-scope physical mechanisms to address this general target behaviour. The only sensible ones so far relate to applying the placing of material on the approach to the system, so in this case, it might mean putting the bench on an island surrounded by mud, water or spikes and so on, which doesn’t really seem useful. This wider-scope line-of-thinking needs much further development for some types of mechanisms, although it’s fairly obvious where it relates to making an alternative system more attractive.

    Mechanisms close-up, v.0.1
    Narrow-scope psychological mechanisms

    Turning to psychological mechanisms, with both narrow and wider scopes, the emphasis pretty much comes down to a ‘stick’ or ‘carrot’ approach: either scare/warn/otherwise put off the user from sleeping on the bench, or make an alternative more attractive/available. It’s about creating unattractive perceived affordances, perhaps, where the physical mechanisms are about removing real affordances.

    From the narrow scope point-of-view, some of the applicable psychological ‘solutions’ might include: ‘warning’ potential sleepers off with signage or colour schemes (not that this would do much; it’s more likely to provoke amusement, as in the photo below); making benches which look uncomfortable (whether or not they are); paying(?) scary or unattractive other ‘users’ to hang around the bench to scare people away (which perhaps defeats the object slightly); or, probably most likely, using overt surveillance of the bench, by humans or cameras, which brings in considerations of the legal mechanisms too (and maybe economic, in the form of fines). Another aspect of surveillance is making the (unwanted) interaction visible to other users – using the pressure of social norms to ‘shame’ people into not doing something (positioning the sink outside the bathroom, in a kind of ante-room visible to others, is a good example), but it’s difficult to see how to apply this to the bench example – even if the bench is, say, positioned where lots of people will see the user sleeping on it, the pressure to vacate it is pretty low. This is a kind of ‘public’ feedback; feedback itself is an extremely important psychological mechanism in interaction design, but seems (from my research so far) to be much more applicable to some of the other general target behaviours.

    Sign in bushes, photo from Tacky Fabulous Orlando Mechanisms close-up, v.0.1
    A genuine sign in Orlando, via Boing Boing; and some applicable wider scope psychological mechanisms.

    The wider scope psychological mechanisms are much more positive – indeed, more positive than anything else so far in this example. Here, the aim is to make alternative systems – i.e. an alternative to sleeping on the park bench, whatever it might be – more attractive. This is where this sort of thing comes into play:

    Sean Godsell, House in a Park Sean Godsell, House in a Park
    Sean Godsell’s ‘House in a Park’, a bench that folds out into a rudimentary shelter (above) and (below) Bus Shelter House, which “converts into an emergency overnight accommodation. The bench lifts to reveal a woven steel mattress and the advertising hoarding is modified to act as a dispenser of blankets, food, and water.”
    Sean Godsell, Bus Shelter House

    Note that at this level, the alternative systems themselves are attractive (more attractive than sleeping on the park bench) by simply fulfilling users’ needs rather than any psychological ‘tricks’. There is a lesson there.

    ‘Guerrilla’ responses by users frustrated at heavy-handed anti-user measures don’t directly have a place in the DwI Method, at least as currently constituted, but in this case, for example, providing temporary cardboard seating (/sleeping benches) or even parts that fit over benches with central armrests to permit sleeping once again, as Crosbie Fitch suggests, are worth thinking about:

    Perhaps also, for each anti-sit seat design, one could come up with cardboard add-ons that re-enable long-term seating and recumbence. These could be labelled “Temporary Seat Repairs”, “Protective Seat Covers”, “Citizen City Seats”, or something far wittier.

    Mechanisms close-up, v.0.1

    It’s the structural mechanisms which suggest the more large-scale ‘solutions’, from provision of alternative systems (as in the Sean Godsell examples above) to actually removing the need for anyone to sleep rough. Ultimately, of course, that’s a better goal than any of the above – anything discussed in this article – but it’s not really a ‘solution’, rather a desirable aim, or even an intended target behaviour in itself, addressing a social issue rather than a ‘design’ one. Addressing the ‘disease’ rather than merely disguising the symptoms is surely preferable in the long-term.

    Alternatively, some cities have simply removed benches altogether where there is a ‘homeless problem…

    Benches removed - photo by Fredo Alvarez
    Benches stripped in Washington DC – “A small homeless population [had grown] there within the past few months”. photo by Fredo Alvarez.

    …’removal of system entirely‘ being the structural mechanism there: doing absolutely nothing to help the homeless users, and in the process removing the benches for everyone who uses the park.

    Conclusions

    The choice of such a negative example for demonstrating this very early version of the Design With Intent Method – where almost all the ‘solutions’ suggested are anti-user and generally unfriendly – reflects, pretty much, where my ‘architectures of control’ research came from in the first place. Most of the examples posted on the site over the past couple of years have generally been about stopping users doing something, forcing them to do something they don’t want to do, or tricking them into doing something against their own best interests – certainly more than have been about more positive efforts to help and guide users.

    I thought that using the DwI Method initially to see if I could ‘get inside the head’ (possibly) of the ‘they’ who implement this kind of disciplinary architecture would be a useful insight, before applying the method to something more user-friendly and worthwhile – which willl be the next task.

     

    *As ‘Silverman’ cautioned before, the aim must not be to remove the use of engineering/design intuition – most creative people would not respond well to that anyway – but primarily to inspire possible solutions.

    Destroy everything you touch

    The sandpaper cover of Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

    We can’t help but be familiar with the concept of ‘malicious code’ in the context of computer security and programming, but in general the idea of products or technology which, as they’re used, sabotage or degrade the performance of a ‘rival’, is intriguing and not well-explored. Scott Craver’s Underhanded C contest is a fascinating example from the ‘white hat’ side of the fence; Microsoft’s use of deliberately targeted style sheets on MSN.com to degrade Opera’s performance is another; and the CIA’s alleged planting of software bugs in Russian pipeline control software is a third. The Sony DRM rootkit might also fall into this category (as would this!)

    But on a much more concrete level, we have this playful example: Memoires by Guy Debord, psychogeographer and Situationist, was originally published with a rough sandpaper cover:

    Memoires was written, or rather assembled, by Guy Debord and Asger Jorn in 1957. Debord himself often referred to Memoires as an anti-book, and the original edition was bound in sandpaper, that it might destroy other books. The text is entirely composed of fragments taken from other texts: photographs, advertisements, comic strips, poetry, novels, philosophy, pornography, architectural diagrams, newspapers, military histories, wood block engravings, travel books, etc. Each page presents a collage of such materials connected or effaced by Jorn’s structures portantes, lines or amorphous painted shapes that mediate the relationships between the fragments.

    (from an article by David Banash)

    Debord's Memoires. Images from eBay

    And from this article by Christian Nolle:

    The book is most famous for its sandpaper cover. An auto-destruction feature that enabled it to damage not only the book it might be standing next to in the bookshelf, but also the person who would be reading it. An anti-book to destroy all other books.

    Permild writes: “Long had he [Jorn] asked me, if I couldn’t find a unconventional material for the book cover. Preferably some sticky asphalt or perhaps glass wool. Kiddingly, he wanted, that by looking at people, you should be able to tell whether or not they had had the book in their hands. He acquiesced by my [Permild’s] final suggestion: sandpaper (flint) nr. 2: ‘Fine. Can you imagine the result when the book lies on a blank polished mahogany table, or when it’s inserted or taken out of the bookshelf. It plans shavings of the neighbours desert goat [?]’.

    In all the literature that I have located, Debord is the person who is refered to as the inventor of the sandpaper cover. However, as it turns out Debord had nothing to do with it… Permild continues, «Asger loved – as he often expressed it, to place small time controlled bombs». This was certainly a bomb. A bomb invented by the printer, whose job is normally of a technical nature. The sandpaper cover was a really good idea, but practically it never managed to practice what it preached. It did, however, make its readers conscious about handling it or where to place it.

    One the other hand, Memoires placed itself on a shelf among precious object, something to be handled with great care… The American Hakem Bey did something similar in the 1970s. In homage to Guy Debord, Bey made a book with sandpaper on the inside. This way he rendered the book into auto-destruct mode if you would ever dare to read it. A potential bomb to go off if you would open it. Memoires, on other hand is a bomb, not a potential bomb. No matter how you would handle it, there was always the danger that it could damage your precious collection of 1920s French poetry.

    The photos above come from this French eBay listing – the copy on sale reached €3,810.

    Slanty design

    Library of Congress, Main Reading Room
    The Main Reading Room, Library of Congress. Image from CIRLA.

    In this article from Communications of the ACM from January 2007, Russell Beale uses the term slanty design to describe “design that purposely reduces aspects of functionality or usability”:

    It originated from an apocryphal story that some desks in the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, are angled down toward the patron, with a glass panel over the wood, so when papers are being viewed, nothing harmful (like coffee cups, food and ink pens) can be put on top of them. This makes them less usable (from a user-centric point of view) but much more appropriate for their overall purpose.

    [S]lanty design is useful when the system must address wider goals than the user might have, when, say, they wish to do something that in the grander scheme of things is less than desirable.

    New Pig cigarette binCone cup
    The angled lid on this cigarette bin prevents butts being placed on top; the cone shape of cup subtly discourages users from leaving it on the table.

    We’ve looked before on this site at a couple of literally ‘slanty’ examples – notably, cigarette bins with angled lids and paper cone cups (above) – and indeed “the common technique of architects to use inclined planes to prevent people from leaving things, such as coffee cups, on flat spaces” is noted on the Designweenie blog here – but in his article, Beale expands the scope of the term to encompass interfaces or interaction methods designed to prevent or discourage certain user behaviour, for strategic reasons: in essence, what I’ve tried to corral under the heading ‘architectures of control‘ for the last few years, but with a different way of arriving at the idea:

    We need more than usability to make things work properly. Design is (or should be) a conversation between users and design experts and between desired outcomes and unwanted side effects… [U]ser-centred design is grounded in the user’s current behavior, which is often less than optimal.

    Slanty design incorporates the broader message, making it difficult for users to do unwanted things, as well as easy to do wanted things. Designers need to design for user non-goals – the things users do not want to do or should not be able to do even if they want to [my emphases]. If usability is about making it easy for users to do what they must do, then we need to have anti-usability as well well, making it difficult for them to do the things we may not want them to do.

    He gives the example of Gmail (below), where Google has (or had – the process is apprently not so difficult now) made it difficult for users to delete email – “Because Google uses your body of email to mine for information it uses to target the ads it delivers to generate revenue; indeed, deleting it would be detrimental to the service” but that in fact, this strategy might be beneficial for the user – “By providing a large amount of storage space for free, Gmail reduces any resource pressure, and by making the deletion process difficult it tries to re-educate us to a new way of operating, which also happens to achieve Google’s own wider business goals.” This is an interesting way of looking at it, and somewhat reminscent of the debate on deleting an Amazon or eBay account – see also Victor Lombardi’s commentary on the where the balance lies.

    How to delete an email in Gmail

    However, from my point of view, if there’s one thing which has become very clear from investigating architectures of control in products, systems and environments, it’s that the two goals Beale mentions – “things users do not want to do” and things users “should not be able to do” – only coincide in a few cases, and with a few products, and a few types of user. Most poka-yoke examples would seem to be a good fit, as would many of the design methods for making it easier to save energy on which my PhD is focusing, but outside these areas, there are an awful lot of examples where, in general, the goal of the user conflicts with the goal of the designer/manufacturer/service provider/regulator/authority, and it’s the user’s ability which is sacrificed in order to enforce or encourage behaviour in line with what the ‘other’ party wants. “No-one wakes up in the morning wanting to do less with his or her stuff,” as Cory Doctorow puts it.

    Beale does recognise that conflicts may occur – “identify wider goals being pursued by other stakeholders, including where they conflict with individual goals” – and that an attempt should be made to resolve them, but – personally – I think an emphasis on using ‘slanty’ techniques to assist the user (and assist the ‘other party’, whether directly or simply through improving customer satisfaction/recommendation) would be a better direction for ‘slanty design’ to orient itself.

    Slanty carousel - image by Russell Beale
    “Slanty-designed baggage carousel. Sloping floor keeps the area clear”. From ‘Slanty Design’ article by Russell Beale.

    Indeed, it is this aim of helping individual users while also helping the supersystem (and actually using a slant, in fact) which informs a great suggestion on which Beale elaborates, airport baggage carousels with a slanted floor (above):

    The scrum of trolleys around a typical [carousel] makes it practically impossible to grab a bag when it finally emerges. A number of approaches have been tried. Big signs… a boundary line… a wide strip of brightly coloured floor tiles…

    My slanty design would put a ramp of about 30 degrees extending two meters or so up toward the belt… It would be uncomfortable to stand on, and trolleys would not stay there easily, tending to roll off backward or at least be awkward to handle. I might also add a small dip that would catch the front wheels, making it even more difficult to get the trolley or any other wheeled baggage on it in the first place, but not enough to trip up a person.

    If I was being really slanty, I’d also incorporate 2 cm-high bristles in the surface, making it a real pain for the trolleys on it and not too comfy for the passengers to stay there either. Much easier for people to remain (with their trolleys) on the flat floor than negotiate my awkward hill. We’d retain the space we need, yet we could manage the short dash forward, up the hill, to grab our bags, then return to our trolleys, clearing the way for the next baggage-hungry passenger.

    There are some very interesting ideas embodied in this example – I’m not sure that using bristles on such a slope would be especially easy for wheelchair users, but the overall idea of helping both the individual user, and the collective (and probably the airport authority too: reducing passenger frustration and necessity for supervision of the carousel), is very much something which this kind of design, carefully thought out, can bring about.