Category Archives: Sustainability

Work in progress: Ambient audible energy data

The three instruments you hear here represent the electricity use of three items of office infrastructure – the kettle, a laser printer, and a gang socket for a row of desks – in the Helen Hamlyn Centre office over 12 hours from midnight on a Sunday to lunchtime on a Monday, in December, monitored using CurrentCost IAMs. The figures were scaled to provide ranges that sounded better, and converted into a MIDI file using John Walker’s csvmidi and then Aria Maestosa.

The ‘ticks’ indicate each hour’s passing. The ‘honk’ (Tenor Sax) is the kettle (up to 1.5kW when in use). The ‘whine’ (Synth Brass 1) is the Kyocera laser printer. The other synth (Polysynth) is the gang socket, which mainly had a couple of laptops (15W-50W) plugged into it when people were in the office, and a charger (1W) plugged into it otherwise . Lower pitch indicates greater electricity use, hence the high-pitched whine is the background power of the printer (about 10W on standby, rising to 300W-500W when in use).

As the audio starts, you can hear, over the background whine of the printer, the kettle come on as the security guard makes himself a middle-of-the-night cup of tea. Then, early in the morning, the kettle is used three times by the cleaners – twice in quick succession (reboiling?) and then once again. Suddenly, from 9.30, as office staff arrive, the kettle goes on again, laptops are plugged in, the printer starts printing and the energetic hubbub of office life becomes apparent.

Sound of the Office

Data sonification has been in the news a bit recently, from Domenico Vicinanza’s ‘Sound of Space Discovery’ to Opower’s ‘Chicago in the Wintertime’. It’s something that’s long intrigued me, but if I’m honest, has underwhelmed me in terms of either its actual utility or indeed its impact aesthetically. A (visual) graph is useful because I can use it to find something out. A table of numbers, likewise, even if patterns are less immediately evident. But a beautiful orchestral piece that just happens to draw on aggregated data which are a long way from anything I can comprehend, in scale or meaning, doesn’t tell me anything, somehow. Sarah Angliss was pretty much spot-on in this 2011 Mad Art Lab post.

Energy use is the focus of one of the main projects I’m working on, and one of the strongest findings that came out of interviews and co-creation work with householders that Flora Bowden and I did last summer and autumn was the notion that the invisibility of energy was a major component of householders’ lack of understanding, which contributed – by their own admission – to energy waste.

More than one person specifically suggested that being able to ‘listen’ to whether appliances were switched on or not, and, more interestingly, what state they were in (e.g. listening to a washing machine will give you a good idea as to where it is in its cycle), was potentially more useful for understanding how to reduce energy use than a flashy visual display or dashboard. Sound is potentially even more ‘glanceable’ than glanceables. Even hearing what you’d left on as you went out of the door would be useful. There are echoes of Mark Weiser’s Calm Technology including Natalie Jeremijenko’s Live Wire (Dangling String) but also the ‘useful side-effects’ of things like the ‘clacking’ sound of mechanical railway departure boards as an indicator that the display has updated, as Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally point out in their excellent Designing the Internet of Things.

We also explored aspects of this idea further in our Seeing Things project with RCA students back in November, with contributors including Dave Cranmer and Dagny Rewera having an audio/visual sensory translation element to their work. Of the participants, Ted Hunt took an explicitly multi-sensory approach with his project, including audio, while Francesco Tacchini, with Julinka Ebhardt and Will Yates-Johnson, subsequently went on to create the incredible Space Replay where audio is both monitored and played back in public space.

I’m not saying the ‘Sound of the office’ audio above is particularly good. It was more of a let’s-play-around-with-some-data experiment, and I’ve since found that proper sonification platforms exist. But the approach is something I very much want to explore and build on – possibly whole-house energy use audio disaggregated by appliance, or by activity – and it raises so many interesting questions around what is most useful or most effective at actually either influencing energy use, or helping people understand the complex systems around them. Should it be aesthetically pleasing, or horrible enough it triggers you to turn things off? Is that just the kind of over-simplification that makes most energy monitor displays ineffective? Should the audio be real-time or provide a summary? Should it be paired with visuals? (e.g. like Alexander Chen’s beautiful MTA.ME or Listen to Bitcoin / Listen to Wikipedia) How much should it try to be ‘music’ versus, basically an ‘auditory affordance’ or alarm system? Should there be something about the quality of the sound that indicates something, e.g. load on the National Grid? (Thanks to Aideen McConville and Jack Kelly for this suggestion.)

The field is interesting partly because, post-PhD, I’ve come to realise that what I’m interested in is not so much the question of “how do we influence behaviour?” as an end in itself, but something more like “how do people understand complex systems of which their behaviour is a part, and how do we help them understand those systems better?”. There’s a substantial blog post coming on that, which hopefully draws together lots of interests and ideas, from the IoT to heuristics to seamfulness to affordances to mental models, and (I hope) will set out a kind of research programme which I might be able to get some funding for. But in the meantime, this is certainly part of the direction we’re going in with the ‘energy feedback’ part of the RCA’s work on the SusLab project. It’s going to be ambient, and it’s going to involve more than just numbers and graphs.

Direct link for MP3 file
Sound of the Office

Report: Most people just trying to get by

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

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

CarbonCulture blog

It’s been quiet here, for reasons which will be explained later, but in the meantime I should mention that CarbonCulture (with whom I’ve been working for the past two years as part of the TSB-supported EMPOWER collaboration) has a new blog.

In anticipation of the forthcoming public launch of the CarbonCulture product, we’re introducing some background on behaviour change approaches, energy use and environmental impact. The first few posts (as of today) introduce:


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User-centred design for energy efficiency in buildings: TSB competition

The deadline’s fast approaching (mid-day 17th Dec) for the UK Technology Strategy Board‘s ‘User-centred design for energy efficiency in buildings’ competition [PDF] – there’s an introduction from Fionnuala Costello here.

This is an exciting initiative which aims to bring together (in a 5-day ‘sandpit’) people from different disciplines and different sectors to address the problems of influencing user behaviour to improve the energy efficiency of offices and other non-domestic buildings, and generate commercially viable collaborative solutions to develop, some of which will then be part-funded by the TSB. Fionnuala’s blog, People in Buildings has some great posts and discussions exploring aspects of how human factors and technology together might be used to help people use energy more effectively. If you or your organisation are interested in these kinds of issues – and using design to address them – it’d be well worth getting an application in over the next few days.

Thoughts on the ‘fun theory’


The ‘Piano Staircase’ from Volkswagen’s thefuntheory.com

The Fun Theory (Rolighetsteorin), a competition / campaign / initiative from Volkswagen Sweden – created by DDB Stockholm – has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks from both design-related people and other commentators with an interest in influencing behaviour: it presents a series of clever ‘design interventions’ aimed at influencing behaviour through making things “fun to do” – taking the stairs instead of the escalator, recycling glass via a bottle bank and using a litter bin. The stairs are turned into a giant piano keyboard, with audio accompaniment; the bottle bank is turned into an arcade game, with sound effects and scores prominently displayed; and the litter bin has a “deep pit” effect created through sound effects played as items are dropped into it. It’s exciting to see that exploring design for behaviour change is being so enthusiastically pursued and explored, especially by ad agencies, since – if we’re honest – advertisers have long been the most successful at influencing human behaviour effectively (in the contexts intended). There’s an awful lot designers can learn from this, but I digress…

As a provocation and inspiration to enter the competition, these are great projects. The competition itself is interesting because it encourages entrants to “find [their] own evidence for the theory that fun is best way to change behaviour for the better”, suggesting that entries with some kind of demonstrated / tested element are preferred over purely conceptual submissions (however clever they might be) which have often been a hallmark of creative design competitions in the past. While the examples created and tested for the campaign are by no means “controlled experiments” (e.g. the stats in the videos about the extra amount of rubbish or glass deposited give little context about the background levels of waste deposition in that area, whether people have gone out of their way to use the ‘special’ bins, and so on), they do demonstrate very well the (perhaps obvious) effect that making something fun, or engaging, is a way to get people interested in using it.

Bottle bank arcadeWorld's deepest bin

Triggers

Going a bit deeper, though, into what “the theory of fun” might really mean, it’s clear there are a few different effects going on here. To use concepts from B J Fogg’s Behaviour Model, assuming the ability to use the stairs, bottle bank or bin is already there, the remaining factors are motivation and triggers. Motivation is, on some level, presumably also present in each case, in the sense that someone carrying bottles to be recycled already wants to get rid of them, someone standing at the bottom of the stairs or escalator wants to get to the top, and someone with a piece of litter in her hand wants to discard it somehow (even if that’s just on the ground).

(But note that if, for example, people start picking up litter from elsewhere in order to use the bin because they’re excited by it, or if – as in the video – kids run up and down the stairs to enjoy the effect, this is something slightly different: the motivation has changed from “I’m motivated to get rid of the litter in my hand” to “I’m motivated to keep playing with this thing.” While no doubt useful results, these are slightly different target behaviours to the ones expressed at the start of the videos. “Can we get more people to take the stairs over the escalator by making it fun to do?” is not quite the same as “Can we get people so interested in running up and down the stairs that they want to do it repeatedly?”)

So the triggers are what the interventions are really about redesigning: adding some feature or cue which causes people who already have the ability and the motivation to choose this particular way of getting out of the railway station to the street above, or disposing of litter, or recycling glass. All three examples deliberately, prominently, attract the interest of passers-by (“World’s deepest bin” graphics, otherwise incongruous black steps, illuminated 7-segment displays above the bottle bank) quite apart from the effect of seeing lots of other people gathered around, or using something in an unusual way.

And once they’ve triggered someone to get involved, to use them, there are different elements that come into play in each example. For example, the bottle bank – by using a game metaphor – effectively challenges the user into continuing (perhaps even entering a flow state, though this is surely more likely with the stairs) and gives feedback on how well you’re doing as well as a kind of reward. The reward element is present in all three examples, in fact.

Perhaps the most relevant pattern in all these examples, and the “fun theory” concept itself, is that of emotional or affective engagement. The user experience of each is designed to evoke an emotional response, to motivate engagement through enjoyment or delight – and this is an area of design where a lot of great (and commercially applicable) research work has been done, by people such as Pieter Desmet (whose doctoral dissertation is a model for this kind of design research), Pat Jordan, Marco van Hout, Trevor van Gorp, Don Norman and MIT’s Affective Computing group. Taking a slightly different slant, David Gargiulo’s work on creating drama through interaction design (found via Harry Brignull‘s Twitter) is also pertinent here, as is Daniel Pink’s collection of ‘emotionally intelligent signage’ (thanks to Larry Cheng for bringing this to my attention).

What sort of behaviour change, though?

I suppose the biggest and most obvious criticism of projects such as the Rolighetsteorin examples is that they are merely one-time gimmicks, that a novelty effect is the most (maybe only) significant thing at work here. It’s not possible to say whether this is true or not without carrying out a longitudinal study of the members of the public involved over a period of time, or of the actual installations themselves. Does having fun using the stairs once (when they’re a giant piano) translate into taking the (boring) normal stairs in preference to an escalator on other occasions? (i.e. does it lead to attitude or preference change?) Or does the effect go away when the fun stairs do?

It may be, of course, that interventions with explicitly pro-social rhetoric embedded in them (such as the bottle bank) have an effect which bleeds over into other areas of people’s lives: do they think more about the environment, or being less wasteful, in other contexts? Have attitudes been changed beyond simply the specific context of recycling glass bottles using this particular bottle bank?

Project by Stephen Intille & House_n, MITProject by Stephen Intille & House_n, MIT

How others have done it

This campaign isn’t the first to have tried to address these problems through design, of course. Without researching too thoroughly, a few pieces of work spring to mind, and I’m sure there are many more. Stephen Intille, Ron MacNeil, Jason Nawyn and Jacob Hyman in MIT’s House_n group have done work using a sign with the ‘just-in-time‘ message “Your heart needs exercise – here’s your chance” (shown above) positioned over the stairs in a subway, flashing in people’s line-of-sight as they approach the decision point (between taking stairs or escalator) linked to a system which can record the effects in terms of people actually making one choice or the other, and hence compare the effect the intervention actually has. As cited in this paper [PDF], previous research by K D Brownell, A J Stunkard, and J M Albaum, using the same message, in a similar situation, but statically displayed for three weeks before being removed, demonstrated that some effect remains on people’s choice of the stairs for the next couple of months. (That is, the effect didn’t go away immediately when the sign did – though we can’t say whether that’s necessarily applicable to the piano stairs too.)

Persuasive Trash Cans by de Kort et alLast year I mentioned Finland’s “Kiitos, Tack, Thank you” bins, and in the comments (which are well worth reading), Kaleberg mentioned Parisian litter bins with SVP (s’il vous plaît) on them; most notable here is the work of Yvonne de Kort, Teddy McCalley and Cees Midden at Eindhoven on ‘persuasive trash cans‘ [PDF], looking at the effects of different kinds of norms on littering behaviour, expressed through the design or messages used on litter bins (shown to the left here).

Work on the design of recycling bins is, I think, worthy of a post of its own, since it starts to touch more on perceived affordances (the shape of different kinds of slots, and so on) so I’ll get round to that at some point.

Many thanks to everyone who sent me the Fun Theory links, including Kimberley Crofts, Brian Cugelman and Dan Jenkins (apologies if I’ve missed anyone out).