All posts filed under “Technology policy

Stuff that matters: Unpicking the pyramid

Most things are unnecessary. Most products, most consumption, most politics, most writing, most research, most jobs, most beliefs even, just aren’t useful, for some scope of ‘useful’.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but most of our civilisation seems to rely on the idea that “someone else will sort it out”, whether that’s providing us with food or energy or money or justice or a sense of pride or a world for our grandchildren to live in. We pay the politicians who are best at lying to us because we don’t want to have to think about problems. We bail out banks in one enormous spasm of cognitive dissonance. We pay ‘those scientists’ to solve things for us and them hate them when they tell us we need to change what we’re doing. We pay for new things because we can’t fix the old ones and then our children pay for the waste.

Economically, ecologically, ethically, we have mortgaged the planet. We’ve mortgaged our future in order to get what we have now, but the debt doesn’t die with us. On this model, the future is one vast pyramid scheme stretching out of sight. We’ve outsourced functions we don’t even realise we don’t need to people and organisations of whom we have no understanding. Worse, we’ve outsourced the functions we do need too, and we can’t tell the difference.

Maybe that’s just being human. But so is learning and tool-making. We must be able to do better than we are. John R. Ehrenfeld’s Sustainability by Design, which I’m reading at present, explores the idea that reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability, which ought to be pretty fundamental to how we think about these issues: going more slowly towards the cliff edge does not mean changing direction.

I’m especially inspired by Tim O’Reilly’s “Work on stuff that matters” advice. If we go back to the ‘most things are unnecessary’ idea, the plan must be to work on things that are really useful, that will really advance things. There is little excuse for not trying to do something useful. It sounds ruthless, and it does have the risk of immediately putting us on the defensive (“I am doing something that matters…”).

The idea I can’t get out of my head is that if we took more responsibility for things (i.e. progressively stopped outsourcing everything to others as in paragraphs 2 and 3 above, and actively learned how to do them ourselves), this would make a massive difference in the long run. We’d be independent from those future generations we’re currently recruiting into our pyramid scheme before they even know about it. We’d all of us be empowered to understand and participate and create and make and generate a world where we have perspicacity, where we can perceive the affordances that different options will give us in future and make useful decisions based on an appreciation of the longer term impacts.

An large part of it is being able to understand consequences and implications of our actions and how we are affected, and in turn affect, the situations we’re in – people around us, the environment, the wider world. Where does this water I’m wasting come from? Where does it go? How much does Google know about me? Why? How does a bank make its money? How can I influence a new law? What do all those civil servants do? How was my food produced? Why is public transport so expensive? Would I be able to survive if X or Y happened? Why not? What things that I do everyday are wasteful of my time and money? How much is the purchase of item Z going to cost me over the next year? What will happen when it breaks? Can I fix it? Why not? And so on.

You might think we need more transparency of the power structures and infrastructures around us – and we do – but I prefer to think of the solution as being tooling us up in parallel: we need to have the ability to understand what we can see inside, and focus on what’s actually useful/necessary and what isn’t. Our attention is valuable and we mustn’t waste it.

How can all that be taught?

I remember writing down as a teenager, in some lesson or other, “What we need is a school subject called How and why things are, and how they operate.” Now, that’s broad enough that probably all existing academic subjects would lay claim to part of it. So maybe I’m really calling for a higher overall standard of education.

But the devices and systems we encounter in everyday life, the structures around us, can also help, by being designed to show us (and each other) what they’re doing, whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or perhaps ‘useful’ or not), and what we can do to improve their performance. And by influencing the way we use them, whether nudging, persuading or preventing us getting it wrong in the first place, we can learn as we use. Everyday life can be a constructionist learning process.

This all feeds into the idea of ‘Design for Independence’:

Reducing society’s resource dependence
Reducing vulnerable users’ dependence on other people
Reducing users’ dependence on ‘experts’ to understand and modify the technology they own.

One day I’ll develop this further as an idea – it’s along the lines of Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller – but there’s a lot of other work to do first. I hope it’s stuff that matters.

Dan Lockton

A ‘Behaviour Change Barometer’

This is a kind of exploration of some ideas I worked on a while ago as part of my research, and have only just come back to, in order to tidy them up a bit. I’m putting it online as a way – perhaps – to get some comments/criticism, and also to enable me to refer to it, if necessary, in future blog posts. If I’m honest, classifications and taxonomies fatigue me quite a lot; coming up with ideas and making and testing them is a lot more fun. But sometimes they’re useful. I hope this one is.

If we think about how products are used, it’s clear that changes can result from the products themselves changing, users changing their behaviour, or a combination of both.

At the University of Bath, Ed Elias, Elies Dekoninck and Steve Culley [1] have captured these possibilities with a 2 × 2 matrix (Figure 1), in which ‘new products’ and ‘old products’ are compared with ‘new user behaviour’ and ‘old user behaviour’.

Diagram by Ed Elias

Along these lines, it’s possible to consider technology change (via design) and attitude change (via education) as two routes to achieve overall behaviour change. Especially in the sustainable design field, the emphasis is often on one strategy or the other, even though the routes are by no means mutually exclusive, as the ‘Design for New User Behaviour’ title implies in the matrix.

Loughborough’s Debra Lilley, Vicky Lofthouse and Tracy Bhamra [2] describe three ‘solutions to limit socially and environmentally undesirable behaviours’: Educational intervention — which corresponds closely to attitude change; Technological intervention — corresponding to technology change; and Product-led intervention — closely aligned with Elias et al’s Design for New User Behaviour.

Further consideration of the possibilities in this area, and how to represent them, led me to the development of a ‘Behaviour Change Barometer’. This diagram attempts to illustrate somewhat more nuanced ‘cases’ of behaviour change, and which factors are present or absent in each case. It ought to be applicable to many kinds of behaviour change with products, not just environmentally-related ones; equally, read ‘products/services/systems’ for ‘products’ to allow wider applicability. The barometer metaphor is stretched slightly, but it seemed appropriate given that the diagram’s mapping change.

A Behaviour Change Barometer. Diagram by Dan Lockton

Table to accompany Behaviour Change Barometer. Diagram by Dan LocktonThe same information is presented in tabular form here: in essence, there are six variables involved, with the possibility space divided into quadrants.

The focus of my research is on the intersection of technology change and attitude change (Quadrant 3): the design of products (and systems) which, through new product behaviour, change user behaviour. Quadrant 3 will be discussed last here — before that, it’s useful to run through the other quadrants briefly.

Quadrant 1 Status Quo Diagram by Dan LocktonQuadrant 1: Status quo

In the first quadrant, no overall behaviour change results.

It makes sense to describe case 1b first — this is the absolute ‘no change’ case, where there is no change in the actual functions of the products (they might be new products, but they don’t do anything different to the old products), people use them in the same way they did before, and users have no understanding or mindfulness of the issues around behaviour change.

Case 1a describes situations where the products’ functions have been changed, but users make no use of this, and have no understanding or mindfulness of the issues involved (e.g. a washing machine offers a new ‘eco’ mode alongside the other settings, but a user doesn’t use it). Therefore no overall behaviour change results, despite product improvement.

In 1c, users have an understanding of the issues, and may be mindful of their behaviour and its impacts, but nevertheless don’t change what they do, and continue to use products in the same way as before — e.g. someone who knows that leaving a television on standby wastes electricity, but doesn’t act on this understanding. Again, no overall behaviour change results, despite improved user understanding.

This quadrant encompasses much current behaviour with energy-using consumer products — improved education and improved technology have raised awareness of environmental issues, and allowed products to be operated more efficiently, but if users don’t act accordingly, there will be no overall change in behaviour.

Quadrant 2 New user behaviour with existing products. Diagram by Dan LocktonQuadrant 2: New user behaviour with existing products

Educating users about the implications of their behaviour is generally done with the intention that users will follow through and actually change the way they use products (if they don’t change, this is 1c as described above). If this is successful — e.g. a campaign to persuade people to keep their car tyres inflated correctly to save fuel — then new user behaviour occurs with existing products, and no design or engineering changes are needed to the products. Overall, there is a change in behaviour.

The scope of this quadrant corresponds closely with much current government policy of using social marketing, public education campaigns and so on — employing persuasion and rhetoric to drive attitude change as a foundation for behaviour change. There are many ways that this quadrant could be subdivided into behavioural cases, but from the point of view of the current study, this won’t be explored further here.

Quadrant 4 Existing user behaviour with new product behaviour. Diagram by Dan LocktonQuadrant 4: Existing user behaviour with new product behaviour

Where new products themselves behave differently in use, yet allow users to maintain their existing behaviours, overall behaviour change results without users necessarily needing to understand the issues involved. No persuasion occurs. For example, compact fluorescent lightbulbs, from the user’s point of view, do not require any different user behaviour to tungsten filament bulbs, but in operation they always result in new product behaviour. A refrigerator door which automatically closes itself if left ajar does not, again, require the user to do anything different, but the product itself behaves differently to accommodate existing user behaviour.

This quadrant would include the major proportion of ‘eco-products’ available, most of which are designed to allow the user to change routines and behaviours as little as possible; there are many possible ways the category can be subdivided further according to various other factors.

Quadrant 3 New user behaviour with new product behaviour. Diagram by Dan LocktonQuadrant 3: New user behaviour with new product behaviour

In the cases described by this quadrant, both product behaviour and user behaviour change, resulting in an overall behaviour change. The behaviour change can be driven entirely by functional changes to the product, or by mindful user understanding, or by both, but the products are designed to lead to this. This is Design with Intent.

These are products that persuade, guide or force — influence — users to change the way they interact with them. A common factor is that there is a perceived affordance change with the product: it somehow indicates that a change in behaviour is needed (compared with quadrant 4 where there is no such indication). This quadrant is where my research is focused.

In case 3a, the perceived affordance change does not reflect actual functional change to the product, yet it influences users to change their behaviour. For example, a washing machine which gives users an ‘estimated cost’ for each mode still embodies all the same functions as one which doesn’t — the user can choose to ignore the recommendation, but is influenced to choose the most economical mode, and thus a change in product behaviour is likely to result from the change in user behaviour. This is where much of the Persuasive Technology research seems to fit.

3c is the case where a user need not think about the issues involved, but will still behave differently due to functional changes to the product — e.g. a washing machine which automatically determines the most efficient settings for a particular load, and silently carries them out, doesn’t require the user to understand what’s going on, but does end up changing the user’s behaviour (removing inefficient decisions) and thus the product behaviour changes too. These products have the potential to be complex, especially where automation is required, but need not be. Something as simple as removing an option from a menu changes the user’s behaviour (prevents him or her choosing it) but doesn’t require the user to think about it.

Finally, returning to the centre of the quadrant, 3b describes cases where user understanding, alongside functional changes to the product and perceived affordance change, lead to user and product behaviour change in practice: these are the real core of what this study is about and where, I hope, I’ll be able to make advances in understanding useful to designers and anyone else working in the field of influencing user behaviour. These are interesting products, potentially involving lots of factors and effects but not necessarily complex in themselves.

[1] Elias, E W A, Dekoninck, E A, Culley, S J. The Potential for Domestic Energy Savings through Assessing User Behaviour and Changes in Design. EcoDesign2007, 5th International Symposium on Environmentally Conscious Design and Inverse Manufacturing, Tokyo, 2007
[2] Lilley, D, Lofthouse, V, Bhamra, T. Towards Instinctive Sustainable Product Use. 2nd International Conference: Sustainability Creating the Culture, Aberdeen, 2005. Available here [PDF].

How to fit a normal bulb in a BC3 fitting and save £10 per bulb

BC3 and 2-pin bayonet fitting compared
Standard 2-pin bayonet cap (left) and 3-pin bayonet cap BC3 (right) fittings compared

Summary for mystified international readers: In the UK new houses/flats must, by law, have a number of light fittings which will ‘not accept incandescent filament bulbs’ (a ‘green’ idea). This has led to the development of a proprietary, arbitrary format of compact fluorescent bulb, the BC3, which costs a lot more than standard compact fluorescents, is difficult to obtain, and about which the public generally doesn’t know much (yet). If you’re so minded, it’s not hard to modify the fitting and save money.

A lot of visitors have found this blog recently via searching for information on the MEM BC3 3-pin bayonet compact fluorescent bulbs, where to get them, and why they’re so expensive. The main posts here discussing them, with background to what it’s all about, are A bright idea? and some more thoughts – and it’s readers’ comments which are the really interesting part of both posts.

There are so many stories of frustration there, of people trying to ‘do their bit’ for the environment, trying to fit better CFLs in their homes, and finding that instead of instead of the subsidised or even free standard 2-pin bayonet CFLs available all over the place in a variety of improved designs, styles and quality, they’re locked in to having to pay 10 or 15 times as much for a BC3 bulb, and order online, simply because the manufacturer has a monopoly, and does not seem to supply the bulbs to normal DIY or hardware stores.

Frankly, the system is appalling, an example of exactly how not to design for sustainable behaviour. It’s a great ‘format lock-in’ case study for my research, but a pretty pathetic attempt to ‘design out’ the ‘risk’ of the public retro-fitting incandescent bulbs in new homes. This is the heavy-handed side of the legislation-ecodesign nexus, and it’s clearly not the way forward. Trust the UK to have pushed ahead with it without any thought of user experience.
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Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points

Scott Wilson first pointed me in the direction of Donella Meadows’ ‘Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System‘ [PDF, 93 kB], and it’s been very useful in thinking about the ‘Design with Intent’ idea at a system level rather than just the myopic preoccupation with armrests on park benches and interface design which it could have become.

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Designing Safe Living

New Sciences of Protection logo Lancaster University’s interdisciplinary Institute for Advanced Studies (no, not that one) has been running a research programme, New Sciences of Protection, culminating in a conference, Designing Safe Living, on 10-12 July, “investigat[ing] ‘protection’ at the intersections of security, sciences, technologies, markets and design.”

The keynote speakers include the RCA’s Fiona Raby, Yahoo!’s Benjamin Bratton and Virginia Tech’s Timothy Luke, and the conference programme [PDF, 134 kB] includes some intriguing sessions on subjects such as ‘The Art/Design/Politics of Public Engagement’, ‘Designing Safe Citizens’, ‘Images of Safety’ and even ‘Aboriginal Terraformation (performance panel)’.

I’ll be giving a presentation called ‘Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design’ on the morning of Saturday 12 July in a session called ‘Control, Design and Resistance’. There isn’t a paper to accompany the presentation, but here’s the abstract I sent in response to being invited by Mark Lacy:

Design with Intent: Behaviour-Shaping through Design
Dan Lockton, Brunel Design, Brunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH

“Design can be used to shape user behaviour. Examples from a range of fields – including product design, architecture, software and manufacturing engineering – show a diverse set of approaches to shaping, guiding and forcing users’ behaviour, often for intended socially beneficial reasons of ‘protection’ (protecting users from their own errors, protecting society from ‘undesirable’ behaviour, and so on). Artefacts can have politics. Commercial benefit – finding new ways to extract value from users – is also a significant motivation behind many behaviour-shaping strategies in design; social and commercial benefit are not mutually exclusive, and techniques developed in one context may be applied usefully in others, all the while treading the ethical line of persuasion-vs-coercion.

Overall, a field of ‘Design with Intent’ can be identified, synthesising approaches from different fields and mapping them to a range of intended target user behaviours. My research involves developing a ‘suggestion tool’ for designers working on social behaviour-shaping, and testing it by application to sustainable/ecodesign product use problems in particular, balancing the solutions’ effectiveness at protecting the environment, with the ability to cope with emergent behaviours.”

The programme’s rapporteur, Jessica Charlesworth, has been keeping a very interesting blog, Safe Living throughout the year.

I’m not sure what my position on the idea of ‘designing safe living’ is, really – whether that’s the right question to ask, or whether ‘we’ should be trying to protect ‘them’, whoever they are. But it strikes me that any behaviour, accidental or deliberate, however it’s classified, can be treated/defined as an ‘error’ by someone, and design can be used to respond accordingly, whether viewed through an explicit mistake-proofing lens or simply designing choice architecture to suggest the ‘right’ actions over the ‘wrong’ ones.

Design with Intent presentation from Persuasive 2008

EDIT: I’ve now added the audio! Thanks everyone for the suggestions on how best to do it; the audio is hosted on this site rather than the Internet Archive as the buffering seemed to stall a bit too much. Let me know if you have any problems.

I’ve put my presentation from Persuasive 2008 on SlideShare, – because of the visual style it really needs to be listened to, or viewed alongside the text (below, or in the comments when viewing it on the SlideShare site). Alternatively, just download it [PPT, 11.6 Mb] – it comes with the notes.

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