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‘Smart meters’: some thoughts from a design point of view

Here’s my (rather verbose) response to the three most design-related questions in DECC’s smart meter consultation that I mentioned earlier today. Please do get involved in the discussion that Jamie Young’s started on the Design & Behaviour group and on his blog at the RSA.

Q12 Do you agree with the Government’s position that a standalone display should be provided with a smart meter?

Meter in the cupboard

Free-standing displays (presumably wirelessly connected to the meter itself, as proposed in [7, p.16]) could be an effective way of bringing the meter ‘out of the cupboard‘, making an information flow visible which was previously hidden. As Donella Meadows put it when comparing electricity meter placements [1, pp. 14-15] this provides a new feedback loop, “delivering information to a place where it wasn’t going before” and thus allowing consumers to modify their behaviour in response.

“An accessible display device connected to the meter” [2, p.8] or “series of modules connected to a meter” [3, p. 28] would be preferable to something where an extra step has to be taken for a consumer to access the data, such as only having a TV or internet interface for the information, but as noted [3, p.31] “flexibility for information to be provided through other formats (for example through the internet, TV) in addition to the provision of a display” via an open API, publicly documented, would be the ideal situation. Interesting ‘energy dashboard’ TV interfaces have been trialled in projects such as live|work‘s Low Carb Lane [6], and offer the potential for interactivity and extra information display supported by the digital television platform, but it would be a mistake to rely on this solely (even if simply because it will necessarily interfere with the primary reason that people have a television).

The question suggests that a single display unit would be provided with each meter, presumably with the householder free to position it wherever he or she likes (perhaps a unit with interchangeable provision for a support stand, a magnet to allow positioning on a refrigerator, a sucker for use on a window and hook to allow hanging up on the wall would be ideal – the location of the display could be important, as noted [4, p. 49]) but the ability to connect multiple display units would certainly afford more possibilities for consumer engagement with the information displayed as well as reducing the likelihood of a display unit being mislaid. For example, in shared accommodation where there are multiple residents all of whom are expected to contribute to a communal electricity bill, each person being aware of others’ energy use (as in, for example, the Watt Watchers project [5]) could have an important social proof effect among peers.

Open APIs and data standards would permit ranges of aftermarket energy displays to be produced, ranging from simple readouts (or even pager-style alerters) to devices and kits which could allow consumers to perform more complex analysis of their data (along the lines of the user-led innovative uses of the Current Cost, for example [8]) – another route to having multiple displays per household.

Q13 Do you have any comments on what sort of data should be provided to consumers as a minimum to help them best act to save energy (e.g. information on energy use, money, CO2 etc)?

Low targets?
This really is the central question of the whole project, since the fundamental assumption throughout is that provision of this information will “empower consumers” and thereby “change our energy habits” [3, p.13]. It is assumed that feedback, including real-time feedback, on electricity usage will lead to behaviour change: “Smart metering will provide consumers with tools with which to manage their energy consumption, enabling them to take greater personal responsibility for the environmental impacts of their own behaviour” [4, p.46]; “Access to the consumption data in real time provided by smart meters will provide consumers with the information they need to take informed action to save energy and carbon” [3, p.31].

Nevertheless, with “the predicted energy saving to consumers… as low as 2.8%” [4, p.18], the actual effects of the information on consumer behaviour are clearly not considered likely to be especially significant (this figure is more conservative than the 5-15% range identified by Sarah Darby [9]). It would, of course, be interesting to know whether certain types of data or feedback, if provided in the context of a well-designed interface could improve on this rather low figure: given the scale of the proposed roll-out of these meters (every household in the country) and the cost commitment involved, it would seem incredibly short-sighted not to take this opportunity to design and test better feedback displays which can, perhaps, improve significantly on the 2.8% figure.

(Part of the problem with a suggested figure as low as 2.8% is that it makes it much more difficult to defend the claim that the meters will offer consumers “important benefits” [3, p.27]. The benefits to electricity suppliers are clearer, but ‘selling’ the idea of smart meters to the public is, I would suggest, going to be difficult when the supposed benefits are so meagre.)

If we consider the use context of the smart meter from a consumer’s point of view, it should allow us to identify better which aspects are most important. What is a consumer going to do with the information received? How does the feedback loop actually occur in practice? How would this differ with different kinds of information?

Levels of display
Even aside from the actual ‘units’ debate (money / energy / CO2), there are many possible types and combinations of information that the display could show consumers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll divide them into three levels:

(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use / cost (self-monitoring)
(2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs (social proof + self-monitoring)
(3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions (simulation & feedforward + kairos + self-monitoring)

These are by no means mutually exclusive and I’d assume that any system providing (3) would also include (1), for example.

Nevertheless, it is likely that (1) would be the cheapest, lowest-common-denominator system to roll out to millions of homes, without (2) or (3) included – so if thought isn’t given to these other levels, it may be that (1) is all consumers get.

I’ve done mock-ups of the sort of thing each level might display (of course these are just ideas, and I’m aware that a) I’m not especially skilled in interface design, despite being very interested in it; and b) there’s no real research behind these) in order to have something to visualise / refer to when discussing them.

Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use, cost
(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use and cost

I’ve tried to express some of the concerns I have over a very simple, cheap implementation of (1) in a scenario, which I’m not claiming to be representative of what will actually happen – but the narrative is intended to address some of the ways this kind of display might be useful (or not) in practice:

Jenny has just had a ‘smart meter’ installed by someone working on behalf of her electricity supplier. It comes with a little display unit that looks a bit like a digital alarm clock. There’s a button to change the display mode to ‘cumulative’ or ‘historic’ but at present it’s set on ‘realtime’: that’s the default setting.

Jenny attaches it to her kitchen fridge with the magnet on the back. It’s 4pm and it’s showing a fairly steady value of 0.5 kW, 6 pence per hour. She opens the fridge to check how much milk is left, and when she closes the door again Jenny notices the figure’s gone up to 0.7 kW but drops again soon after the door’s closed, first to 0.6 kW but then back down to 0.5 kW again after a few minutes. Then her two teenage children, Kim and Laurie arrive home from school – they switch on the TV in the living room and the meter reading shoots up to 0.8 kW, then 1.1 kW suddenly. What’s happened? Jenny’s not sure why it’s changed so much. She walks into the living room and Kim tells her that Laurie’s gone upstairs to play on his computer. So it must be the computer, monitor, etc.

Two hours later, while the family’s sitting down eating dinner (with the TV on in the background), Jenny glances across at the display and sees that it’s still reading 1.1 kW, 13 pence per hour.

“Is your PC still switched on, Laurie?” she asks.
“Yeah, Mum,” he replies
“You should switch it off when you’re not using it; it’s costing us money.”
“But it needs to be on, it’s downloading stuff.”

Jenny’s not quite sure how to respond. She can’t argue with Laurie: he knows a lot more than her about computers. The phone rings and Kim puts the TV on standby to reduce the noise while talking. Jenny notices the display reading has gone down slightly to 1.0 kW, 12 pence per hour. She walks over and switches the TV off fully, and sees the reading go down to 0.8 kW.

Later, as it gets dark and lights are switched on all over the house, along with the TV being switched on again, and Kim using a hairdryer after washing her hair, with her stereo on in the background and Laurie back at his computer, Jenny notices (as she loads the tumble dryer) that the display has shot up to 6.5 kW, 78 pence per hour. When the tumble dryer’s switched on, that goes up even further to 8.5 kW, £1.02 per hour. The sight of the £ sign shocks her slightly – can they really be using that much electricity? It seems like the kids are costing her even more than she thought!

But what can she really do about it? She switches off the TV and sees the display go down to 8.2 kW, 98 pence per hour, but the difference seems so slight that she switches it on again – it seems worth 4 pence per hour. She decides to have a cup of tea and boils the kettle that she filled earlier in the day. The display shoots up to 10.5 kW, £1.26 pence per hour. Jenny glances at the display with a pained expression, and settles down to watch TV with her tea. She needs a rest: paying attention to the display has stressed her out quite a lot, and she doesn’t seem to have been able to do anything obvious to save money.

Six months later, although Jenny’s replaced some light bulbs with compact fluorescents that were being given away at the supermarket, and Laurie’s new laptop has replaced the desktop PC, a new plasma TV has more than cancelled out the reductions. The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

The main point I’m trying to get across there is that with a very simple display, the possible feedback loop is very weak. It relies on the consumer experimenting with switching items on and off and seeing the effect it has on the readings, which – while it will initially have a certain degree of investigatory, exploratory interest – may well quickly pall when everyday life gets in the way. Now, without the kind of evidence that’s likely to come out of research programmes such as the CHARM project [10], it’s not possible to say whether levels (2) or (3) would fare any better, but giving a display the ability to provide more detailed levels of information – particularly if it can be updated remotely – massively increases the potential for effective use of the display to help consumers decide what to do, or even to think about what they’re doing in the first place, over the longer term.

Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

(2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

A level (2) display would (in a much less cluttered form than what I’ve drawn above!) combine information about ‘what we’re doing’ (self-monitoring) with a reference, a norm – what other people are doing (social proof), either people in the same neighbourhood (to facilitate community discussion), or a more representative comparison such as ‘other families like us’, e.g. people with the same number of children of roughly the same age, living in similar size houses. There are studies going back to the 1970s (e.g. [11, 12]) showing dramatic (2 × or 3 ×) differences in the amount of energy used by similar families living in identical homes, suggesting that the behavioural component of energy use can be significant. A display allowing this kind of comparison could help make consumers aware of their own standing in this context.

However, as Wesley Schultz et al [13] showed in California, this kind of feedback can lead to a ‘boomerang effect’, where people who are told they’re doing better than average then start to care less about their energy use, leading to it increasing back up to the norm. It’s important, then, that any display using this kind of feedback treats a norm as a goal to achieve only on the way down. Schultz et al went on to show that by using a smiley face to demonstrate social approval of what people had done – affective engagement – the boomerang effect can be mitigated.

Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

(3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

A level (3) display would give consumers feedforward [14] – effectively, simulation of what the impact of their behaviour would be (switching on this device now rather than at a time when there’s a lower tariff – Economy 7 or a successor), and tips about how to use things more efficiently at the right moment (kairos), and in the right kind of environment, for them to be useful. Whereas ‘Tips of the Day’ in software frequently annoy users [15] because they get in the way of a user’s immediate task, with something relatively passive such as a smart meter display, this could be a more useful application for them. The networked capability of the smart meter means that the display could be updated frequently with new sets of tips, perhaps based on seasonal or weather conditions (“It’s going to be especially cold tonight – make sure you close all the curtains before you go to bed, and save 20p on heating”) or even special tariff changes for particular periods of high demand (“Everyone’s going to be putting the kettle on during the next ad break in [major event on TV]. If you’re making tea, do it now instead of in 10 minutes; time, and get a 50p discount on your next bill”).

Disaggregated data: identifying devices
This level (3) display doesn’t require any ability to know what devices a consumer has, or to be able to disaggregate electricity use by device. It can make general suggestions that, if not relevant, a consumer can ignore.

But what about actually disaggregating the data for particular devices? Surely this must be an aim for a really ‘smart’ meter display. Since [4, p.52] notes – in the context of discussing privacy – that “information from smart meters could… make it possible…to determine…to a degree, the types of technology that were being used in a property,” this information should clearly be offered to consumers themselves, if the electricity suppliers are going to do the analysis (I’ve done a bit of a possible mockup, using a more analogue dashboard style).

Disaggregated data dashboard

Whether the data are processed in the meter itself, or upstream at the supplier and then sent back down to individual displays, and whether the devices are identified from some kind of signature in their energy use patterns, or individual tags or extra plugs of some kind, are interesting technology questions, but from a consumer’s point of view (so long as privacy is respected), the mechanism perhaps doesn’t matter so much. Having the ability to see what device is using what amount of electricity, from a single display, would be very useful indeed. It removes the guesswork element.

Now, Sentec’s Coracle technology [16] is presumably ready for mainstream use, with an agreement signed with Onzo [17], and ISE’s signal-processing algorithms can identify devices down to the level of makes and models [18], so it’s quite likely that this kind of technology will be available for smart meters for consumers fairly soon. But the question is whether it will be something that all customers get – i.e. as a recommendation of the outcome of the DECC consultation – or an expensive ‘upgrade’. The fact that the consultation doesn’t mention disaggregation very much worries me slightly.

If disaggregated data by device were to be available for the mass-distributed displays, clearly this would significantly affect the interface design used: combining this with, say a level (2) type social proof display could – even if via a website rather than on the display itself – let a consumer compare how efficient particular models of electrical goods are in use, by using the information from other customers of the supplier.

In summary, for Q13 – and I’m aware I haven’t addressed the “energy use, money, CO2 etc” aspect directly – there are people much better qualified to do that – I feel that the more ability any display has to provide information of different kinds to consumers, the more opportunities there will be to do interesting and useful things with that information (and the data format and API must be open enough to allow this). In the absence of more definitive information about what kind of feedback has the most behaviour-influencing effect on what kind of consumer, in what context, and so on, it’s important that the display be as adaptable as possible.

Q14 Do you have comments regarding the accessibility of meters/display units for particular consumers (e.g. vulnerable consumers such as the disabled, partially sighted/blind)?

The inclusive design aspects of the meters and displays could be addressed through an exclusion audit, applying something such as the University of Cambridge’s Exclusion Calculator [19] to any proposed designs. Many solutions which would benefit particular consumers with special needs would also potentially be useful for the population as a whole – e.g. a buzzer or alarm signalling that a device has been left on overnight which isn’t normally, or (with disaggregation capability) notifying the consumer that, say, the fridge has been left open, would be pretty useful for everyone, not just the visually impaired or people with poor memory.

It seems clear that having open data formats and interfaces for any device will allow a wider range of things to be done with the data, many of which could be very useful for vulnerable users. Still, fundamental physical design questions about the device – how long the batteries last for, how easy they are to replace for someone with poor eyesight or arthritis, how heavy the unit is, whether it will break if dropped from hand height – will all have an impact on its overall accessibility (and usefulness).

Thinking of ‘particular consumers’ more generally, as the question asks, suggests a few other issues which need to be addressed:

– A website-only version of the display data (as suggested at points in the consultation document) would exclude a lot of consumers who are without internet access, without computer understanding, with only dial-up (metered) internet, or simply not motivated or interested enough to check – i.e., it would be significantly exclusionary.

– Time-of-Use (ToU) pricing will rely heavily on consumers actually understanding it, and what the implications are, and changing their behaviour in accordance. Simply charging consumers more automatically, without them having good enough feedback to understand what’s going on, only benefits electricity suppliers. If demand- or ToU-related pricing is introduced – “the potential for customer confusion… as a result of the greater range of energy tariffs and energy related information” [4, p. 49] is going to be significant. The design of the interface, and how the pricing structure works, is going to be extremely important here, and even so may still exclude a great many consumers who do not or cannot understand the structure.

– The ability to disable supply remotely [4, p. 12, p.20] will no doubt provoke significant reaction from consumers, quite apart from the terrible impact it will have on the most vulnerable consumers (the elderly, the very poor, and people for whom a reliable electricity supply is essential for medical reasons), regardless of whether they are at fault (i.e. non-payment) or not. There WILL inevitably be errors: there is no reason to suppose that they will not occur. Imagine the newspaper headlines when an elderly person dies from hypothermia. Disconnection may only occur in “certain well-defined circumstances” [3, p. 28] but these will need to be made very explicit.

– “Smart metering potentially offers scope for remote intervention… [which] could involve direct supplier or distribution company interface with equipment, such as refrigerators, within a property, overriding the control of the householder” [4, p. 52] – this simply offers further fuel for consumer distrust of the meter programme (rightly so, to be honest). As Darby [9] notes, “the prospect of ceding control over consumption does not appeal to all customers”. Again, this remote intervention, however well-regulated it might be supposed to be if actually implemented, will not be free from error. “Creating consumer confidence and awareness will be a key element of successfully delivering smart meters” [4, p.50] does not sit well with the realities of installing this kind of channel for remote disconnection or manipulation in consumers’ homes, and attempting to bury these issues by presenting the whole thing as entirely beneficial for consumers will be seen through by intelligent people very quickly indeed.

– Many consumers will simply not trust such new meters with any extra remote disconnection ability – it completely removes the human, the compassion, the potential to reason with a real person. Especially if the predicted energy saving to consumers is as low as 2.8% [4, p.18], many consumers will (perhaps rightly) conclude that the smart meter is being installed primarily for the benefit of the electricity company, and simply refuse to allow the contractors into their homes. Whether this will lead to a niche for a supplier which does not mandate installation of a meter – and whether this would be legal – are interesting questions.

Dan Lockton, Researcher, Design for Sustainable Behaviour
Cleaner Electronics Research Group, Brunel Design, Brunel University, London, June 2009

[1] Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute, 1999.

[2] DECC. Impact Assessment of smart / advanced meters roll out to small and medium businesses, May 2009.

[3] DECC. A Consultation on Smart Metering for Electricity and Gas, May 2009.

[4] DECC. Impact Assessment of a GB-wide smart meter roll out for the domestic sector, May 2009.

[5] Fischer, J. and Kestner, J. ‘Watt Watchers’, 2008.

[6] DOTT / live|work studio. ‘Low Carb Lane’, 2007.

[7] BERR. Impact Assessment of Smart Metering Roll Out for Domestic Consumers and for Small Businesses, April 2008.

[8] O’Leary, N. and Reynolds, R. ‘Current Cost: Observations and Thoughts from Interested Hackers’. Presentation at OpenTech 2008, London. July 2008.

[9] Darby S. The effectiveness of feedback on energy consumption. A review for DEFRA of the literature on metering, billing and direct displays. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. April 2006.

[10] Kingston University, CHARM Project. 2009

[11] Socolow, R.H. Saving Energy in the Home: Princeton’s Experiments at Twin Rivers. Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge MA, 1978

[12] Winett, R.A., Neale, M.S., Williams, K.R., Yokley, J. and Kauder, H., 1979 ‘The effects of individual and group feedback on residential electricity consumption: three replications’. Journal of Environmental Systems, 8, p. 217-233.

[13] Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. and Griskevicius, V., 2007.
‘The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms’. Psychological Science, 18 (5), p. 429-434.

[14] Djajadiningrat, T., Overbeeke, K. and Wensveen, S., 2002. ‘But how, Donald, tell us how?: on the creation of meaning in interaction design through feedforward and inherent feedback’. Proceedings of the 4th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. ACM Press, New York, p. 285-291.

[15] Business of Software discussion community (part of ‘Joel on Software’), ‘”Tip of the Day” on startup, value to the customer’, August 2006

[16] Sentec. ‘Coracle: a new level of information on energy consumption’, undated.

[17] Sentec. ‘Sentec and Onzo agree UK deal for home energy displays’, 28th April 2008

[18] ISE Intelligent Sustainable Energy, ‘Technology’, undated

[19] Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit: Exclusion Calculator, 2007-8

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Barricades, London

Britain’s supposedly on the verge of a summer of rage, and while like Mary Riddell I am of course reminded of Ballard, it’s not quite the same. I don’t think this represents the ‘middle class’ ennui of Chelsea Marina.

Instead I think we may have reached a tipping point where more people than not, are, frankly, fed up (and scared) about what’s happening, whether it’s the economic situation, the greed of the feckless, the intransigent myopia of those who were supposed to ‘oversee’ what’s going on, the use of fear to intimidate away basic freedoms, or a home secretary who treats the entire country like the naughty schoolchildren she left behind. In short: we’re basically losing our liberty very rapidly indeed. This PDF, compiled by UCL Student Human Rights Programme, provides a withering summary. As many have repeated, 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual. But, as Cardinal Wolsey warned, “be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again”.

The Convention on Modern Liberty, taking place across the UK this Saturday 28th February, aims to demonstrate the dissatisfaction with what’s happening, and hopefully raise awareness of just what’s going on right under our noses. It features an interesting cross-section of speakers, and the speeches will be streamed on the site (tickets for the London session sold out very quickly).

I’m a normal person, trying my best to advance the progress of humanity, yet I feel that the government has contempt for me as a member of the public in general, on an everyday basis. Everywhere we go, we are watched, monitored, surveilled, threatened, considered guilty. We shouldn’t have to live like this.

P.S. I apologise for the lack of posts over the last week: my laptop’s graphics card finally gave in – it had been kind-of usable at a low resolution by connecting the output to another monitor for a while, but that too has now failed. Thanks to everyone who’s e-mailed and sent things: I will get round to them as soon as I can.

On ‘Design and Behaviour’ this week: Do you own your stuff? And a strange council-run ‘Virtual World for young people’

GPS-aided repo and product-service systems

GPS tracking - image by cmpalmer

Ryan Calo of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society brought up the new phenomenon of GPS-aided car repossession and the implications for the concepts of property and privacy:

A group of car dealers in Oregon apparently attached GPS devices to cars sold to customers with poor credit so as to be able to track them down more easily in the event of repossession.

…this practice also relates to an emerging phenomenon wherein sold property remains oddly connected to the seller as though it were merely leased. Whereas once we purchased an album and did with it as we please, today we need to register (up to five) devices in order to play our songs.

…and Kingston University’s Rosie Hornbuckle linked this to the concept of product-service systems:

This puts a whole new slant on product-service-systems, a current (and popular) sustainability methodology whereby people are weaned off the concept of owning products, instead they lease them off the manufacturer who is then responsible for take-back, repair, recycling or disposal. So in that scenario it’s quite likely that a manufacturer will want to keep tabs on their equipment/material, will this bring up privacy issues or is it simply the case that if it’s done overtly (and not in the negative frame of potential repossession), the customer knows about it and agrees, it’s ok? Or will it be a long time before people can overcome the perceived encroachment on their liberty that not owning might bring?

It reminds me of something Bill Thompson suggested to me once, that (paraphrasing) the idea that we ‘own’ the technology we use might well turn out to be a short phase in overall human history. That could perhaps be ‘good’ in contexts where sharing/renting/pooling things allows much greater efficiency and brings benefits for users. Nevertheless, as the repossession example (and DRM, etc, in general) show, the tendency in practice is often to use these methods to exert increasing dominance over users, erode assumed rights, and extract more value from people who no longer have control of the things they use.

See the whole thread so far (and join in!)

Above image of GPS trails (unrelated to the story, but a cool picture) from cmpalmer’s Flickr

The Mosquito, and plans for an odd ‘walk-in virtual world’

McDonald's Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Rosie discussed the Mosquito (above image: an example outside a McDonald’s opposite Windsor Castle*) and asked “could we use our design skills and knowledge to influence these sorts of behaviours with a less aggressive and longer-term approach?” while Adrian Short summed up the issue pretty well:

There are a lot of problems in principle and in practice with these devices, but the core problem for me is that they tend to be directed at users rather than uses (i.e. people by identity, not behaviour) and are entirely arbitrary. The street outside a shop is public space and the shop owners have no more right than anyone else to dictate who goes there.

In as much as these things work (which is highly disputed), they are never going to encourage a meaningful debate about norms of behaviour among users of a space. This approach is not so much negotiation as warfare.

Sutton’s Rosehill steps (which Adrian let me know about originally) were also discussed and Adrian brought us the story of something very odd: a ‘virtual world to teach good behaviour to young people’:

Half a mile away, the same council is proposing to spend at least £4 million on a facility that will include a high-tech virtual street environment, a “street simulator” if you like, to teach safety and good behaviour to some of the same young people.

“Part movie-set, part theme park, the learning complex will be the first of its kind in the UK and will also house an indoor street with shop fronts, pavements and a road. The idea is to give young people the confidence to make the best of their lives and have a positive impact on their peers and their local community.”

I don’t really know what to make of that. I actually woke up this morning thinking about it assuming that it was a dream I’d been having, then realised where I’d read about it. It sounds like a mish-mash of Scaramanga’s Fun House from The Man With The Golden Gun and the Ludovico Centre** from A Clockwork Orange.

Scaramanga's FunhouseLudovico Centre

See the whole thread here.

*This particular McDonald’s, with the Mosquito going every evening and clearly audible to me and my girlfriend (both mid-20s) also features a vicious array of anti-sit spikes (below) which rather negate the ‘welcoming’ efforts made with the flowerbed.

**I actually gave a talk about my research to Environmentally Sensitive Design students in this building a couple of weeks ago: it’s Brunel’s main Lecture Centre.

McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire
McDonalds Restaurant, Windsor, Berkshire

Digital control round-up

An 'Apple' dongle

Mac as a giant dongle

At Coding Horror, Jeff Atwood makes an interesting point about Apple’s lock-in business model:

It’s almost first party only– about as close as you can get to a console platform and still call yourself a computer… when you buy a new Mac, you’re buying a giant hardware dongle that allows you to run OS X software.

There’s nothing harder to copy than an entire MacBook. When the dongle — or, if you prefer, the “Apple Mac” — is present, OS X and Apple software runs. It’s a remarkably pretty, well-designed machine, to be sure. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s also one hell of a dongle.

If the above sounds disapproving in tone, perhaps it is. There’s something distasteful to me about dongles, no matter how cool they may be.

Of course, as with other dongles, there are plenty of people who’ve got round the Mac hardware ‘dongle’ requirement. Is it true to say (à la John Gilmore) that technical people interpret lock-ins (/other constraints) as damage and route around them?

Screenshot of Mukurtu archive website

Social status-based DRM

The BBC has a story about the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, a digital photo archive developed by/for the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Because of cultural constraints, social status, gender and community background have been used to determine whether or not users can search for and view certain images:

It asks every person who logs in for their name, age, sex and standing within their community. This information then restricts what they can search for in the archive, offering a new take on DRM.

For example, men cannot view women’s rituals, and people from one community cannot view material from another without first seeking permission. Meanwhile images of the deceased cannot be viewed by their families.

It’s not completely clear whether it’s intended to help users perform self-censorship (i.e. they ‘know’ they ‘shouldn’t’ look at certain images, and the restrictions are helping them achieve that) or whether it’s intended to stop users seeing things they ‘shouldn’t’, even if they want to. I think it’s probably the former, since there’s nothing to stop someone putting in false details (but that does assume that the idea of putting in false details would be obvious to someone not experienced with computer login procedures; it may not).

While from my western point of view, this kind of social status-based discrimination DRM seems complete anathema – an entirely arbitrary restriction on knowledge dissemination – I can see that it offers something aside from our common understanding of censorship, and if that’s ‘appropriate’ in this context, then I guess it’s up to them. It’s certainly interesting.

Neverthless, imagining for a moment that there were a Warumungu community living in the EU, would DRM (or any other kind of access restriction) based on a) gender or b) social status not be illegal under European Human Rights legislation?

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From Clientcopia:

Client: We don’t want the visitor to leave our site. Please leave the navigation buttons, but remove the links so that they don’t go anywhere if you click them.

It’s funny because the suggestion is such a crude way of implementing it, but it’s not actually that unlikely – a 2005 patent by Brian Shuster details a “program [that] interacts with the browser software to modify or control one or more of the browser functions, such that the user computer is further directed to a predesignated site or page… instead of accessing the site or page typically associated with the selected browser function” – and we’ve looked before at websites deliberately designed to break in certain browers and disabling right-click menus for arbitrary purposes.

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


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.


    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.

    The right to click

    English Heritage, officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and funded by the taxpayer and by visitors to some of its properties, does a great deal of very good work in widening public appreciation of, and engagement with, history and the country’s heritage.

    But its ViewFinder image gallery website* sadly falls into the trap of trying to restrict public engagement rather than make it easy. Yes, someone specified the old ‘right click disabled‘ policy:

    English Heritage Viewfinder: right-click disabled
    Screenshots of this page, launched from this page.

    Now, the image in question – here’s a direct link – which happens to be an engraving of the former Datchet bridge**, in 1840 according to this page (with a colour image) is, even taking English Heritage’s “1860-1922” suggested date range, surely out of copyright, so presumably there cannot be any ‘legal’ question over ‘letting’ people save a copy (which is easiest to do by right-clicking on the most common operating systems and browsers). Using Javascript to remove the browser toolbars and menus also hides the ability to print the image for most users, presumably also deliberately.

    Yes, of course, many (most?) readers of this post will know how to get around the no-right-click architecture of control, but you’re reading a technology blog; think of whom the site is presumably aimed at. It is supposed to be a resource to encourage public engagement with history and heritage. Most users will be computer-literate enough to know how to search and probably familiar with right-clicking, but not to mess round with selectively disabling Javascript. Why should they have to? Incidentally, if you do disable Javascript entirely, you can’t even view an enlarged image at all:

    English Heritage Viewfinder

    What actual use to the public, other than for momentary on-screen interest, is a photo archive website where nothing can be ‘done’ with the images? What is a child doing a local history project supposed to do? Order a print at £18.80 for each photo and then scan it in? Does English Heritage really think that the ability for someone to save or print or e-mail a low-resolution 72 dpi image is going to devalue or compete with the organisation in some way?

    It’s ridiculous: such a short-sighted, narrow-mindset policy removes a significant proportion of the usefulness of the site. I don’t know whether the site developer did this with or without English Heritage’s instruction or cognizance (and it was in 2002, so perhaps different thinking would apply today), but it seems that no-one bothered to think through what an actual user might want to get from interacting with the site.

    In fact, regardless of the fact that this particular image (as with many others on the site) is in the public domain, even the images which are still under copyright (or “© English Heritage.NMR” as the site puts it, NMR being the National Monuments Record) should, of course, be freely downloadable, printable, and do-whatever-you-want-able. Their acquisition, preservation and cataloguing were paid for by the public, and they should all be available as widely, and easily, as possible. As it is, I would call the website a waste of public money, since it does not appear to offer what most intended users would expect and need.

    Still, at least the site’s not one giant bundle of Flash. That would make it marginally more hassle to extract the images.

    *Partially funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and thus not entirely directly taxpayer-funded, unless one regards the National Lottery as an extra tax on the hopeful and desperate, which some commentators would.
    **Almost exactly the spot where I’ve been testing a prototype radio-controlled toy for a client this very afternoon, in fact, though the bridge is long gone.