Category Archives: Technology

Heating debate

Thermostat with friendCentral heating systems have interfaces, and many of us interact with them every day, even if only by experiencing their effects.

But there’s a lot of room for improvement. They’re systems where (unlike, say, a car) we don’t generally get instantaneous feedback on the changes we make to settings or the interactions we have with the interface. It’s a slow feedback loop. We don’t necessarily have correct mental models of how they work, yet the systems cost us (a lot of) money. How effectively do we use them? Around 60% of UK domestic energy use goes on space heating, and 24% on water heating. (See this Building Research Establishment report [PDF] for more detailed breakdowns.) That 84% cost me and my girlfriend £430 last year. It’s worth thinking about from a financial point of view, regardless of the environmental aspects.

Frankie Roberto and colleagues at Rattle Research have carried out a brilliant exercise in exploratory design thinking about central heating*:

Heating systems are something we all interact with, especially in the depths of winter where we depend on them, and yet there seems to have been very little evolution in the design of their interfaces. What’s more, with an ever increasing focus on energy efficiency, both from an environmental and economic standpoint, there’s a need for heating systems and their interfaces to be smarter, more efficient and transparent.


Design Monday #1 – Central Heating (short version) from Rattle on Vimeo.

Read the full post.

The Rattle team think through existing systems and consider a number of possible revisions to improve the way that information is presented to users, and the level of control that it might be useful for users to have. This is a great piece of work, impressive and very thorough, and it’s interesting to see how their thinking evolved: I get the impression that (as service designers) they’re a lot more focused on users’ needs than the designers of many heating systems are. It’s also an exciting thing for a design company to be able to take time to address problems outside their immediate sphere, since they’re bringing a whole new level of domain expertise to it.

The ‘I’m working’ indicator is a really good idea – it reminds me of some higher-end car tyre air pumps at petrol stations where you can just set the pressure you want to achieve, and the pump cuts out (and alerts you) when it reaches it. But the idea of doing away with the ‘desired temperature’ setting and just having warmer/colder is also interesting – “forc[ing] people to always make decisions based upon how they’re feeling right now”.

Equally the ‘shift to service’ approach of having an API and making clever use of it has a big potential to help in energy saving (and cost saving for the user), especially if the usage data were (anonymised or otherwise) available for analysis. Just being able to tell users “it’s costing you £X more to heat your home than it does for a similar family in a similar house down the road – if you insulated better you could save £X every month” would be an interesting mechanism for persuasion. As with so many things, it relies on having that API or other interface available in the first place…

Folk theory of thermostats

The ‘folk theory of thermostats’ which Frankie mentions, popularised in Don Norman’s The Psychology / Design of Everday Things, has long intrigued me:

There are two commonly held folk theories about thermostats: the timer theory and the valve theory. The timer theory proposes that the thermostat simply controls the relative proportion of time that the device stays on. Set the thermostat midway, and the device is on about half the time; set it all the way up and the device is on all the time. Hence, to heat or cool something most quickly, set the thermostat so that the device is on all the time. The valve theory proposes that the thermostat controls how much heat (or cold) comes out of the device. Turn the thermostat all the way up, and you get the maximum heating or cooling. The correct story is that the thermostat is just an on-off switch. Setting the thermostat at one extreme cannot affect how long it takes to reach the desired temperature.

People’s mental models of heating systems are often stereotyped or played with (as we’ve discussed before here), but as Willett Kempton found out in a classic study, there are some nuanced versions of the theories, which, in practice, are perhaps not as silly as Norman suggests. People satisfice.

Say you come in from outdoors, and are cold. Because of the delay in your exposed skin warming up to room temperature, it surely does warm you more quickly if you stand near something that’s hotter than you actually want to be, e.g. a log fire / stove. So the heuristic of ‘turning up the heat to more than you need, in order to feel warmer more quickly’ is pretty understandable, especially when the temperature controlling the thermostat is the temperature of the thermocouple/probe/whatever and not actually the body temperature of the users themselves. (That would be a good innovation in itself, of course!) Am I wrong?

Given that a lot of people do try to control heating systems as if they worked on the valve model, would it be sensible to develop one which did? Do they already exist?

*Rattle’s second ‘Design Monday’ session, on ‘Lunch’, is also well worth a look.

Buckminster Fuller on Design with Intent

Buckminster Fuller, talking to the New Yorker in 1966, quoted in this article by Elizabeth Kolbert:

I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.

That’s what this research is all about. Design as trimtab, perhaps, with all the debate, decisions, multidisciplinarity and implementation issues that implies.

Many thanks to Rick Thomas for sending me the quote.

And on the multidisciplinarity issue, Metropolis currrently has a feature on Fuller including this perceptive quote from Chuck Hoberman (of Hoberman sphere fame):

“I think he’s [Fuller] been highly influential as an iconoclastic spirit, who never accepted that the boundaries between disciplines were anything other than something to be climbed over or circumvented in some way. To me that’s not so much a heroic stance as much as a very practical way to proceed in the world today. That’s also why he pre-staged a lot of what’s going on now.”

The world’s energy meter

Electrcity meter, in a cupboard

One of the presentations I’m really looking forward to at OpenTech 2008 in London is by AMEE, self-described as “The world’s energy meter”:

If all the energy data in the world were accessible, what would you build? The Climate Change agenda has created an imperative to measure the energy profile of everything. As trillions of pounds flow into re-inventing how we consume, we have a unique opportunity use open data and systems as a starting point. AMEE is an open platform for energy and CO2 data, algorithms and transactions.

From this PDF on the AMEE website:

AMEE is a neutral aggregation platform to measure and track all the energy data in the world. It combines monitoring, profiling and transactional systems to enable this, as well as an algorithmic engine that applies conversion factors from energy into CO2 emissions.

# AMEE is a technology platform (a web-service API) , designed to be built upon by you
# AMEE can represent both copyright and open data without conflict
# AMEE is open source
# You can build commercial applications using AMEE

This does sound extremely useful – the ability to convert energy into CO2 emission equivalent “enables the calculation of the “Carbon-Footprint” of anything” – and I’m going to see how I might be able to make use of AMEE’s functionality or the data set as part of the research. (As an aside, it’s interesting how often ‘energy methods’ allow us to compare diverse activities and effects with a common currency: I remember being struck by this concept before when being introduced to von Mises’ criterion in stress analysis and streamlined lifecycle analysis within a few days of each other.)

AMEE’s Gavin Starks also presented at O’Reilly’s ETech earlier this year (one day I’m sure I’ll go to this…) and the slides are available [PDF, 8MB]. On a similar theme, the very impressive Saul Griffith (of MIT Media Lab, Squid Labs, Instructables, Make et al) talked on ‘energy literacy’ – again, a detailed presentation [PDF, 7.6MB] with thoughtful notes (see also Wattzon) – and it seems that there is a certain degree of overlap, or symbiosis between the ideas. We need a public literate in energy to care enough about measuring and changing their behaviour; we equally need good and understandable energy-using behaviour data to enable that public to become literate in the consequences of their actions, and indeed for ‘us’ (designers/engineers/technologists/policymakers…) to understand what behaviours we want to address.

I’d like to think that Design for Sustainable Behaviour can help here. That’s certainly the aim of what I’m doing.

Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

Getting someone to do things in a particular order (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 (coming soon)

Continued from part 3

This series is looking at what design techniques/mechanisms are applicable to guiding a user to follow a process or path, performing actions in a specified sequence. The techniques that seem to apply with this ‘target behaviour’ fall roughly into three ‘approaches’, which if anything describe the mindset a designer might have in approaching the ‘problem’: i.e., the techniques suggested may well apply more than one at a time to many designed solutions, but each reflects a particular way of looking at the problem. In this post, I’m going to examine what I’ve called the Persuasive Interface approach, which draws heavily from the work of BJ Fogg, though applied specifically to this particularly target behaviour.

As noted before, a lot of this may seem obvious – and it is obvious: we encounter these kinds of design techniques in products and systems every day, but that’s part of the point of this bit of the research: understanding what’s out there already.

Persuasive Interface approach

The design of the interface (however loosely defined) of a product or system can be an important factor encouraging users to follow a process or path in a specified sequence. Interfaces can use a number of psychological persuasion mechanisms (outlined by B J Fogg) – a ‘human factors’ approach – in conjunction with the technical capabilities of the interface itself. Some mechanisms applicable to this behaviour, then, are – as well as the Interface capabilities themselves – Tunnelling, Suggestion (kairos), Self-monitoring and Operant conditioning.

Interface capabilities
What I mean by this – there is probably a better term for it waiting to be coined – is the choice of degree/type/format of information or feedback that an interface can provide a user. Clearly, an interface with few capabilities for actually providing the user with feedback, or worse, inappropriate feedback capabilities (e.g. a car speedometer only telling you your mean speed for the journey, rather than the instantaneous velocity), has a different (probably much worse) chance for affecting users’ behaviour. (Which is why having the electricity meter in a cupboard, and looking at it four times a year, is not very persuasive in energy-saving terms.)

Careful selection of what information, feedback and control capabilities are designed into a system, from a technical point of view, can have a major effect on user behaviour. To some extent, the addition of an interface to a system which did not previously have one may drive behaviour change in itself. Technical decisions about the types of interaction possible between an interface and the underlying system or product, and between the user and the interface – the capabilities of the interface – determine how the user experience will work: if a system is not designed with a function for monitoring progress through a sequence of operations, for example, then the possibility of indicating this via an interface is not possible, or far more difficult. Providing the infrastructure for a meaningful and useful interface for a system is a design decision which can shape or even determine the system’s use characteristics.

Self-monitoring
Self-monitoring, as defined by BJ Fogg, is an interface design mechanism which explicitly links feedback of information to the user’s actions: the user can monitor his or her behaviour and the effect that this has on the system’s state. As applied to helping a user follow a process or path in sequence, it makes sense for the self-monitoring to involve real-time feedback – so that the ‘correct’ next step can immediately be taken if the feedback indicates that this is what should happen – but in other contexts, ‘summary’ monitoring may also be useful, such as giving the user a report of his or her behaviour and its efficacy over a certain period.

Even giving a user the ability to self-monitor where previously there was none can help change behaviour: for example, providing a home electricity meter in an immediately visible position is likely to be more persuasive at inspiring energy saving – by increasing awareness of consumption – than having the meter hidden away.

LinkedIn: Self-monitoringExample: LinkedIn‘s ‘Profile Completeness’ indicator allows users to monitor their ‘progress’, driving them to follow a specified sequence of actions

Tunnelling
Tunnelling is a ‘guided persuasion’ mechanism outlined by Fogg, in which a user ‘agrees’ to be routed through a sequence of pre-specified actions or events:

When you enter a tunnel, you give up a certain level of self-determination. By entering the tunnel, you are exposed to information and activities you may not have seen or engaged in otherwise. Both of these provide opportunities for persuasion.

Applying this mechanism involves treating the user as a captive audience: presenting only the ‘correct’ sequence of actions, step by step, with any user choices being limited, and the commitment to following the process being a motivator to accept the advice or opinions presented. Fogg uses the example of people voluntarily hiring personal trainers to guide them through fitness programmes. Some software wizards provide an interface analogy, where the intention is not merely to simplify a process, but additionally to shape the user’s choices.

Wizard: tunnellingExample: This software wizard helps the user ‘tunnel’ through a file conversion process in the right order.

Suggestion (kairos)
Suggestion (kairos) involves suggesting a behaviour to a user at the ‘opportune’ moment, i.e. when that behaviour would be the most efficient or otherwise most desirable step to take (either from the user’s point of view, or that of another entity). In the context of helping a user follow a process or path in a specified sequence, this is very easily implemented: the system can simply ‘cue’ the desired next step in the sequence by alerting or reminding the user, whether that comes through indicators on the interface itself, or some other kind of alert.

Suggestions can also help steer users away from incorrect behaviour next time they use the system, even if it’s too late this time; when presented at the point where a mistake or incorrect step is obvious, advice on what to do next time may be more easily recalled. The key to this mechanism is that the suggestion is timed or triggered at the right point in the sequence, so that its effect is most persuasive. This may imply a system which monitors the user’s behaviour and responds accordingly via the interface, or it might be realised by an interface designed so that, by helping the user keep track of where he or she is in a sequence of operations, the suggestions only appear or are visible at the right point.

Volvo gearchange light
Example: This Gearchange Indicator light, fitted to certain Volvo models, suggests the most efficient moment to change gear, based on measurement of engine RPM and throttle position. Thanks to Mac MacFarlane for the image.

Operant conditioning
Controversial, certainly, but reinforcing target behaviours through rewards or punishment may be applicable where we want the user to perform a (perhaps complex) behavioural sequence repeatedly, so that it becomes habit, or successive iterations approximate the intended sequence. But it is unlikely to be effective in encouraging users to follow one-off sequences, where actual direction (e.g. suggestion, tunnelling) is far more useful. In general, punishing users for mistakes is an undesirable way of designing.

In part 5, we’ll review the approaches we’ve looked at, and see how one might actually go about choosing among them to design a new product or system with this particular target behaviour.

Sarah Burwood: Tumble Sums

Tumble Sums by Sarah BurwoodWe’ve covered teaching machines and programmed learning textbooks a few times on the blog, and I’ll admit to a general fascination with analogue computing and similar ideas, ever since reading John Crank‘s Mathematics and Industry as a teenager, after finding it in a skip (dumpster) along with a lot of other very interesting books*. It was the idea that you could build an analogue electrical circuit, with resistors, capacitors and inductors, to model many physical phenomena (gravitational fields, etc), which really intrigued me, brought up in a world where computation was presented as entirely digital.

But I digress. A lot of the fascination comes from seeing a different way to explain a concept to someone else: a structured, alternative form of learning or understanding a problem, which is, somehow, immensely satisfying. There’s always the glint of a possibility that if we could find different ways to explain difficult or complex subjects, more people might be able to understand and appreciate them.

Sarah Burwood, a graduating Industrial Design student showing her work at Made in Brunel this week, has created Tumble Sums, a ‘Child’s Mechanical Visual Calculator':

Tumble Sums by Sarah Burwood

Helping children understand fundamental mathematical principles, Tumble Sums is a calculating tool which visually shows a child how an answer is being reached. Calculations are solved in a physical way, based solely on mechanical operations. Tumble Sums focuses on an understanding of the way children think, their mathematical understanding and the psychology behind these aspects.

It looks to be beautifully machined from acrylic sections, and that height alone makes it extremely imposing. Imagine one of these at the back of every primary-school classroom!

This concept of making hidden processes visible in order to aid the construction of the user’s mental models is something that will, I think, be an important component of lots of more advanced interfaces in the years ahead, particularly in areas where, fundamentally, we’re bad at understanding the consequences of our actions (environment, health, finances). It’s maybe allied to constructionism, though by no means the same idea.

*Incidentally, the morning I first turned up at Brunel again as a PhD student, I sat in the wonderful garden John Crank had created, reading Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, waiting for the doors to the building to be unlocked.