Category Archives: Urban

Architecture, urbanism, design and behaviour: a brief review

by Dan Lockton

Hollywood & Highland mall

Continuing the meta-auto-behaviour-change effort started here, I’m publishing a few extracts from my PhD thesis as I write it up (mostly from the literature review, and before any rigorous editing) as blog posts over the next few months. The idea of how architecture can be used to influence behaviour was central to this blog when it started, and so it’s pleasing to revisit it, even if makes me realise how little I still know.

“There is no doubt whatever about the influence of architecture and structure upon human character and action. We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”
Winston Churchill, addressing the English Architectural Association, 1924

In designing and constructing environments in which people live and work, architects and planners are necessarily involved in influencing human behaviour. While Sommer (1969, p.3) asserted that the architect “in his training and practice, learns to look at buildings without people in them,” it is clear that from, for example, Howard’s Garden Cities of To-morrow (1902), through Le Corbusier’s Ville Contemporaine and La Ville radieuse, to the Smithsons’ ‘Streets in the sky’, there has been a long-standing thread of recognition that the way people live their lives is directly linked to the designed environments in which they live. Whether the explicit intention to influence behaviour drives the design process—architectural determinism (Broady, 1966: see future blog post ‘POSIWID and determinism’)—or whether the behaviour consequences of design decisions are only revealed and considered as part of a post-occupancy evaluation (e.g. Zeisel, 2006) or by social scientists or psychologists studying the impact of a development, there are links between the design of the built environment and our behaviour, both individually and socially.
Continue reading

Through London with the DwI goggles on

As I’ve admitted before, having the idea of ‘design that’s intended to influence behaviour’ on my mind a lot of the time does sometimes lead to seeing everything with that filter in place:

[It's] a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results.

Nevertheless, it’s not unexciting. Noticing things I’d never have noticed before I started doing this research – often details or tricks that have been pointed out by commenters here on the blog – can give you a feeling of deeper connection to the design of the products and systems and environments around us. Things are designed to influence how people use them, what people do and don’t do, whether we are conscious of it or not. So here are some observations – none of them terribly amazing! – from a recent day in London with a camera and my long-suffering girlfriend. There are hundreds more I could have included – everything from elements of the websites we looked at before travelling, to the layout of stations and streets and buildings and tables and chairs and the wording and order of menus and adverts and just about everything that’s been designed to elicit some kind of behavioural response. But we just don’t notice most of this: it’s only occasionally that things attract our attention, which is what happened with the following examples.

Door buttons, First Great Western

The ‘Open Door’ buttons on First Great Western’s Class 165/166 trains (going into Paddington) are much larger than the ‘Close Door’ buttons (which rarely need to be pressed anyway, since the doors are closed automatically before the train departs). I’m assuming they’re intentionally more prominent because it’s the button that people need to see and press in a hurry if they need to get off and the vestibule(?) area’s crowded (and it often is on this service), and larger for a kind of Fitts’ Law reason: reducing the time taken to ‘acquire the target’. It’s also large enough to be able to elbow it or press it with a shoulder if you’re carrying things in both hands.

Escalators, Canary Wharf station

The escalators at Canary Wharf underground station, as at many others, have raised obstructions (often masquerading as “Stand on the right” signs) every couple of feet to prevent people sliding down the panelling between the handrails. When I looked at this before – the slightly more extreme spikes at Highbury & Islington station – there were some great comments including a story about what can happen when they obstructions aren’t present (or rather when just one is – a large sign at the bottom). It did occur to me that the kind used at Canary Wharf would actually work quite well as hand-holds for climbing up, should you want to.

Look Right marking on road, Canary Wharf

All over the UK, but particularly in urban areas with complex traffic movements, one-way systems or lots of visitors, such as here outside the DLR station at Canary Wharf, some pedestrian crossings are marked with “Look Right”, “Look Left” or “Look Both Ways” on the road, to suggest to pedestrians (at just the right moment) which way they should look to watch out for oncoming traffic. Richard Thaler has mentioned this as a ‘nudge’ example before. It doesn’t always get implemented correctly; there are also other design tricks for influencing pedestrians to face the right way at crossings.

I might be going beyond my expertise here, but it seems like it’s actually relatively unusual in much of Europe (perhaps because of the Vienna Convention) to have instructional ‘injunctive’ text on traffic signage (including markings), compared with some other parts of the world. For example, in the UK, since the 1960s at least we very rarely have signs such as “Wrong Way, Go Back” – there would more likely be a “No Entry” sign, with no text. If you’re interested in British road signage, this is one of the best articles on the subject.

Gate at Mudchute Park

Here’s a ‘kissing gate’ at Mudchute Park presumably intended to prevent bicycles (though I would have thought a bike could fit through the gate next to it). As we’ve seen before, trying to stop cyclists using awkward gates doesn’t always work. Given the location of this gate, it may also help prevent any animals which have escaped from the the farm from running out onto the road.

Anti-climb paint, Mudchute allotments

Also at Mudchute, these allotments have anti-climb paint applied to the fence – a slippery paint that stays ‘wet’ (here’s a nice publicity photo). I’ll be honest, I’ve often wondered how much effect this stuff really has against someone equipped with, say, rough-textured gloves who could, at least on a fence like the one in the picture, probably get his/her hand all the way round both the horizontal and vertical parts of the fence. Or just a loop of rope, or a hook, along with black clothes (to hide the paint that comes off) or disposable overalls plus some kind of disposable blanket or rug to cover the spikes and flatten the barbed wire would seem to be all you need. I’m not condoning this, of course – as an allotmenteer myself, I appreciate that they can well be an attractive target.

As an alternative to anti-climb paint, spikes, etc, these roller bars seem quite interesting.

Bird bin, Mudchute farmBird bin, Mudchute farmBird bin, Mudchute farm

The yard of the Mudchute Kitchen, part of the farm, has these friendly rubbish bins – a great example of affective engagement, particularly somewhere where there are going to be lots of young children visiting on school trips or with families. The open beaks are an invitation, a perceived affordance that they should be ‘fed’. Whether it’s a good idea to ‘teach’ children to feed litter to birds is another matter…

Recessed alarm, DLR
Unlike the ‘Open Door’ button above – which doesn’t matter if it’s accidentally pressed since it only operates when the train is stationary and alongside the platform – passenger emergency alarms such as this type on the Docklands Light Railway need to be prominent and visible, yet protected against accidental operation due to, for example, someone leaning on the button when the train is crowded. So, not only recessing it, but mounting it at the top of the recess, where even an inadvertent poke from an umbrella or elbow is less likely to make contact, is a clever errorproofing solution.

A 'Norman' door, Canary Wharf

The shopping mall at Canary Wharf features ‘Norman doors‘ that despite having prominent, elegant, no doubt expensive stainless steel handles, must actually be pushed open, hence the necessity of the ‘Push’ labels. Other than being able to pull the doors closed if necessary, or simply because it’s cheaper to make doors with the same fittings on both sides so they can be hinged either way, I’m not sure why this particular category of false affordance is so common. Making the handles flatter on the ‘push’ side would preserve a similar style visually but signal that they need to be pushed without needing to resort to a sign.

Couple of other observations: the comprehensive row of prohibition signs on the doors almost forms a design element itself, echoing the pattern of squares further down. You’re not allowed to do much other than spend money in this particular mall. Also, printing the word STYLE on posters in reflective foil does, unfortunately, mean that from some angles, the L and E will disappear.

ATM forcing function

Getting some money out: we’re so used to ATMs returning the card before dispensing the cash that we often don’t even think about this interlock forcing function. In fact it may even momentarily surprise us when ticket machines (for example) don’t work like this.

But ATMs didn’t always operate like this either, and when the cash was returned first, the card was often forgotten. So the order was changed – as Phillip Chung & Michael Byrne put it “to place the hanging postcompletion action ‘on the critical path’ to reduce or eliminate [its] omission” – although this card-then-cash format is by no means universal.

I looked at some possible alternative solutions for the problem in this paper for Applied Ergonomics (e-mail me if you’d like a copy), as a kind of test / demonstration of the Design with Intent toolkit.

(The above is actually a photo of a different machine to the one I used on this particular day, since there was a queue of people behind me)

Spikes, Southwark

These friendly anti-sit spikes (including a slightly crooked one on the left) outside the headquarters of London Councils in Southwark just scream “We love the public!”. I guess the alcove could provide a useful hiding place for someone to jump out on passers-by or something.

Eat, South Bank

Further along the South Bank, this branch of Eat reminded me that B J Fogg used a photo of the Eat sign in his talk at Design for Persuasion, as an example of what he calls hot triggers: cues or calls to action which actually prompt a behaviour, assuming that the motivation and ability are there already. Someone walking along, hungry (motivated), with enough money to buy food (ability) needs a trigger, and a sign pretty much instructing one to eat is a particularly clear one. We didn’t eat there, of course – there are better places – but it’s an interesting tactic.

Gearstick, Reliant Scimitar SST

Finally, as we were about to drive home from the station, I thought about the reverse gear ‘gate’ – a kind of lock-out – which prevents the driver changing accidentally directly from a forward gear into reverse (though it’s usually possible the other way round). Depending on the gearbox, you generally need to lift the gearstick over the ‘gate’ or press a button while moving the stick, or in the case of my Reliant Scimitar (which has a 1980s Ford Sierra gearbox), press the gearstick itself downwards.

What do you see everyday that makes you think “they designed it like that so that people would do this”?

Thoughts on the ‘fun theory’

The ‘Piano Staircase’ from Volkswagen’s

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

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

Bottle bank arcadeWorld's deepest bin


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

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

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

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

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

What sort of behaviour change, though?

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

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

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

How others have done it

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

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

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

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

Designed environments as learning systems

West London from Richmond Park - Trellick Tower in the centre

How much of designing an environment is consciously about influencing how people use it? And how much of that influence is down to users learning what the environment affords them, and acting accordingly?

The first question’s central what this blog’s been about over the last four years (with ‘products’, ‘systems’, ‘interfaces’ and so on variously standing in for ‘environment’), but many of the examples I’ve used, from anti-sit features to bathrooms and cafés designed to speed up user throughput, only reveal the architect’s (presumed) behaviour-influencing intent in hindsight, i.e. by reviewing them and trying to understand, if it isn’t obvious, what the motivation is behind a particular design feature. While there are examples where the intent is explicitly acknowledged, such as crime prevention through environmental design, and traffic management, it can still cause surprise when a behaviour-influencing agenda is revealed.

Investigating what environmental and ecological psychology have to say about this, a few months ago I came across The Organization of Spatial Stimuli, an article by Raymond G. Studer, published in 1970 [1] – it’s one of the few explicit calls for a theory of designing environments to influence user behaviour, and it raises some interesting issues:

“The nature of the environmental designer’s problem is this: A behavioral system has been specified (within the constraints imposed by the particular human participants and by the goals of the organization of which they are members.) The participants are not presently emitting the specified behaviors, otherwise there would be no problem. It is necessary that they do emit these behaviors if their individual and collective goals are to be realized. The problem then is to bring about the acquisition or modification of behaviors towards the specified states (without in any way jeopardizing their general well-being in the process). Such a change in state we call learning. Designed environments are basically learning systems, arranged to bring about and maintain specified behavioral topologies. Viewed as such, stimulus organization becomes a more clearly directed task. The question then becomes not how can stimuli be arranged to stimulate, but how can stimuli be arranged to bring about a requisite state of behavioral affairs.

[E]vents which have traditionally been regarded as the ends in the design process, e.g. pleasant, exciting, stimulating, comfortable, the participant’s likes and dislikes, should be reclassified. They are not ends at all, but valuable means which should be skilfully ordered to direct a more appropriate over-all behavioral texture. They are members of a class of (designed environmental) reinforcers. These aspects must be identified before behavioral effects of the designed environment can be fully understood.”

Now, I think it’s probably rare nowadays for architects or designers to talk of design features as ‘stimuli’, even if they are intended to influence behaviour. Operant conditioning and B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism are less fashionable than they once were. But the “designed environments are learning systems” point Studer makes can well be applied beyond simply ‘reinforcing’ particular behaviours.

Think how powerful social norms and even framing can be at influencing our behaviour in environments – the sober environment of a law court gives (most of) us a different range of perceived affordances to our own living room (social norms, mediated by architecture) – and that’s surely something we learn. Frank Lloyd Wright intentionally designed dark, narrow corridors leading to large, bright open rooms (e.g. in the Yamamura House) so that the contrast – and people’s experience – was heightened (framing, of a sort) – but this effect would probably be lessened by repeated exposure. It still influenced user behaviour though, even if only the first few times, but the memory of the effect that such a room had those first few times probably lasted a lifetime. Clearly, the process of forming a mental model about how to use a product, or how to behave in an environment, or how to behave socially, is about learning, and the design of the systems around us does educate us, in one way or another.

Stewart Brand’s classic How Buildings Learn (watch the series too) perhaps suggests (among other insights) an extension of the concept: if, when we learn what our environment affords us, this no longer suits our needs, the best architecture may be that which we can adapt, rather than being constrained by the behavioural assumptions designed into our environments by history.

I’m not an architect, though, or a planner, and – as I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog – it would be very interesting to know, from people who are: to what extent are notions of influencing behaviour taught as part of architectural training? This series of discussion board posts suggests that the issue is definitely there for architecture students, but is it framed as a conscious, positive process (e.g. “funnel pedestrians past the shops”), a reactionary one (e.g. “use pebbled paving to make it painful for hippies to congregate“), one of educating users through architectural features (as in Studer’s suggestion), or as something else entirely?

[1] Studer, R.G. ‘The Organization of Spatial Stimuli.’ In Pastalan, L.A. and Carson, D.H. (eds.), Spatial Behavior of Older People. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1970.

Dan Lockton

What’s the deal with angled steps?

Angled StepsIt’s a simple question, really, to any readers with experience in urban planning and specifying architectural features: what is the reasoning behind positioning steps at an angle such as this set (left and below) leading down to the Queen’s Walk near London Bridge station?

Obviously one reason is to connect two walkways that are offset slightly where there is no space to have a perpendicular set of steps, but are they ever used strategically? They’re much more difficult to run down or up than conventionally perpendicular steps, which would seem like it might help constrain escaping thieves, or make it less likely that people will be able to run from one walkway to another without slowing down and watching their step.

Like the configuration of spiral staircases in mediaeval castles to favour a defender running down the steps anticlockwise, holding a sword in his right hand, over the attacker running up to meet him (e.g. as described here), the way that town marketplaces were often built with pinch points at each end to make it more difficult for animals (or thieves) to escape, or even the ‘enforced reverence’ effect of the very steep steps at Ta Keo in Cambodia, are angled steps and staircases ever specified deliberately with this intent?

Angled Steps

The first time I thought of this was confronting these steps (below) leading from the shopping centre next to Waverley Station in Edinburgh a couple of years ago: they seemed purpose-built to slow fleeing shoplifters, but I did consider that it might just be my tendency to see everything with a ‘Design with Intent’ bias – a kind of conspiracy bias, ascribing to design intent that which is perhaps more likely to be due to situational factors (a kind of fundamental attribution error for design), or inferring the intention behind a design by looking at its results!

What’s your angle on the steps?

Angled Steps