A year in

Brunel Lecture CentreIt’s nearly a year since I started my PhD, (and coming up to three years since this blog was launched). Last week I had my end-of-year review, and, while I don’t often post about the minutiae of being a research student on the blog, I know that at least a few of you are in a similar position, or thinking of doing it one day.

Certainly when I was deciding whether a not a PhD was the ‘right’ thing to do after a couple of years of pretty diverse peripatetic freelancing, the efforts of other bloggers – especially this article by Tom Coates (and the appended comments) – and Rich Watts’ blog, were very helpful and gave me some great, and sometimes sobering, insights. More recently, these posts by the polymathic Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker have given well-justified discourse on moving on from academia, even more pertinent because of their design/art-technology emphasis. (The ‘disciplinarity boundaries’ issue, which vexes me so much, has been addressed in this context by Julian more than once; Roberto Greco has a comprehensive review of more thinking on this issue, too).

Anyway, here’s (mildly edited to remove some commercial and personal information) the report I prepared, rather hurriedly, on what’s been accomplished in the first year, and what’s still to come:

Dan Lockton, Cleaner Electronics Research Group
Start date: September 2007
Design for Sustainable Behaviour
Review, end of Year 1, August 2008

Summary: Design can be used to influence users’ behaviour.

By applying techniques from a variety of fields, it’s possible to design systems which help users to reduce the environmental impact of using them: effectively, making users more efficient by designing for behaviour change.

This project aims to develop and test a method for assisting designers to create behaviour-changing products and services in this area, and then run user trials with prototypes, to determine which approaches are actually most effective at changing users’ behaviour, and reducing energy or other resource use.


As part of my Master’s degree, I researched the concept of architectures of control, ways in which systems have been designed to influence users to interact with them in certain ways, often coercively, to match political or corporate agendas [1]. Subsequently, alongside working as a freelance designer/engineer/researcher, I continued to develop this research independently, primarily via a blog [2] which has gained a fairly diverse audience across the design, technology, media and social science fields.

The scope gradually broadened, becoming more positive in the process, to encompass what I’ve since termed design with intent — strategic design intended to influence user behaviour, including helping users achieve their own goals as well as those of society. This last point is important, since many social problems — particularly environmental ones — can be seen as a result of user behaviour.

It was with this background that I discussed the possibility of a PhD investigating ‘Reducing the environmental impact of products by using design to change user behaviour’ (or, more succinctly, design for sustainable behaviour) with David Harrison, and was pleased to return to Brunel Design as part of the Cleaner Electronics Research Group, with funding from the Ormsby Trust, in September 2007.

Research phase 1a: Literature and practice review

The first phase of the PhD involved investigating, comparing and characterising ‘design with intent’ techniques via examples from a wide range of fields, including human-computer interaction, manufacturing engineering and urban planning as well as product design.

Many practitioners and theorists have touched on aspects of this area from different directions without describing its full extent, and indeed, to understand this, I’ve had to acquire at least some working knowledge of concepts from a wide range of disciplines, including architecture, ecological and social psychology, behavioural economics, human-computer interaction, communication studies, science & technology studies, rhetoric, information architecture, semiotics, security engineering and quality management, alongside a deeper education in the principles of interaction design and ergonomics, to which I’d only tangentially been exposed as an undergraduate design student.

The output of this phase of the research was the paper ‘Design with Intent: Persuasive Technology in a wider context’ [3] (see below).

Research phase 1b: Initial development of the Design with Intent method

The intention of the review of techniques is to enable the development of a ‘suggestion engine’ —the Design with Intent method — for designers working in sustainable and environmentally sensitive design, integrating ideas from different fields to assist the selection and application of design techniques which influence user behaviour. The method itself can be applied to many social problems in which the design of systems (products, services, environments) affects user behaviour, but the focus of the testing will be (at least for this PhD!) on applying it to issues where user behaviour, particularly with energy-using products, affects the environment significantly.

The reasoning behind this, and discussion of its applicability to environmental problems, resulted in the paper ‘Making the user more efficient: Design for Sustainable Behaviour’ [4] (see below).

The approach taken is that certain target behaviours can be identified, and described in the abstract, with different design techniques being applicable to each one. A user behaviour ‘problem’ described in terms of one or more of the target behaviours will, using the suggestion engine, result in the designer being presented with a number of relevant techniques, with examples of each technique being applied in different contexts.

The initial development produced a rather TRIZ-like method, using a tree structure to match target behaviours to relevant design techniques, and my own paper-based run-throughs indicate that it seems to work in terms of generating new design ideas. This is described briefly in the poster I presented at Brunel’s ReSCon [5].

Research phase 2: Testing and refinement of the Design with Intent method (current)

The aim of testing the method is to determine: a) to what extent it is useful to designers addressing user behaviour problems in sustainable design; and b) how the method can be improved. In terms of a), the comparison is with an unstructured brainstorming-type method: does the Design with Intent method offer anything beyond this? Would it perhaps be better implemented as a reference book, a ‘design for sustainable behaviour manual’, rather than a ‘suggestion engine’?

As a precursor to practical testing, in July 2008 I explained and ran through the tree-structure method with two directors and the studio manager of Live|Work [6], a major service design consultancy in London specialising in socially beneficial design solutions for both public- and private-sector clients. The feedback — from exactly the kind of designers I envisage being the ultimate users of the method — was extremely useful, and resulted in a significant redesign of the way the method is presented, moving from a tree structure to a series of concentric rings which allow easier creative exploration of ‘related’ design techniques and target behaviours. This redesigned method, along with some revised (simplified) terminology, is what will be tested.

The testing programme is intended to involve both design students and design consultancies: this is the best way of assessing its usefulness both to existing designers in the context of commercial constraints, and the next generation of designers in an academic setting. The method will be refined as a result of the testing.

First, a pilot study is being arranged with individual design students/recent graduates, using a think-aloud protocol, with all guidance and assistance recorded, primarily to identify points that need clarification or potential problems that may arise. The plan for this study is being written at present (August 2008) and, subject to approval, should be reasonably quick to undertake.

The full study will take the form of workshop sessions in the Autumn term, probably with Level 3 Design students. Participants will be introduced to the method, and, in separate groups, assigned ‘sustainable user behaviour’ problems, with the method there to guide them in generating solutions. (The control will not have the method.) The group interactions and creative process will be recorded and assessed, as will all the output; the specifics of this study have not yet been decided.

A possibility has also arisen to apply the method to one of a consultancy’s client projects, in due course, which has significant potential for testing the method’s worth under more market-based constraints, in a real design consultancy. Other consultancies will also be approached.

Research phase 3: Application of the method

The usefulness of the method will best be tested by the quality of the concepts it generates, so the aim of this phase of the research is to build (prototype) and run user trials comparing products developed by applying the method to a particular problem (users overfilling kettles is a favourite, but there are many possibilities).

This will allow quantitative assessment of the actual energy used by different products, by representative users, in use, over a period, to provide some information about the effectiveness of different techniques in that context, as well as qualitative feedback on usability and other issues. This information can then be used to refine the method further, so that, for example, details of the relative effectiveness of different techniques can be incorporated.

Contributions to knowledge

The project will address these questions, reformulated as appropriate:

– How can users’ behaviour be changed, through redesign of systems, to reduce environmental impact?
– How significant are the impact reductions, and what technology and human factors issues affect the implementations?

It’s hoped that the process of investigating and answering these questions, will constitute an original, distinct and useful contribution to knowledge, and that the Design with Intent method – however it evolves – will prove useful to designers working in the field of behaviour change in society in general. Since the ‘suggestion engine’ of the method is effectively an ‘innovation engine’, it is envisaged that worthwhile intellectual property may also result.

Research output and academic development

Two papers (one journal article, one published conference paper) have so far resulted from the research, and thanks primarily to visitors from the blog, have achieved significant visibility on BURA (top paper and 3rd highest number of views in June, and still currently the highest average views per author):

Lockton, D., Harrison, D.J., Stanton, N.A. ‘Making the user more efficient: Design for sustainable behaviour’. International Journal of Sustainable Engineering Vol.1 No. 1, pp. 3-8, March 2008 [3]

Lockton, D., Harrison, D.J., Stanton, N.A. ‘Design With Intent: Persuasive Technology in a Wider Context’. in H. Oinas-Kukkonen et al. (Eds.): Persuasive 2008, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 5033, pp. 274-278, Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2008 [4]

As a result of the IJSE paper, I was asked to become a reviewer for the journal and have so far reviewed one submission.

I have presented at two external conferences, Persuasive 2008: The Third International Conference on Persuasive Technology, in Oulu, Finland, in June, the costs of which were partially funded by receiving a Vice-Chancellor’s Travel Prize (presentation: ‘Design with Intent: Persuasive Technology in a wider context’ [7]) and New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Lancaster University, in July (presentation: ‘Design with Intent: behaviour-shaping through design’ [8]). I also presented a poster [5] at Brunel’s ReSCon (and the Graduate School poster competition) which provided a good opportunity to try explaining the research to more engineering-focused visitors, and has (I hope) helped me understand how to improve the clarity needed to present research in poster form.

The invitation to present at Lancaster came as one of the organisers has been following the research via my blog; it’s hoped that this kind of visibility can help even further as the research progresses. At present I have an invitation to present at Design|Behaviour: Making it Happen at Loughborough in October.

I also attended a doctoral consortium organised by the Universities of Oulu (Finland) and Aalborg (Denmark) prior to the Persuasive conference, and the networking and discussion with other researchers working in similar areas of design, computer science and psychology were extremely useful and have dramatically expanded and sharpened the focus of my thinking. I now have contacts at a number of institutions and companies internationally who are interested in the research and some of whom may be, in time, potential collaborators. During the year I’ve tried hard to attend and participate in as many relevant events as possible, both to meet other researchers involved in related fields, and to learn more about how academia and practising designers work together — a partial list:

– Anthrodesign & UX Meetup, London, Sept 2007
– BSI Manufacture, Assembly, Disassembly, and End-of-life Processing standards meeting, Sept 2007
– EPSRC Network on Product Life Spans seminar, Sheffield Hallam, Sept 2007, with Alex Plant
– Sustainable Design Network seminar ‘Envisioning a Sustainable Future’, Nottingham, Dec 2007
– Meeting at University of Bath with Dr Elies Dekoninck and Ed Elias to discuss similar research areas, June 2008
– Attended meeting with Staffan Davidsson (Volvo Cars), Dr Mark Young and Stewart Birrell, June 2008
– Interviewed by Jamie Young (Imperial College) for behavioural change policy research, July 2008
– OpenTech open innovation & technology conference, London, July 2008
– The Affective in Sustainable Design, seminar, Central St Martins, July 2008
– RSA lecture by Richard Thaler, author of Nudge, London, July 2008

At Brunel, I also gave a seminar in June 2008 as preparation for presenting in Finland, and received some very useful feedback.

In terms of parallel activities at Brunel, as well as the Graduate School and SED induction training modules, I’ve completed the Graduate Training Assistant training, and the Graduate School’s Entrepreneurship Masterclass, and have helped assess Level 3 Environmentally Sensitive Design group projects. During the Spring term I assisted with the weekly Level 2 Electronics labs and also marked some of the final assignments, which has given me a good insight into how all this works. I’d welcome the opportunity to be involved further with Design teaching in the next couple of years.

I am excited and enthusiastic about the years ahead, and the opportunities they present, and would like to thank everyone who’s helped me so far.

[1] Available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=908493
[2] Architectures of Control / Design with Intent blog: http://danlockton.co.uk
[3] Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2438/2138
[4] Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2438/2137
[5] Available at http://danlockton.co.uk/research/poster_DL.ai.pdf
[6] Live|Work website: http://www.livework.co.uk
[7] Available at https://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/2008/06/09/design-with-intent-presentation-slide/
[8] Not yet available online

Entrance to Brunel, Kingston Lane

I passed the review OK, but it was made clear that I really ought to have a more formal, critical literature review, at least in draft, done by now, pertinent to the actual intended contributions to knowledge, and explaining the ‘hole’ in current knowledge and previous work that I’m aiming to fill. Of course, I’ve done plenty of reviewing what’s out there, but given the amount of new avenues and relevant theories I seem to come across weekly, it’s been difficult to draw it all together coherently, and I’ll admit I’ve been putting it off. Perhaps now it’s time to do it properly, along with a ‘contents page’ for the thesis, alongside organising the pilot studies of the DwI method (more on which on the blog in the near future). Yes, deciding what to leave out is going to be hard, but that’s part of the point.

Thanks again to everyone who’s helped this year: having the collective experience of hundreds of intelligent blog readers from many disciplines to draw on and inspire the research has really made the whole thing so much more dynamic, somehow.

The office


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