“How can user behaviour be guided and changed through design?”

The 10th of November at the World Usability Day me, Fenna and Shen attended the Design for Usability Symposium in Utrecht (www.designforusability.org). Usabilty is about ease of use and learnability. It is about the interaction between a human and a product, which should enable easiness and a practical and intuitive manner of conduct. One of the workshops we attended was titled “Product Impact Tool – How can user behaviour be guided and changed through design?”  It was given by Steven Dorrestijn, a PhD candidate at the University of Twente.

According to Dorrestijn it is not only important to know and focus on user needs and characteristics, it is also equally relevant to focus on how products guide and change people: “Technology changes people.” A (digital) product designed for users often suffers from unintended use. For instance, a chair can be used as an object not only to sit on but also to stand on. And who would have thought that Facebook or Twitter would become major channels of political change? It is interesting and valuable to recognize these behaviours, but it is hard or even impossible to predict new technological discoveries. Moreover it is even less feasible to predict how they will be used and what the various interpretations of the technology will be.

The product impact model

By trying to understand human behaviour in a better way, we as designers are able to use design as a means to change or influence the user’s behaviour. Dorrestijn presented the “Product Impact model” in which he has categorized four “interaction modes.” These describe, in more or less subtle styles, how our behaviour is influenced and determined by design.

  1. The first mode is called “Above the head” and deals with abstract conceptualizations. This interaction mode is not empirical, with which we mean that it is not based on a status quo or on observable sensory data. Exemplary effects of this mode are “utopian and dystopian technology,” two extreme states. Dystopia implies the extreme opposite of utopia, for example a totalitarian state. As a design example Dorrestijn mentioned the OV- chip card that was being hacked. I think with this he meant that the chip card seemed to have created an ideal situation seen from a technological perspective. However it didn’t seem to be that ideal and in the end it lead to a discussion that the whole situation might in fact be the next step to Big Brother. The metaphor of Big Brother stands for a Dystopia, a place where governance has been extended to unagreeable proportions.
  2. Dorrestijn calls the second interaction mode “Before the eye,” with which he means that we’re influenced directly through sensory cognitive means. These sensory cognitive means are for example suggestions and seductions/persuasions. Affordance for instance is a suggestive effect. Nudge, a little push in the right direction, is persuasive. A design example of the last one is the smiley that appears on a road sign when driving at the right speed.
  3. The third interaction mode is called “To the hand” and is involved in split second decisions. This influence is physical in the immediate sense of the term. Exemplary effects are coercion and mediated gestures. Coercion is the practice of persuading another party to do something by using force and threats. Dorrestijn mentions “delegation” as a coercive effect. This term, which he borrows from Latour, can be defined as “the way that an actant assigns responsibilities and competencies to another actant.”[1] This is very important from a design perspective as it is almost always the case that a user is not able to complete all required tasks by himself. Another term that Latour uses is scripting, because many times it is as if technology instructs the users of a product like a film script instructs the actors in a movie. According to Latour designing technical products that contain scripts are like the “delegation” of morality to products.[2] A design example for this third interaction mode are speed bumps that instruct drivers to slow down.
    Inspired by Foucault Dorrestijn mentions “discipline” and “body gestures” as mediated gestures. Discipline is a term that explains how institutions and social practices structure our behavior, how our subjectivity is literally subjected to its power. This discipline can be considered as a mediator for our gestures, the way we behave.
  4. The last interaction mode is called “Behind the back,” which refers to its indirect nature. This type of influence is environmental, it runs through the veins of our societies. Examples are “the jogging effect” and “user configuration.” In short the jogging effect means that if you have too much of something, the effect is the opposite. For instance cars were designed so people could go to their destinations in an easier and quicker way. The opposite effect was that more cars caused more traffic and that drivers were walking less so they had to jog in the evenings to catch up.As an example for user configuration Dorrestijn mentioned Foucault’s idea of Panopticism. A Panopticon is a circular prison with an observation tower in the centre of the building. A guard who is invisible to the prisoners is positioned in the tower. The prisoners don’t know who the guard is looking at, but because they know that they might be watched, their behaviour is strongly influenced by this “invisible” constant look. Foucault believed that the panopticon effect was a metaphor for the disciplining power not only in prison but of modern societies in general.

Dorrestijn’s model of four interaction modes can be used during a Product Impact Session. During such a session a concept, prototype or existing product should not be analyzed from the user’s needs, but from a product perspective that can effect the user in different ways. The use of the model is suitable for redesigns. According to Dorrestijn, technology changes people and shouldn’t be seen purely as a tool that fulfills people’s needs. Things don’t merely happen through technology. They happen because of technology.

During the workshop we were given five cases with unexpected views on product impact.
We chose for the case “There is place for two in the train.” The case is as follows: The seats in trains in the Netherlands have been designed for single persons. But these single seats are always accompanied by another seat right next to it. Very often, passengers tend to use both seats when the train is not crowded. Many times it can be quite annoying to ask the person that is using the two seats if he or she can remove their bag so you can sit next to him or her. The idea of this workshop was to structure this case with the Product Impact Model tool. So, why do people tend to use two seats? Is the influence “Above the head,” “Before the eye,” “To the hand,” or “Behind the back”?

To be honest, we only had 15 minutes to analyze the problem and redesign the product so we tried to do this as good as possible. But because the model was explained to us in merely half an hour I think it was difficult to apply it on such a short notice. First of all, the different terms used by Dorrestijn are very interesting but not easy to grasp quickly, especially terms like “delegation” and “panopticism” would have been more interesting if I had read Latour or Foucault first. Second of all when as a designer you need to come up with a redesign very quickly because a deadline is approaching, such a model can only be helpful if you understand its subtleties.

To conclude, what I do find interesting about Dorrestijn’s take on products is that we need not to see technology exclusively as a problem solving tool but also as an instrument that influences people’s behaviour, for better or for worse.

1 Peter Paul Verbeek. What things do: Philosophical reflections on technology, agency and design.
2 S. Dorrestijn. “Gedragsbeïnvloedende techniek en usability”. In: Tijdschrift voor Ergonomie 36/1 (april 2011), pp. 5-12. usability”.