New Home for this Blog

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High Tech: Low Carbon Week

I’ve dropped into a couple of events this week that are part of High Tech: Low Carbon Week, organised by Intellect (a trade association for the technology industry). Yesterday it was the turn of the DEHEMS (Digital Environmental Home Energy Management System) project – a European Union funded project that uses technology to improve energy efficiency in the home. DEHEMS have prototyped (currently using an Electrisave and custom router) a real time energy display system that uploads data from a domestic home via the internet every six seconds to a central database. The home-owner can view this data on a dashboard, showing them how their actions relate to their home’s energy consumption. In short, it’s another addition to the world of real time energy displays, and not at nearly as advanced a stage as others in the field, which isn’t at all to say that they won’t contribute anything, but I think they will find the UK a challenging market to compete within over the next few years.

Lucky for them then, that they are conducting research in other countries across Europe and will also produce cross cultural research on behaviour change that I’d love to see.

A couple of other points they made also stuck in my head.

First the recession will mean that fewer people upgrade their appliances, meaning arguments that say standby power consumption is not an issue (standby consumption of televisions has fallen from about 15W on appliances in the 90s to under 1W on the latest appliances according to another event I attended) are less compelling. As they put it, our appliances have a lasting energy efficiency legacy.

Second though their interaction design is clearly better than the simple real time displays you can buy in Maplin, the interaction design design seems pretty bog standard (e.g. the dashboard shows you how your house compares to others in your neighbourhood, but no sign yet of Cialdini’s smiley faces to neutralise rebound effects – though they said they were aware of that research) and viewing it seems currently limited to an iPhone (for the gadget-lovers) or a web interface (so you need to be carrying a laptop round the house while learning about your appliance’s consumption). But the good point is that they have developed an API (a way that third parties can develop custom software that displays the energy data from DEHEM’s database), which I think they plan to open up – allowing anyone with a technical leaning to develop custom ways of displaying and interacting with the data.

Third, after early experiments, DEHEMS are confident that a lasting 20% saving in energy consumption (5% above the upper limit of the current most reliable review of the effect of direct feedback on behaviour change) is easily attainable, and are planning larger experiments across 250 homes in the UK.

I didn’t like to ask whether they were concerned about the competition, but a delegate from the Energy Retail Association had no such qualms and pointed out towards the end of the presentation that Google today launched their own version of a real time display.


Ridley Scott’s advert that launched the Macintosh personal computer in 1983 sought to show:

…the fight for the control of computer technology as a struggle of the few against the many, says TBWA/Chiat/Day’s Lee Clow. Apple wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment, with the ad showcasing the Mac as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. What better way to do that than have a striking blonde athlete take a sledghammer to the face of that ultimate symbol of conformity, Big Brother? [link]

One of the aims of this project is to connect individuals working in the design for behaviour change field with policy makers looking for ways to encourage behaviour change. When you think of the public policy implications of persuasive technology, do you think it will empower individuals, or open the gate to a Big Brother?

The persuasive technology discourse (despite its rather Orwellian name) in a similarly general way to Google says “don’t be evil”. This emphasis was set at the first Persuasive conference in 2006:

“In the PERSUASIVE 2006 conference, a particular emphasis was put on those applications that serve a beneficial purpose for humans in terms of increasing health, comfort, and well-being, improving personal relationships, stimulating learning and education, improving environmental conservation, et cetera.” [1]

However the ethics of stuff that is designed to change behaviour is still a bit of a minefield. Here are four points that seem to describe the ethical issues made by writers publishing within the persuasive technology discourse.

1. Awareness or Deception

B. J. Fogg’s definition of persuasive technology precludes coercion or deception [2], meaning that persuasion must be voluntary. But doesn’t avoiding deception require the user to have fairly sophisticated knowledge how the techniques employed by a piece of persuasive technology work?

The possible problem is illustrated by the point of view of practioners like Wai and Mortensen [3], who writing from a commercial perspective, suggest that successful adoption by consumers of some devices lies in making them as boring as possible, and making efforts to “mask any behaviour change”.

The point is picked up by Atkinson [4] in a critical review of Fogg’s book, who writes that persuasive technology could only be ethical “if [users] are aware of the intention from the outset of their participation with the program [or product]”. Atkinson maintains that going further than this would be manipulation.

2. Who has the right?

The designer’s mandate is usually to have the desires of the user firmly at the centre of their decision making (user-centred design is the mot juste). As Johnson [5] writes in his review of Persuasive Technology, the techniques of persuasive technology, however, shift the focus from the user’s desires to those areas in which the user could buck up his or her ideas and change behaviour (paraphrased).

This is presumably not such a big deal in a free market, where any person is free to buy a particular product (providing the product is not deceptive – as the previous point) or not, but what happens when the state gets interested?

3. Which behaviours?

The third area of concern raised is around which behaviours are fair game for designers to encourage. Berdichevsky and Neuenschwander note that any persuasive attempt (regardless of whether technology) is on “uneasy ethical ground” and propose a golden rule of persuasion:

“The creators of a persuasive technology should never seek to persuade anyone of something they themselves would not consent to be persuaded of.” [6]

Fallman [7] calls for a philosophy of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) to decide which behaviours could be ethically persuaded by persuasive technology.

4. Infantilisation?

The final point (and to my mind an important one), is well made by Atkinson, who conceding that persuasive technology might be ethical if the designer’s intent were altruistic:

“But would not this sort of benevolent intent be better constructed and represented by the sound reasoning we know as advocacy or even education, where intent is exposed at the outset or revealed through simple inquiry about course content? … Exposure to both is cognitively enriching and can result in attitude, belief and behavioural change, but both remain respectful of the individual’s own ability to synthesise the offerings provided by new information into a worldview that is meaningful for that individual.” [4]

That seems to me to be a whole blog posting in itself… Check back soon for more.

Big Brother or Empowering Individuals? How could ethical public policy be developed?

[1] IJsselsteijn, W., de Kort, Y., Midden, C. Eggen, B., van den Hoven, E. (2006), Preface. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 3962, V.
[2] Fogg, BJ (2003), Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. Morgan Kaufmann.
[3] Wai, C. and Mortensen, P. (2007), Persuasive Technologies Should Be Boring. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4744, 96.
[4] Atkinson, B.M.C. (2006), Captology: A Critical Review. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 3962, 171.
[5] Johnson, R. R. (2004), Book Reviews: Persuasive Technology. JBTC. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, April, 251–254.
[6] Berdichevsky, D. and Neuenschwander, E. (1999), Toward an ethics of persuasive technology. Communications of the ACM, 42, 51–58.
[7] Fallman, D. (2007), Persuade Into What? Why Human-Computer Interaction Needs a Philosophy of Technology. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4744, 295.

From the RSA to the RCA

Just a quick post to say that, after a tip-off from a colleague, this evening I dropped in to the Royal College of Art’s interim show. Running from the 5th to the 11th February, the show features work from the RCA’s Architecture, Innovation Design Engineering (used to be Industrial Design Engineering), Design Interactions, Printmaking and Animation students.

As always, there was a huge amount to take in, and if I tried to describe any of the work there, I’d probably misrepresent it horribly… So I’ll settle for saying that I enjoyed the Architecture – particularly the Hero section (inspired by the idea of gritty “anti-heroes”, and the communities shaped by that concept) and Tribes (“micro-societies” of people with shared values – who are they in today’s world, and how should buildings accommodate them?), and also pretty much any of the lovely work from the Animation students.

The reason I was tipped-off though, was that one of the projects from Innovation Design Engineering featured some energy-related ideas. The Potential (website currently down) project focuses on the near-future, when almost every home will have a smart meter. Smart meters primarily allow electricity companies to get real time data on people’s electricity consumption (allowing them to match their electricity production to your consumption more closely) and will probably also include the sort of real time displays I’ve blogged about before to help people understand and reduce their energy consumption by switching off non-essential appliances. The Potential project imagines three electricity tariffs that use different interfaces to help people interact with their smart meter – maximising, the designers hope, the savings that smart meters could provide by using design to engage people with their energy supply. It will be interesting to see the direction that these interfaces take over the next few months.

By the way, if you drop in to the exhibition, do check out my absolute favourite thing; also from Innovation Design Engineering – 1234 Lab’s 8hertz jewellery:

8hertz is jewellery formed from phrases of intimate communication. A recording of an individual’s voice is translated into a unique three-dimensional form, capturing every nuance, subtlety and accent. [1]

You can have a look here.

[1] 1234 Labs,

Confession is Good for the Soul

Training Plan
Not doing very well am I? 6.03km down, 67.97km to go. As my Nike+ training plan cheerily reminds me, with the end date of my training plan on the 31st January, that puts me currently 63km behind. And it all started so well.

I’ve really enjoyed the Nike+iPod experience though. Running with music is great (still trying to decide what my “power tune” should be), the kilometre countdowns in your ear are genuinely encouraging, the half way point (again spoken through your earphones) is handy – if like me you run in a straight line and then back again – and I did find myself that little bit more encouraged when I’d broken a personal best (admittedly easy when you’re just starting out). The only thing that’s really annoying is when you go for a run after midnight, then upload your data to the Nike+ website but it doesn’t count towards your training plan because it falls on the next day…

But I can’t use that excuse for a deficit of 63km. The reason for that is that I’ve been recovering from a bit of flu with a particularly long tail. But now I’m suddenly, wonderfully, better.

So I can either run 17km tonight, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Or I can give myself another month.

By the way, if you use Nike+, do join the team of which I am labelled “coach”, but am actually floundering second from bottom of the leaderboard.

Making Bins Fun

The Keep Britain Tidy campaign have just released research into what brands of fast food contribute most to the litter across England. In a report that makes strangely compelling reading, we learn that four of the top five worst offenders are big name brands; McDonalds at 29% (then unbranded chippie/kebab shops at second with 21%), Greggs in third place with 18%, KFC at 8% and Subway at 5%.

The Voxpop column of the current edition of Design Week picks up on this research and, noting that the packaging already contains graphics and messaging about littering, asks the bosses of four design and branding consultancies “what can design do to alleviate the problem?”. Here’s what they reckon:

John Mather of Blue Marlin responds that brands need to find innovative ways to change behaviour, suggesting placing bins at a distance from the fast food outlet based on the time taken to consume the food, and making those bins fun to use – proposing basketball hoops above the bins as an option.

Hans Muysson of DJPA lumps for attractive fast-food bins outside the outlets, subsidised by the brands, thus allowing them a chance to increase their levels of PR and possibly influence the consumers.

Barry Seal of Anthem Worldwide outlines two avenues; first the technical approach of reducing packaging (and making it biodegradable or recyclable), then the behavioural approach of making the anti-litter message on the packaging visible and compelling. He also picks up on the fun bin idea.

Finally, Steve Irwine of LFH nails his colours to the mast by saying that no amount of anti-littering labelling will stop people dropping litter, and advocates the purely technical solution of reducing the waste by redesigning the packaging from more natural substances, even edible wrappers.

Interesting to see these reponses. The majority advocate a technical solution to reduce the impact of the problem (biodegradable packaging etc.) and a behavioural solution by making changes that make consumers more likely to use the bins (either putting them in the right place, or making them more fun to use). One of the most suprising responses for me is the final one, in which labelling is not thought to have any potential for encouraging behaviour change – is labelling capable of driving some behaviours (like consumption), but powerless in other areas then? The whole question of how you design bins that encourage people to use them is fascinating – maybe we’ll revisit it in a future post.

It all reminds me of the anti-littering campaign in Texas, mentioned in Nudge (but really no more than a successful social marketing campaign), which followed an unsuccessful previous campaign that tried to impress on people that it was their “civic duty to stop littering”. The new campaign, informed by research on exactly who was doing the littering (18 to 24 year old men) used a “tough-talking slogan that would also address the unique spirit of Texas pride”, players from the Dallas Cowboys and Willie Nelson. Apparently, Don’t Mess with Texas is now “America’s favourite” slogan and litter across the state in the first year was reduced by 29%.

Could it happen in the UK?


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