Posts Tagged 'policy'


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.

Design, Behaviour & Policy: Part II

This is the follow up post to yesterday’s which reported on some of the areas in which policy makers are interested in encouraging behaviour change. Rather than covering particular examples of persuasive technology, this post will look at broader ways in which design can contribute to encouraging behaviour change.

Of course, almost anything that is designed could be said to encourage behaviour change – from (as someone pointed out to me) the “WORK HARD AND BE NICE TO PEOPLE” print by Anthony Burrill that hangs in one of the offices in the RSA, through designers like Shin and Tomoko Azumi who used to describe their work as “changing people’s behaviour in a subtle way“, to the more deliberate and strategic attempts at behaviour change written about on this blog. Since this is a post written from the point of view of policy makers wondering how design might help achieve specific and measurable goals – I’ll concentrate on examples and design thinking from the more tactical end of this scale.

One of my favourite examples of design influencing behaviour illustrates the value of research leading to particular insights, which can then be fed in to creative problem solving techniques to create a great new service. IDEO (an innovation and design firm) were commissioned by Bank of America to attract new customers (the target demographic was baby boomer women with children) at a time when people were spending much more than they were saving. IDEO carried out extensive qualitative research (interviews, photo and notebook surveys, impromptu conversations on the street, group discussions between friends and strangers) across Atlanta, Baltimore and San Francisco, which led to insights like this:

many people in both the target audience and the general public would often round up their financial transactions for speed and convenience. In addition, the team found that many moms had difficulty saving what money they had, whether due to a lack of resources or willpower. [1]

This behaviour was routinely seen, for example, in a photograph of the cheque book of one woman who rounded up her utility bills when paying them. Feeding insights like this into brainstorming sessions, IDEO came up with a service that allowed customers to round up payments when using a Bank of America credit card but automatically paid the difference into the customer’s savings account. After prototyping the service with Bank of America, the “Keep the Change” bank account was launched in 2005, attracting over 2.5 million customers, and creating savings of $1 billion in these “round-ups” alone.

I like this example as it illustrates how an existing behaviour can be turned into a positive one given the right intervention, shows the breadth and creativity of activities that are included in the design process, could easily have come from a brief devised by government, and reminds me how much money I have tied up in the many piles of small change I have around the house…

Here’s another one. The UK’s Design Council run a programme of social design projects, the last of which was in the north east of England in 2007. One of these projects was called Low Carb Lane, and was led by designers from service design company live|work. Low Carb Lane aimed to make energy efficiency easy – both to reduce CO2 emissions and save money.

The Low Carb Lane team spent about a year with residents of Castle Terrace, learning about the community, the local social and economic situation, and unearthing (among other things) links between concerns over ownership (owner-occupier vs. rented) of the houses in the street, its physical degradation, declining community spirit, and attitudes towards climate change.

In response to this research, in addition to developing a system of small home loans for energy efficiency measures (like insulation) that are repaid through the energy savings gained (about 40%), live|work’s project involved designing a home energy dashboard that displayed information on the home’s energy consumption, CO2 emissions and bills. live|work’s research showed that this system could produce behaviour change resulting in a further 20% saving.

live|work were early practioners of this sort of work, but many companies (like those mentioned in this post) are now working in this area and hoping to create the same sort of savings on a national scale.

Examples like these show the value of thoughtful field research, creative problem solving, and a willingness to prototype. These skills are only enhanced by the addition of new insights (like persuasive technology) into designing for behaviour change.

Does anyone else have good examples of how design can contribute to encouraging behaviour change?

[1] IDEO, Available from:,
more details at:

Design, Behaviour & Policy: Part I

I wrote in an earlier post about the growth of interest in the UK government around encouraging behaviour change. As one of the aims of this project is to get the design community involved in this challenge, it seems worth mentioning (for designers’ benefit) a couple of specific areas in which behaviour change is currently sought after by government. I’ll follow this post soon with another (for policy makers’ benefit) looking at a couple of ways (apart from the “persuasive technology” examples) in which designers have done a great job of designing for behaviour change.

It’s fair to say that interest in behaviour change is booming at the national level of UK government. For example, a recent review of behaviour change models (and guidelines for applying them in policy) was carried out by Government Social Research (GSR) (an office that belongs to the Treasury, but works across twenty government departments), which describes the rationale behind the interest in behaviour change:

Policy making for behaviour change recognises that individuals need to change their own behaviour in order for government’s wider goals for society to be achieved. The need for policy, which explicitly aims to bring about behavioural change among individuals is based on the realisation that for some complex problems, government cannot bring about change on its own. Lasting change requires a total partnership approach led by government, and including a wide range of stakeholders and organisations, as well as individuals themselves. [1]

This shift from top-down government to co-productive governance is marked by a retreat from policy makers’ reliance on traditional policy instruments (fiscal incentives and taxes), now recognised to be effective only on perfectly rational people (a rare breed), towards the more complex models of behaviour described in such reviews. These more sophisticated models draw people’s attitudes, agency, social norms, habits and emotions into the equation.

GSR’s report is the first cross-departmental initiative on behaviour change, but comes on top of other work that has taken place in various departments.

One of the departments most prominent in the field is Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) who have recently established an Environmental Behaviours Unit, who’s job it is to:

“assemble, analyse and translate evidence related to pro-environmental behaviours and to work within Defra and with external stakeholders to improve the design and implementation of policy interventions aimed at helping individuals and communities live more environmentally sustainable lifestyles.” [2]

The Department for Transport (in work also related to climate change) has shown interest in behaviour change and was ahead of the curve, publishing research in 2006 on why people’s knowledge and attitudes about climate change fail to turn in to actual changes in travel behaviour. As an aside, the DfT regret the fact that there is no ‘grand unified theory’ of behaviour change – a problem that the RSA is currently working on.

As might be expected, the Department of Health are interested in behaviour change, looking at how social marketing techniques might be applied to encourage behaviour change and setting up a specific Social Marketing and Health-related Behaviour Team. Communities and Local Government are also in the process of conducting research to find out (among other things) which behaviours are desirable and what their drivers are, and the department for Children, Schools and Families have a large body of practical research on behaviour in schools.

The Cabinet Office are also in the act, with their work in 2008 on achieving culture change, which concentrates on the idea of cultural capital – people’s attitudes, values, aspirations and sense of self-worth. Even the Foreign Office have a chapter in a report on how communications can change behaviour.

Some interesting work is conducted by the Department for International Development (DFID), who as well as funding South Africa’s most popular soap opera – which always make a point of using condoms in their storylines – also distribute female condoms via hair salons in Zimbabwe – “Get braids, not AIDS” – as the headline says.

DFID’s example is a bit of fresh air to be honest – the behaviour change conversation in government can seem (to an outsider) repetitive and rather lacking in creative ideas. For example, Defra’s consultation with energy suppliers over the supplier obligation policy (a commitment that will run from 2011 and require energy suppliers to meet CO2 reduction targets by providing their domestic customers with energy efficiency measures) showed energy suppliers feared the extent to which Defra was relying on them to produce behaviour change in their customers. Defra had hoped to save a quarter of all savings after 2011 by behaviour change, and to create this huge behaviour change and associated CO2 saving, suggested roughly these measures:

  • Activities of the Energy Saving Trust
  • Energy Performance Certificates
  • Climate change communications
  • Real-time displays and smart meters
  • Personal carbon allowances

Do you think designers could help create better behavioural policies?

[1] Darnton, A. (2008) Briefing Note for Policy Makers, GSR Behaviour Change Knowledge Review. Available from:
[2] Defra, (2008) A Framework for pro-Environmental Behaviours. Available from:

Example #2 – Real Time Energy Displays

Energy consumption in the home is invisible, which becomes a social problem when it accounts for 27% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. Part of the problem is that it takes a certain type of person to find beauty in a traditional electricity meter, and they are usually hidden away; installed inside cupboards or above eye level and never looked at.

Enter a broad range of persuasive products; some simple, some sleek, some designer and some made by the so-called iPod of Cleantech, that all try to reduce consumption by making energy visible. The majority of these products rely on a current sensor that clips around the main electricity inlet to a house (although this press release suggests that some may be more sophisticated) and wirelessly transmits the energy data to a portable and hopefully beautiful object that sits on your coffee table and constantly displays it.

How do these real time energy displays (as they have become known) attempt to persuade people to reduce energy consumption? All of them employ self-monitoring (in a similar way to Nike+iPod) to help people become more attuned to how much each of their appliances are consuming and are enabled to make intelligent decisions. Mention of “reward points” suggests some of them employ aspects of tunnelling, like an energy coach might. The more advanced real time energy displays have also seen the potential of the internet, and use (or are planning to use) social networking to create communities around energy consumption, adding surveillance to the list of persuasive techniques. Lastly, real time energy displays function as simulated cause and effect scenarios, allowing people to turn on and off appliances, and see from the display how much CO2 would be emitted each year if they continued to consume energy at such a rate (it is a personal disappointment that none of them are yet hooked up to a climate change model that shows how this would correspond to sea level rise or ecosystem shift… if anyone knows of a climate change model with an API – do let me know).

Real time energy displays are one of the highest profile of products that could be considered persuasive technology, after they had a brief brush with environmental policy in the government’s draft energy bill of 2007, which required energy suppliers to provide such displays to those customers that requested them (as a precursor to a roll-out of smart meters, which are a slightly different kettle of fish). The government engaged suppliers, consumers and OFGEM in consultation and carried out a cost benefit analysis and impact assessment which concluded that given the evidence for such products, the policy would not be cost effective. The requirement was dropped from the bill, illustrating the requirement for robust and quantitative evidence for the effectiveness of such persuasive technology, and also the difficulty of comparing the effectiveness of different displays when effectiveness hangs on the interaction design (and the persuasive power).

So what evidence is there? Studies are thin on the ground and spread over many years (dating back to the oil crisis of the 70s) when interaction design was less advanced, but the most credible review of the literature suggests savings of 5-15% can be obtained by giving people direct feedback of energy consumption. Further tests of real time displays are currently under way (some in conjunction with smart-meter trials) in 8,500 households in the UK and more across the world. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the savings may be even higher; approaching 40%.

However the real time energy display story ends, they may prove to be a landmark case for persuasive technology and behaviour change.

By the way, in addition to making energy visible via real time energy displays, there are also an abundance of conceptual products from the Interactive Institute that are well worth a look.

Chimney Brushes, Design, Behaviour and the RSA

Joseph Davis's Brush

Joseph Davis's Brush

Designers have a pretty variable record when it comes to thinking about the impact of their actions on society. Although their history includes ingenious idealists like George Smart and Joseph Davis [1], who (among others) designed chimney sweeping brushes that paved the way for the reduction and eventually outlawing of the inhumane use of “climbing boys” to clean chimneys, industrial design has also been described by Victor Papanek with the words:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them, and possibly only one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, is probably the phoniest…” [2]

Papanek goes on to vent at industrial designers for their part in the creation of such over-consumption. Recently however, the more altruistic form of design (now often referred to as “social design”) has made a recurrence, and includes products and services intended to improve people’s – particularly those living on the margins – quality of life, the sustainability of society (including, unusually for designers, encouraging reducing consumption rather than driving it) and other such laudable aims.

The RSA has a long history of involvement in this sort of design, from awarding George Smart their gold medal in 1805 (and Joseph Davis the silver in 1806), to the Design Directions briefs set over the last few years, which explore how design can help meet the key challenges facing today’s society.

One key challenge that has become a hot topic of the public sector in recent years is the need for individuals to change their behaviour; it crops up on the popular shelves of bookshops in books like Nudge, on the desks of policy makers in the form of reports and in the Great Room at the RSA in the form of a speech by David Cameron to name a very select few.

The reasons behind this attention are varied but include; emerging massive and complex problems like anthropogenic climate change that require bottom-up as well as top-down action, a desire to involve citizens in more decision making, and increased understanding and awareness on the part of government of the effectiveness of softer interventions in addition to traditional incentives and legislation.

The RSA’s vision of closing the gap between the society we currently inhabit and the one we aspire to also involves a degree of behaviour change. We’re all fallible and often end up behaving in ways which are inconsistent with our values and the society in which we would prefer to live. And although that individual behaviour (like leaving our telly on standby) can seem inconsequential, sometimes the cumulative effects (like a power station’s CO2 emissions) are damaging to everyone.

Encouraging behaviour change is notoriously difficult, but novel approaches are emerging. Research from the interface of psychology and design, for example, offers new possibilities for transforming how we use everyday objects like cars, mobile phones and domestic appliances.

In a world in which the products and services we use increasingly influence the pattern of our lives, perhaps design that changes behaviour is as socially valuable now as the 19th century chimney brushes were. The RSA is exploring the potential for a project that will investigate the role of so-called “persuasive technology” and other techniques from design to help create the society we aspire to.

How do you think the products and services you use everyday change your behaviour? What do you think the RSA could bring to this field of research? It would be great to hear what you think, particularly if you are interested in behaviour change or design and/or you are a Fellow of the RSA.


[1] There seem to have been quite a few chimney sweeping brushes submitted to the RSA in the early 1800s. BM Forster of the Society for the Suppression of Climbing Chimney Sweepers wrote of Joseph Davis’s device: “I am convinced that chimnies may be swept as cleanly and effectually, as is commonly done with climbing-boys, so that the difference to the families who employ your machine will be, that they have the same comfort of a clean chimney, and are satisfied that they no longer use a method which is full of horrors and a disgrace to a civilised country”.

[2] Papanek, V., (1985) Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Academy Chicago.


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