User-centred Design vs. Persuasive Technology?
Just a quickie to say that it’s fantastic to see some higher-profile and thoughtful conversation developing on the web about the influence that designers have in enabling and encouraging people to change behaviour. In an introduction to the concept, Robert Fabricant (VP of Creative at Frog Design) writes:
“…we’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behavior from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement … but many designers hesitate to pursue [this approach]. Committing to direct behavior design would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centered design (UCD), which provides the basis of most professional design today.”
User-centred design is the default paradigm for industrial designers; the user is king, and the designer’s job is simply to design products that serve the user’s desires as closely as possible. Robert Fabricant suggests that when designers start using persuasive techniques (e.g. those of persuasive technology) then the roles are suddenly reversed; designers start designing according to how they think the user should behave, and the user (knowingly or unknowingly) is led down that path.
The question of whether the use of persuasive techniques is still user-centred design is fascinating to designers. Although Robert Fabricant thinks it’s not, he still seems in favour of the use of persuasive techniques. Others have shared his non-user-centred point of view, but with a more negative tone. In a book review of Persuasive Technology (BJ Fogg’s seminal book on the topic), Robert Johnson writes
“the book portends to be interested in end users – office workers, teachers, students (young and old), and the general public – … in practice, the book is designer-centred and system-centred” *.
Dan Lockton has written a response to Robert Fabricant’s article, in which he touches on whether using persuasive techniques is user-centred or not:
“I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour.”
I tend to agree with Dan’s position. As I’ve jotted down in the past, when products that have persuasive techniques designed into them are sold on the free market, I can’t see significant problems with designers using persuasive techniques. Taking the useful (but rather tired) example of real-time energy displays, if I buy one to keep a closer eye on my energy consumption, I’m quite happy for it to be designed in a way that will help me influence my behaviour most effectively. I suppose (as Dan says) I’d be a little less happy if there was a disconnect between my original purchase and the behaviour that it tried to encourage in me – say I bought a George Foreman grill that somehow gently nudged into becoming a vegetarian.
What I think is much more interesting (and problematic) is if the state gets involved. One of the aims of the RSA’s work in this area is to explore whether design can make a positive contribution to behaviour change policy. Policy makers are keen to hear of new methods of changing behaviour. For example, the present government is proposing to fit smart meters into all UK homes by 2020 which will be equipped with real-time displays that you can carry about your house communicate energy consumption. To help design these displays, the recent consultation from the Department of Energy and Climate Change seeks:
“…input (from consumer groups in particular) on the type of data that will best incentivise behavioural change (for instance, information on energy use, money, CO2 etc). Getting the balance right between providing enough data to enable behavioural change, without overloading consumers, will be important.”
Here’s a product that you don’t choose to buy, but will be specifically designed to influence your behaviour and distributed to your home over the next ten years. You can always bung it in a drawer though.
Ethical issues abound in behaviour change policy – particularly when more sophisticated insights from psychology are applied. Whether people think there is a role for government to try and change behaviour will always vary from behaviour to behaviour, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the method used by government is regulation, taxes & incentives, information, advertising campaigns, or other forms of design.
* I can’t find the original review, but his words are cited in a later review by Bernardine Atkinson