Over the past several months, I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk to a number of people — among them Jan Chipchase of Nokia, Peter Whybrow of UCLA, and Caroline Hummels of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands — about the role of the designer in behavior change. Our conversations echoed the pent-up ambitions I’ve often heard from the young designers I teach and work with. They also reinforced my belief that 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. Institutions that drive the global social innovation agenda, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have shown an interest in this new approach, but many designers hesitate to pursue it. 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.
Questioning User-Centered Design
The central idea behind UCD is that designers create experiences based on a rich and nuanced understanding of observed and implied user needs over time. UCD grew out of a functional, usability-oriented philosophy that began in the workplace, but it has since expanded beyond the purely functional to take into account many dimensions of the user’s experience, including emotional needs and motivations.
Using the UCD approach, designers are one step removed from the action. We influence behavior and social practice from a distance through the products and services that we create based on our research and understanding of behavior. We place users at the center and develop products and services to support them. With UCD, designers are encouraged not to impose their own values on the experience.
The design media celebrates the UCD approach. Gary Hustwit’s recent film, Objectified, praises design icons like OXO and Flip for their well-planned simplicity. This and other popularized notions of design inform the business community so that it now considers “improving ease of use” — not aesthetics — as the primary value that design offers.
Designers like Naoto Fukasawa have taken the UCD method a step further. For him, the role of design is not just ease of use but invisibility. In other words, the design should fit so well with user needs and expectations that it “dissolves into behavior.” The user is unaware of the choices the designer has made. In fact, the user should be unaware of the existence of the designer at all.
Examples of the “disappearing designer” approach are products with greatly increased value, designed with exquisite sensitivity that fit beautifully into our lives, such as Fukasawa’s Muji line of products. They bolster our appreciation of everyday experiences and enrich our connection to other people. The best even achieve “heirloom status” or “ensoulment,” concepts rich with implications for sustainability. According to Erik Stolterman and Harold Nelson in their book, The Design Way, “There is a belief that if we put a lot of effort, focus, energy, carefulness in details, and so forth into the design and production of an artifact, we can ‘ensoul’ the artifact,” improving its personal value and longevity.
New Design Practices
While UCD has served the design community well, its neutral stance is being increasingly questioned. Issues of sustainability and social change are forcing designers to reconsider their detached role. Many are adopting new modes of direct engagement and influence. The Industrial Design Department at TU Delft, for example, has made this an explicit goal, requiring designers to embrace “societal transformation” as an integral part of their work. Students are reviewed on this basis at the end of each semester. And this kind of direct “design action” is not the only strategy emerging. The three that are gaining the most traction are what I call persuasion design, catalyst design, and performance design.
The UCD approach assumes that the primary role of the designer is to choreograph experiences that support the existing needs and motivations of the user, regardless of whether they align with the designer’s values. But many designers are no longer comfortable making this trade-off, particularly with the growing awareness that every decision we make exerts an influence of some kind, whether intended or not. An example of this is the glowing red kiosk that Bank of America recently rolled out. Cognitive behavior studies show that we are easily influenced by seemingly arbitrary elements of an experience such as color. In this instance, the color red has the effect of reducing our risk-taking behavior, which might be a positive — though likely unintended — consequence of this design choice in today’s economy.
Persuasion design embeds various forms of influence and “choice architectures” in products and services to maximize the likelihood of positive behavior change. It has been popularized by economists like Richard Thaler through books like Nudge and services like Mint and stickK.com, which provide countless examples of subtle cues that lead to major shifts in behavior. Economists in this camp suggest that psychology and other emotional factors play a primary role in the decision-making process and that we are easily and predictably influenced by factors that are often unaccounted for in a more deliberate UCD model. For instance, studies have shown that the average person will reduce their energy consumption by eight percent if a smiley face is included on their electrical bill to reinforce the behavior.
The challenge for many product designers is that persuasion design can seem full of tricks that diminish the integrity of the designer. But this approach focuses on direct outcomes, not implicit goals as is so often the case with the UCD approach. As designers, we don’t always have the courage or the opportunity to look honestly at the impact of the decisions we make. Persuasion design allows for that. At its best, this model starts with results and works backward from there. If paying teens with babies $1 a day not to get pregnant again proves to be effective (as is being shown in studies in Greensboro, N.C.), then is this bad design? A persuasive approach can open up the field of possible solutions beyond those that designers typically consider.
Assuming the role of the designer is not neutral, how do you engage a community, change behavior, and open up new possibilities without imposing your individual point of view?
Participatory design has been an accepted practice for some time. It implies a change in roles between the designer and the user. While participatory design can be used as a technique within a standard UCD process, social media technologies are allowing it to play a more transformative role. This practice has come to light through conversations with sustainable design expert Jennifer van der Meer, as well as the working practices of Jan Chipchase, the well-known design researcher for Nokia, and Melanie Edwards, a professor of social entrepreneurship at Stanford University. All three designers play active roles (albeit different ones) in engaging communities to change their own behavior using participatory design methods. They have become catalysts for additional change.
Chipchase and his team conduct ethnographic research throughout the world, focusing on emerging behavior related to mobile technologies, and they’ve pioneered several techniques. As a core element of UCD, ethnographic research is a type of participatory design that is typically used to actively engage users and reveal insights without overtly influencing the context of use. In an ongoing project called Nokia Open Labs, Jan and his team are flipping this traditional model on its head.
Instead of recruiting users anonymously in a given community, the Open Labs team takes participatory design out into the open — to the commons — as an active form of community engagement. Chipchase uses posters, events, and prizes to attract as large a cross section of the community as he can. In the process, he creates a network of influence, and the result is a type of social cohesion that builds community consensus around the idea of exploring new possibilities and embracing new futures. Yes, one of the objectives of these activities is to inform the design of Nokia’s products and services. But that may take years to realize. In the meantime, Chipchase achieves a more immediate and direct impact in the community through a change in mindset. He’s creating fertile ground for new social practices to emerge — in this case around mobile technologies.
Social media entrepreneur Melanie Edwards has taken this idea a step further by recruiting a team of “mobile agents” who stay embedded within a community over time to identify needs, raise awareness, and measure the positive impacts on behavior. Just as the guerrilla-design events that Chipchase creates have a lasting effect, Edwards’ mobile agents become internalized as an ongoing activity in the community. In turn, the community sees new possibilities to affect change and influence personal behavior and social practice on an ongoing basis. She has applied her approach to fighting dengue fever in the favelas of Brazil, most recently with measurable results in the increased use of bug repellent.
At frog, we saw firsthand how design can catalyze local change with Project Masiluleke, an effort to combat the high rate of HIV infections in South Africa through the use of mobile technologies. During the design process, we recruited young men in different communities in South Africa to help shape a new solution to HIV self-testing and by doing so did more than choreograph a better testing experience. We designed a system of participation. And as we’ve seen in past design research activities, participation breeds enthusiasm, action, and influence — in this case, a greater willingness to even consider the possibility of HIV testing (particularly among men who have never been tested despite infection rates approaching 40 percent in some regions). Also, in South Africa, where there is 90 percent mobile device penetration, ideas spread quickly when a small community of individuals is actively engaged. You can easily imagine this influence magnified through mobile services like TweetLuck, TweetsGiving, and foursquare — or MXit, in the case of rural South Africa. In this model, influence emerges directly from the design process itself and quickly spreads through social channels. New possibilities are created in the community long before any new products and services can be developed.
Central to behavior change is empathy — the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. Empathy helps us better understand consequences in two ways: We anticipate the effects of our actions on others, and we experience the emotions of others who have made similar choices. By simulating social situations in online networks such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, we can create interesting opportunities to interact with these consequences, particularly for decisions whose impacts are delayed or remote in the real world.
Jeff Bardzell, an assistant professor for the School of Informatics at Indiana University, spends a lot of time observing and participating in emerging behavior in virtual environments in order to empathize with the other users. Bardzell described to me how he built his reputation in World of Warcraft in a very atypical way — by providing social support to other players. He would hang out at the periphery and chat with people, providing the social glue while others focused on the adventure at hand. He quickly moved into a central role as part of a guild, influen-cing behavior in the environment by embodying the values he wanted to cultivate. To create this influence, he spent a lot of time designing his identity in a process he describes as analogous to writing fiction. He was creating a set of values for his characters that were different from those in his real life but in tune with those engaged in World of Warcraft. In short, he was participating in others’ values and belief systems in order to understand their needs. The designer can drive social change by embodying it — by performing.
I see a similar transformation in the work of Mouna Andraos, an interactive designer who specializes in electronics. Just as method actors transform themselves into a character by immersing themselves in the real world, Andraos engages and participates directly into urban environments in order to shift our perception and behavior. In one example, she created a portable cell phone recharging station that she pushed along city sidewalks like a street vendor. People gathered around her cart to take turns charging their phones. In the meantime, they shared cords and adapters and stories. Through this direct design intervention, Andraos encouraged cooperation and discussion in a public setting and by doing so changed the social dynamics and introduced new possibilities in a particular location. She embodies change directly through her role and the design artifacts associated with it.
Using Our Influence
It’s easy to pass on these early directions as somewhat removed from professional design practice, and I think it will take some time before these approaches truly migrate into our day-to-day work for clients. But these changes may come sooner than we think, especially when considering the urgency of the times and the growing awareness in a number of industries, including health care and finance, of the business value associated with meaningful behavior change.
I saw this while collaborating with a large insurance company last year. We completed a rich study in consumer behavior with low-income consumers on high-deductible plans. The study was followed up by a series of workshops in which our client got to work hands-on with consumers to shape a new set of possible solutions for building trust and early engagement around preventative care. My client was very excited by the possibility of using this work to influence the product direction for his company. But he realized that this would be a long and involved process, one which often does not produce the hoped-for outcome. The design process had raised his expectations for more immediate engagement — a process that he wants to continue and extend through active involvement using social platforms to reach communities and address obesity and other chronic ailments. Our last conversation ended with a discussion on how he could reorganize his strategy for the following year around a different set of design activities inspired by our work together.
Selling a new kind of design approach, particularly to corporate America, is never easy. But design firms have invested a lot of effort over the past few years to increase our influence in the business community. It’s time to use it.