Gadgets

Some interesting projects (Part 2) by Dan

Following on from Part 1, here are a couple more very interesting student projects linking design and behaviour. This time, both involve providing feedback on the impact or costs of everyday behaviours in order to get people to think. Tim Holley's Tio project, developed in response to a brief by Onzo, and described as 'A Light Switch to Help Children Save Energy' - deservedly won the HSBC Sustainability Prize at the Made in Brunel show:

Tio by Tim Holley "Children play a key role in reducing energy consumption due to the fact that they will be among the key decision-makers in the next 30 years. A simple way to engage and educate them is to concentrate on lighting, which accounts for up to 15% of electricity use in the home. The target market for Tio is 7-11 year-olds. This coincides with a period in primary education during which children begin to learn about the environment, energy and the effects that humans are having on the world. Tio [...]allow[s] children to demonstrate their knowledge of energy conservation to their family and encourage their role as ‘energy champions’ of the home. Tio has the potential to reduce lighting-use by up to 25%, resulting in an energy saving of up to 11% over a five year period...

Tio by Tim Holley The wall-mounted light switch[...] controls the lighting in the child’s room. Tio is soft and tactile, thus encourages user interaction. The character of ‘Tio’ displayed on the light switch encourages children to turn their lights off: Tio is happy when the lights have only been on for a short period of time. The longer they are left on, the angrier he becomes. This acts as an emotional reminder to turn the lights off...

The recommended ‘lights-on time’ is influenced by the child’s age, their daily activities and the time of day. [...] Information (‘lights-on’ time) is sent wirelessly from the wall switch to a computer. The computer programme allows the child to track their lighting-use performance over an extended period of time. The child takes care of a ‘virtual tree’ by moderating their lighting-use performance. This engages children to make a personal contribution to reducing energy consumption." Tio by Tim Holley

There are some clever ideas in there, including pester-power ("Make sure your parents turn off their lights too") and, from a Design with Intent toolkit point of view, some of the patterns you might be able to identify include affective engagement, self-monitoring, material properties and metaphors. There's some neat product detailing too, such as the way Tio's expressions are formed by different patterns of LEDs being illuminated under the translucent case.

Tim was a very useful and insightful tester of an earlier version of the Design with Intent toolkit back in autumn 2008 (as part of the pilot study reported in this co-authored paper [direct PDF link]) so it's great to see his project get such recognition. He's now working for Onzo in product R&D strategy and has some exciting and ambitious plans for the future: as a very talented young designer bringing together creative user-centred design and technology expertise with an eye for business strategy, I'm sure Tim will go far.

Lehman's Inheritance by Alexander KirchmannAcross London at Goldsmiths, Alexander Kirchmann's 'Lehman's Inheritance' project aims "to create and design products, that can help an individual to manage the [economic] crisis" such as this pint glass with cost markings (right). As Alexander puts it, "my products are the inheritance of the crash... By exposing people to their spending and also to their earnings my design is saving the owner money."

This is an incredibly simple project (at least the example that's illustrated - I'd be interested to know what other products Alexander modified / created). But the impact of exposing costs in this way - self-monitoring without any special equipment - could be very effective. In some of the recent workshops I've run with designers and students, similarly low-tech feedback concepts have been suggested for problems such as reducing water wastage (sinks with scales marked on them) and reducing overfilling of electric kettles.

More projects coming up in Part 3.

Images from the websites linked.

Some interesting projects (Part 1) by Dan

I've come across some interesting student projects at various shows and exhibitions this summer, some of which address the relationship between design and people's behaviour in different situations, and some of which explicitly aim to influence what people do and think. Here's a selection (Part 2 and Part 3 will follow). Displacement Engine by Jasmine CoxDisplacement Engine by Jasmine Cox

Jasmine Cox's Displacement Engine (Dundee) is "a navigational compass which gives you a little extra push to break away from routine, to wander the unexplored route... By pulling the slider closer and pushing it further away, the user learns to relax the need to be heading in an absolute direction. It allows the experience of a place and an outdoor space to absorb and distract them." The variability of the GPS signal means that the device perhaps won't always be 'reliable' - again, leading the user to explore and think for him or herself rather than being able to trust the device entirely. As Jasmine says here, it's somewhere between a sat-nav and dérive.

The question of how much the paths and routes we take (physically and in whatever metaphorical way you can think of) are controlled, or at least influenced, by what maps, devices, signs, etc are telling us is something that I've touched a few times with this blog over the years (e.g. here). Practical semiotics as wayfinding decision-making heuristics, maybe. As someone who grew up obsessively poring over maps and atlases, memorising road networks and coastlines, trying to visualise these unknown places (and drawing plenty of my own), I'm fascinated by the possibilities of sat-navs and navigational devices which structure our choices for us (as Adam Greenfield notes, perhaps even removing routes we 'don't want to be walking down'), even though (in practice) I very much dislike using them, and it horrifies me to become reliant on them. I've had the "ROAD ENDS 800 FEET" sign looming at me out of the night after following a calm voice's directions down a canyon track somewhere off Mulholland Drive. I've also spent happy afternoons driving across the Fens with a scruffy, annotated Philip's Navigator on my lap and no purpose in mind other than seeing interesting places, and I know which I prefer. Jasmine's project helps bridge that divide a bit, or at least twist it in a new and intriguing direction.

Jasmine's blog chronicling the development process is interesting, too: it's a great insight into the thought processes of how a project like this actually gets done, the decisions made at different stages, and how contingent the result is on conditions, insights and ideas earlier on. I expect something like this helps quite a lot with writing up a major project, though I know I always wrote the development story for my projects right at the end, when the various dead-ends and mistakes could be woven and re-ordered into something that sounded more professional, or so I hoped.

Source by Oliver CraigSource by Oliver Craig

Intended to encourage people to drink more water while out shopping or walking, without buying bottled water (and throwing away the bottle each time) Source by Oliver Craig (Loughborough) is essentially a modern take on the public water fountain (which has disappeared in many areas of the UK - how many new shopping centres include them?), combining it with the convenience of bottled water: using special bottles filled via a valve in the base, pedestrians could get free filtered tap water from a network of fountains, positioned at the entrances to participating stores who would also sell the bottles. Re-using the bottles earns the user points which can be spent in the participating stores.

From one point of view, free fountains which don't require a special bottle (i.e. no format lock-in) would be preferable (as so often in the UK, the concern is about "value for money" and vandalism rather than public need), but something like Source, with special bottles, the sale of which funds the scheme, could be a step in the right direction.

Ravensbourne's Kei Wada's How Long? Door Knob and Tag, along with his Whose Turn? Bottle Opener address behaviours in a shared environment such as a student house, applying design to 'bad habits'. The Bottle Opener (right, below) "is a playful bottle opener that can be spun to help make decisions" such as who has to take the rubbish out, or buy milk, in the format of an object associated with parties and fun (whether this would increase or decrease the likelihood that housemates adhere to the 'decision', I don't know!).

The Door Knob and Tag (left and middle, below) are timers for bathroom or shower doors - the knob is a replacement knob / lock for the door itself, while the tag can be hooked over the handle without actually enforcing a 'lock'. But the principle is the same: "inspired by the annoying occurrence of never knowing how long flatmate will take in the shower. The person who takes the shower sets the timer when he/she locks the door, so the other housemates do not have to knock on the door and disturb their ablutions. When time is up, it rings to let the housemates know the room is vacant." I particularly like Kei's statement that "the act of setting the timer now becomes an extension of the motions involved in locking the door" - whether or not this kind of action (which requires prior thought in terms of deciding how long to set it for) could become an unconscious habit or not would be interesting to study.

Aside from annoying your housemates less, the timers could also work to reduce water and energy usage, in terms of time spent in the shower: if the alarm ringing sound were annoying or loud enough to make it socially unacceptable to spend too long in there, then this is a kind of socially enforced shower timer.

Kei WadaKei WadaKei Wada

More projects coming up in Parts 2 and 3...

Images from the graduates' websites linked.

'Smart meters': some thoughts from a design point of view by Dan

Here's my (rather verbose) response to the three most design-related questions in DECC's smart meter consultation that I mentioned earlier today. Please do get involved in the discussion that Jamie Young's started on the Design & Behaviour group and on his blog at the RSA. Q12 Do you agree with the Government's position that a standalone display should be provided with a smart meter?

Meter in the cupboard

Free-standing displays (presumably wirelessly connected to the meter itself, as proposed in [7, p.16]) could be an effective way of bringing the meter 'out of the cupboard', making an information flow visible which was previously hidden. As Donella Meadows put it when comparing electricity meter placements [1, pp. 14-15] this provides a new feedback loop, "delivering information to a place where it wasn’t going before" and thus allowing consumers to modify their behaviour in response.

“An accessible display device connected to the meter” [2, p.8] or “series of modules connected to a meter” [3, p. 28] would be preferable to something where an extra step has to be taken for a consumer to access the data, such as only having a TV or internet interface for the information, but as noted [3, p.31] "flexibility for information to be provided through other formats (for example through the internet, TV) in addition to the provision of a display" via an open API, publicly documented, would be the ideal situation. Interesting 'energy dashboard' TV interfaces have been trialled in projects such as live|work's Low Carb Lane [6], and offer the potential for interactivity and extra information display supported by the digital television platform, but it would be a mistake to rely on this solely (even if simply because it will necessarily interfere with the primary reason that people have a television).

The question suggests that a single display unit would be provided with each meter, presumably with the householder free to position it wherever he or she likes (perhaps a unit with interchangeable provision for a support stand, a magnet to allow positioning on a refrigerator, a sucker for use on a window and hook to allow hanging up on the wall would be ideal - the location of the display could be important, as noted [4, p. 49]) but the ability to connect multiple display units would certainly afford more possibilities for consumer engagement with the information displayed as well as reducing the likelihood of a display unit being mislaid. For example, in shared accommodation where there are multiple residents all of whom are expected to contribute to a communal electricity bill, each person being aware of others' energy use (as in, for example, the Watt Watchers project [5]) could have an important social proof effect among peers.

Open APIs and data standards would permit ranges of aftermarket energy displays to be produced, ranging from simple readouts (or even pager-style alerters) to devices and kits which could allow consumers to perform more complex analysis of their data (along the lines of the user-led innovative uses of the Current Cost, for example [8]) - another route to having multiple displays per household.

Q13 Do you have any comments on what sort of data should be provided to consumers as a minimum to help them best act to save energy (e.g. information on energy use, money, CO2 etc)?

Low targets? This really is the central question of the whole project, since the fundamental assumption throughout is that provision of this information will “empower consumers” and thereby “change our energy habits” [3, p.13]. It is assumed that feedback, including real-time feedback, on electricity usage will lead to behaviour change: “Smart metering will provide consumers with tools with which to manage their energy consumption, enabling them to take greater personal responsibility for the environmental impacts of their own behaviour” [4, p.46]; “Access to the consumption data in real time provided by smart meters will provide consumers with the information they need to take informed action to save energy and carbon” [3, p.31].

Nevertheless, with “the predicted energy saving to consumers... as low as 2.8%” [4, p.18], the actual effects of the information on consumer behaviour are clearly not considered likely to be especially significant (this figure is more conservative than the 5-15% range identified by Sarah Darby [9]). It would, of course, be interesting to know whether certain types of data or feedback, if provided in the context of a well-designed interface could improve on this rather low figure: given the scale of the proposed roll-out of these meters (every household in the country) and the cost commitment involved, it would seem incredibly short-sighted not to take this opportunity to design and test better feedback displays which can, perhaps, improve significantly on the 2.8% figure.

(Part of the problem with a suggested figure as low as 2.8% is that it makes it much more difficult to defend the claim that the meters will offer consumers “important benefits” [3, p.27]. The benefits to electricity suppliers are clearer, but ‘selling’ the idea of smart meters to the public is, I would suggest, going to be difficult when the supposed benefits are so meagre.)

If we consider the use context of the smart meter from a consumer’s point of view, it should allow us to identify better which aspects are most important. What is a consumer going to do with the information received? How does the feedback loop actually occur in practice? How would this differ with different kinds of information?

Levels of display Even aside from the actual 'units' debate (money / energy / CO2), there are many possible types and combinations of information that the display could show consumers, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll divide them into three levels:

(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use / cost (self-monitoring) (2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs (social proof + self-monitoring) (3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions (simulation & feedforward + kairos + self-monitoring)

These are by no means mutually exclusive and I’d assume that any system providing (3) would also include (1), for example.

Nevertheless, it is likely that (1) would be the cheapest, lowest-common-denominator system to roll out to millions of homes, without (2) or (3) included – so if thought isn’t given to these other levels, it may be that (1) is all consumers get.

I've done mock-ups of the sort of thing each level might display (of course these are just ideas, and I'm aware that a) I'm not especially skilled in interface design, despite being very interested in it; and b) there's no real research behind these) in order to have something to visualise / refer to when discussing them.

Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use, cost
(1) Simple feedback on current (& cumulative) energy use and cost

I’ve tried to express some of the concerns I have over a very simple, cheap implementation of (1) in a scenario, which I’m not claiming to be representative of what will actually happen – but the narrative is intended to address some of the ways this kind of display might be useful (or not) in practice:

Jenny has just had a ‘smart meter’ installed by someone working on behalf of her electricity supplier. It comes with a little display unit that looks a bit like a digital alarm clock. There’s a button to change the display mode to ‘cumulative’ or ‘historic’ but at present it’s set on ‘realtime’: that’s the default setting.

Jenny attaches it to her kitchen fridge with the magnet on the back. It’s 4pm and it’s showing a fairly steady value of 0.5 kW, 6 pence per hour. She opens the fridge to check how much milk is left, and when she closes the door again Jenny notices the figure’s gone up to 0.7 kW but drops again soon after the door’s closed, first to 0.6 kW but then back down to 0.5 kW again after a few minutes. Then her two teenage children, Kim and Laurie arrive home from school – they switch on the TV in the living room and the meter reading shoots up to 0.8 kW, then 1.1 kW suddenly. What’s happened? Jenny’s not sure why it’s changed so much. She walks into the living room and Kim tells her that Laurie’s gone upstairs to play on his computer. So it must be the computer, monitor, etc.

Two hours later, while the family’s sitting down eating dinner (with the TV on in the background), Jenny glances across at the display and sees that it’s still reading 1.1 kW, 13 pence per hour.

“Is your PC still switched on, Laurie?” she asks. “Yeah, Mum,” he replies “You should switch it off when you’re not using it; it’s costing us money.” “But it needs to be on, it’s downloading stuff.”

Jenny’s not quite sure how to respond. She can’t argue with Laurie: he knows a lot more than her about computers. The phone rings and Kim puts the TV on standby to reduce the noise while talking. Jenny notices the display reading has gone down slightly to 1.0 kW, 12 pence per hour. She walks over and switches the TV off fully, and sees the reading go down to 0.8 kW.

Later, as it gets dark and lights are switched on all over the house, along with the TV being switched on again, and Kim using a hairdryer after washing her hair, with her stereo on in the background and Laurie back at his computer, Jenny notices (as she loads the tumble dryer) that the display has shot up to 6.5 kW, 78 pence per hour. When the tumble dryer’s switched on, that goes up even further to 8.5 kW, £1.02 per hour. The sight of the £ sign shocks her slightly – can they really be using that much electricity? It seems like the kids are costing her even more than she thought!

But what can she really do about it? She switches off the TV and sees the display go down to 8.2 kW, 98 pence per hour, but the difference seems so slight that she switches it on again – it seems worth 4 pence per hour. She decides to have a cup of tea and boils the kettle that she filled earlier in the day. The display shoots up to 10.5 kW, £1.26 pence per hour. Jenny glances at the display with a pained expression, and settles down to watch TV with her tea. She needs a rest: paying attention to the display has stressed her out quite a lot, and she doesn’t seem to have been able to do anything obvious to save money.

Six months later, although Jenny’s replaced some light bulbs with compact fluorescents that were being given away at the supermarket, and Laurie’s new laptop has replaced the desktop PC, a new plasma TV has more than cancelled out the reductions. The display is still there on the fridge door, but when the batteries powering the display run out, and it goes blank, no-one notices.

The main point I'm trying to get across there is that with a very simple display, the possible feedback loop is very weak. It relies on the consumer experimenting with switching items on and off and seeing the effect it has on the readings, which - while it will initially have a certain degree of investigatory, exploratory interest - may well quickly pall when everyday life gets in the way. Now, without the kind of evidence that’s likely to come out of research programmes such as the CHARM project [10], it’s not possible to say whether levels (2) or (3) would fare any better, but giving a display the ability to provide more detailed levels of information - particularly if it can be updated remotely - massively increases the potential for effective use of the display to help consumers decide what to do, or even to think about what they're doing in the first place, over the longer term.

Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

(2) Social / normative feedback on others’ energy use and costs

A level (2) display would (in a much less cluttered form than what I've drawn above!) combine information about 'what we're doing' (self-monitoring) with a reference, a norm - what other people are doing (social proof), either people in the same neighbourhood (to facilitate community discussion), or a more representative comparison such as 'other families like us', e.g. people with the same number of children of roughly the same age, living in similar size houses. There are studies going back to the 1970s (e.g. [11, 12]) showing dramatic (2 × or 3 ×) differences in the amount of energy used by similar families living in identical homes, suggesting that the behavioural component of energy use can be significant. A display allowing this kind of comparison could help make consumers aware of their own standing in this context.

However, as Wesley Schultz et al [13] showed in California, this kind of feedback can lead to a 'boomerang effect', where people who are told they're doing better than average then start to care less about their energy use, leading to it increasing back up to the norm. It's important, then, that any display using this kind of feedback treats a norm as a goal to achieve only on the way down. Schultz et al went on to show that by using a smiley face to demonstrate social approval of what people had done - affective engagement - the boomerang effect can be mitigated.

Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

(3) Feedforward, giving information about the future impacts of behavioural decisions

A level (3) display would give consumers feedforward [14] - effectively, simulation of what the impact of their behaviour would be (switching on this device now rather than at a time when there's a lower tariff - Economy 7 or a successor), and tips about how to use things more efficiently at the right moment (kairos), and in the right kind of environment, for them to be useful. Whereas 'Tips of the Day' in software frequently annoy users [15] because they get in the way of a user's immediate task, with something relatively passive such as a smart meter display, this could be a more useful application for them. The networked capability of the smart meter means that the display could be updated frequently with new sets of tips, perhaps based on seasonal or weather conditions ("It's going to be especially cold tonight - make sure you close all the curtains before you go to bed, and save 20p on heating") or even special tariff changes for particular periods of high demand ("Everyone's going to be putting the kettle on during the next ad break in [major event on TV]. If you're making tea, do it now instead of in 10 minutes; time, and get a 50p discount on your next bill").

Disaggregated data: identifying devices This level (3) display doesn't require any ability to know what devices a consumer has, or to be able to disaggregate electricity use by device. It can make general suggestions that, if not relevant, a consumer can ignore.

But what about actually disaggregating the data for particular devices? Surely this must be an aim for a really 'smart' meter display. Since [4, p.52] notes - in the context of discussing privacy - that “information from smart meters could... make it possible...to determine...to a degree, the types of technology that were being used in a property,” this information should clearly be offered to consumers themselves, if the electricity suppliers are going to do the analysis (I've done a bit of a possible mockup, using a more analogue dashboard style).

Disaggregated data dashboard

Whether the data are processed in the meter itself, or upstream at the supplier and then sent back down to individual displays, and whether the devices are identified from some kind of signature in their energy use patterns, or individual tags or extra plugs of some kind, are interesting technology questions, but from a consumer's point of view (so long as privacy is respected), the mechanism perhaps doesn't matter so much. Having the ability to see what device is using what amount of electricity, from a single display, would be very useful indeed. It removes the guesswork element.

Now, Sentec's Coracle technology [16] is presumably ready for mainstream use, with an agreement signed with Onzo [17], and ISE's signal-processing algorithms can identify devices down to the level of makes and models [18], so it's quite likely that this kind of technology will be available for smart meters for consumers fairly soon. But the question is whether it will be something that all customers get - i.e. as a recommendation of the outcome of the DECC consultation - or an expensive 'upgrade'. The fact that the consultation doesn't mention disaggregation very much worries me slightly.

If disaggregated data by device were to be available for the mass-distributed displays, clearly this would significantly affect the interface design used: combining this with, say a level (2) type social proof display could - even if via a website rather than on the display itself - let a consumer compare how efficient particular models of electrical goods are in use, by using the information from other customers of the supplier.

In summary, for Q13 - and I'm aware I haven't addressed the "energy use, money, CO2 etc" aspect directly - there are people much better qualified to do that - I feel that the more ability any display has to provide information of different kinds to consumers, the more opportunities there will be to do interesting and useful things with that information (and the data format and API must be open enough to allow this). In the absence of more definitive information about what kind of feedback has the most behaviour-influencing effect on what kind of consumer, in what context, and so on, it's important that the display be as adaptable as possible.

Q14 Do you have comments regarding the accessibility of meters/display units for particular consumers (e.g. vulnerable consumers such as the disabled, partially sighted/blind)?

The inclusive design aspects of the meters and displays could be addressed through an exclusion audit, applying something such as the University of Cambridge's Exclusion Calculator [19] to any proposed designs. Many solutions which would benefit particular consumers with special needs would also potentially be useful for the population as a whole - e.g. a buzzer or alarm signalling that a device has been left on overnight which isn't normally, or (with disaggregation capability) notifying the consumer that, say, the fridge has been left open, would be pretty useful for everyone, not just the visually impaired or people with poor memory.

It seems clear that having open data formats and interfaces for any device will allow a wider range of things to be done with the data, many of which could be very useful for vulnerable users. Still, fundamental physical design questions about the device - how long the batteries last for, how easy they are to replace for someone with poor eyesight or arthritis, how heavy the unit is, whether it will break if dropped from hand height - will all have an impact on its overall accessibility (and usefulness).

Thinking of 'particular consumers' more generally, as the question asks, suggests a few other issues which need to be addressed:

- A website-only version of the display data (as suggested at points in the consultation document) would exclude a lot of consumers who are without internet access, without computer understanding, with only dial-up (metered) internet, or simply not motivated or interested enough to check - i.e., it would be significantly exclusionary.

- Time-of-Use (ToU) pricing will rely heavily on consumers actually understanding it, and what the implications are, and changing their behaviour in accordance. Simply charging consumers more automatically, without them having good enough feedback to understand what's going on, only benefits electricity suppliers. If demand- or ToU-related pricing is introduced – “the potential for customer confusion... as a result of the greater range of energy tariffs and energy related information” [4, p. 49] is going to be significant. The design of the interface, and how the pricing structure works, is going to be extremely important here, and even so may still exclude a great many consumers who do not or cannot understand the structure.

- The ability to disable supply remotely [4, p. 12, p.20] will no doubt provoke significant reaction from consumers, quite apart from the terrible impact it will have on the most vulnerable consumers (the elderly, the very poor, and people for whom a reliable electricity supply is essential for medical reasons), regardless of whether they are at fault (i.e. non-payment) or not. There WILL inevitably be errors: there is no reason to suppose that they will not occur. Imagine the newspaper headlines when an elderly person dies from hypothermia. Disconnection may only occur in “certain well-defined circumstances” [3, p. 28] but these will need to be made very explicit.

- “Smart metering potentially offers scope for remote intervention... [which] could involve direct supplier or distribution company interface with equipment, such as refrigerators, within a property, overriding the control of the householder” [4, p. 52] - this simply offers further fuel for consumer distrust of the meter programme (rightly so, to be honest). As Darby [9] notes, "the prospect of ceding control over consumption does not appeal to all customers". Again, this remote intervention, however well-regulated it might be supposed to be if actually implemented, will not be free from error. “Creating consumer confidence and awareness will be a key element of successfully delivering smart meters” [4, p.50] does not sit well with the realities of installing this kind of channel for remote disconnection or manipulation in consumers' homes, and attempting to bury these issues by presenting the whole thing as entirely beneficial for consumers will be seen through by intelligent people very quickly indeed.

- Many consumers will simply not trust such new meters with any extra remote disconnection ability – it completely removes the human, the compassion, the potential to reason with a real person. Especially if the predicted energy saving to consumers is as low as 2.8% [4, p.18], many consumers will (perhaps rightly) conclude that the smart meter is being installed primarily for the benefit of the electricity company, and simply refuse to allow the contractors into their homes. Whether this will lead to a niche for a supplier which does not mandate installation of a meter - and whether this would be legal - are interesting questions.

Dan Lockton, Researcher, Design for Sustainable Behaviour Cleaner Electronics Research Group, Brunel Design, Brunel University, London, June 2009

[1] Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute, 1999.

[2] DECC. Impact Assessment of smart / advanced meters roll out to small and medium businesses, May 2009.

[3] DECC. A Consultation on Smart Metering for Electricity and Gas, May 2009.

[4] DECC. Impact Assessment of a GB-wide smart meter roll out for the domestic sector, May 2009.

[5] Fischer, J. and Kestner, J. 'Watt Watchers', 2008.

[6] DOTT / live|work studio. 'Low Carb Lane', 2007.

[7] BERR. Impact Assessment of Smart Metering Roll Out for Domestic Consumers and for Small Businesses, April 2008.

[8] O'Leary, N. and Reynolds, R. 'Current Cost: Observations and Thoughts from Interested Hackers'. Presentation at OpenTech 2008, London. July 2008.

[9] Darby S. The effectiveness of feedback on energy consumption. A review for DEFRA of the literature on metering, billing and direct displays. Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. April 2006.

[10] Kingston University, CHARM Project. 2009

[11] Socolow, R.H. Saving Energy in the Home: Princeton's Experiments at Twin Rivers. Ballinger Publishing, Cambridge MA, 1978

[12] Winett, R.A., Neale, M.S., Williams, K.R., Yokley, J. and Kauder, H., 1979 'The effects of individual and group feedback on residential electricity consumption: three replications'. Journal of Environmental Systems, 8, p. 217-233.

[13] Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J. and Griskevicius, V., 2007. 'The Constructive, Destructive and Reconstructive Power of Social Norms'. Psychological Science, 18 (5), p. 429-434.

[14] Djajadiningrat, T., Overbeeke, K. and Wensveen, S., 2002. 'But how, Donald, tell us how?: on the creation of meaning in interaction design through feedforward and inherent feedback'. Proceedings of the 4th conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques. ACM Press, New York, p. 285-291.

[15] Business of Software discussion community (part of 'Joel on Software'), '"Tip of the Day" on startup, value to the customer', August 2006

[16] Sentec. 'Coracle: a new level of information on energy consumption', undated.

[17] Sentec. 'Sentec and Onzo agree UK deal for home energy displays', 28th April 2008

[18] ISE Intelligent Sustainable Energy, 'Technology', undated

[19] Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. Inclusive Design Toolkit: Exclusion Calculator, 2007-8

Angular measure by Dan

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug A few years ago I went to a talk at the RCA by Alex Lee, president of OXO International. Apart from a statistic about how many bagel-slicing finger-chopping accidents happen each year in New York city, what stuck in my mind were the angled measuring jugs he showed us, part of the well-known Good Grips range of inclusively designed kitchen utensils.

The clever angled measuring scale - easily visible from above, as the jug is filled - seems such an obvious idea. As the patents (US 6,263,732; US 6,543,284) put it:

The indicia on an upwardly directed surface of the at least one ramp allows a user to look downwardly into the measuring cup to visually detect the volume level of the contents in the measuring cup, thereby eliminating the need to look horizontally at the cup at eye level.

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug

Now, this is an extremely simple way to improve the process of using a measuring cup / jug. It's good if you find it hard to bend down to look at the side of the vessel. It's helpful if you're standing over it, pouring stuff into it. It reduces parallax error - so potentially improving accuracy - and it also, simply, makes it easier to be accurate.

In this sense, then, improved / easier-to-read scales can influence user behaviour. I guess that's obvious: if it's easy to use something in a particular way, it's more likely that it will be used that way. It's a persuasive interface, in an extremely simple form.

Kenwood JK450/455 kettleSo, the question is, if I build an electric kettle with an angled scale like this, will it make it more likely that people use it more efficiently, i.e. fill it with the amount of water they need? If you're standing with the kettle under the tap, putting water in, is this kind of angled scale going to make it easier to put the right amount in?

Kenwood sells a kettle which has angled scale markings, the JK450/455 (right), though they're implemented differently to (and more cheaply than) the OXO method, simply being printed on the side of the kettle body. It's still a clever idea. This review suggests an energy saving of around 10% compared with Kenwood's claimed "up to 35%" but of course this saving very much depends on how inefficient the user was previously.

I think something along the lines of either the OXO or Kenwood designs (but not infringing the patents!) is worth an extended trial later this year - watch this space.

OXO Good Grips Mini Angled Measuring Jug Thanks to Michael for the Buckfast.

Exploiting the desire for order by Dan

I met a lot of remarkable people in Finland, and some of them - they know who they are - have given me a lot to think about, in a good way, about lots of aspects of life, psychology and its relation to design. Thanks to everyone involved for a fantastic time: I was kind-of aware of the idea of Csíkszentmihályi's flow before, but something about the combination of week-long permanent sunlight, very little sleep, great hospitality and a hell of a lot of interesting, clever people, brought home to me the reality of the phenomenon, or one quite like it. A couple of the people it was great to meet were Loove Broms and Magnus Bång of the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, who have worked (among other things) on innovative ways to provide users with feedback on their energy use, beyond 'traditional' interfaces. We've seen a few of the Institute's STATIC! projects before on the blog before, but it was very interesting to be introduced to some more recent concepts from the AWARE project. They're all well worth a look, but one in particular intrigues me, primarily because of how simple the idea is:

Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII
The Puzzle Switch - designed by Loove Broms and Karin Ehrnberger. One type is shown above; below, a different design in 'On' (left) and 'Off' (right) positions.Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII   Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII

The AWARE Puzzle Switch - lower part of this page - really is as simple as a a series of light switches where it is very obvious when they are switched on, and which "encourage people to switch off their light, by playing with people’s built-in desire for order."

Where else can we use this idea? The Puzzle Switch does it safely, in a way that, for example, having a lever hanging off the wall at a crazy angle (which would equally suggest to people that they 'put it right') would not. Is the key somehow to make it clearer to users that high-energy usage states are not 'defaults' in any way? That accompanying any energy use, there needs to be some kind of visible disorder (as with the irritating flashing standby lights) to cause users to notice and consciously to assess what's going on?

Lights reminding you to turn things off by Dan

Standby indicators - Duncan DrennanStandby indicators - Duncan Drennan Duncan Drennan, who writes the very thoughtful Art of Engineering blog, notes something extremely interesting: standby lights, if they're annoying/visible enough, can actually motivate users to switch the device off properly:

Our DVD player has (to me) the most irritating standby light that I have ever seen on any device. When on, the light is constantly illuminated, but when in standby the light flashes continuously (at a slow rate). This drives me mad, but results in an interesting action – it causes me to turn it off at the plug when I am not using it (which is most of the time). Suddenly one little flashing light has resulted in more energy saving than having no light.

As he notes, designing a system with an indicator which actually draws power to inform you of... 'nothing' ... actually may not be as inefficient as a from-first-principles efficiency design process would suggest, because of that human reaction. Similarly to the Static! project's Power-Aware Cord, you may need to use a little extra energy to make people realise how much they're using without thinking. Although:

There is one problem with this, it only works on people who care. If I did not care about saving energy, then I would just leave the laptop plugged in and the DVD player on. That means that you have to consider how your users will handle this kind of subtle feedback and determine whether turning the light off, or encouraging unplugging, results in more energy savings.

Sometimes the most obvious design decisions may not be the ones which result in the greatest energy saving.

This is a very astute observation indeed.

Are there any other examples where this sort of effect can be usefully employed? How similar is this to the 'useful landmine' concept where you deliberately force/provoke/annoy yourself into taking actions you otherwise wouldn't bother/would forget to do?

Full, tilt by Dan Lockton

Balancing bowls. Image from Royal VKB websiteJan Hoekstra's Balancing Bowls for Royal VKB (via Boing Boing) are an interesting 'portion control/guidance' solution - as Cory Doctorow puts it:

The tilt is tiny, all of 3 degrees, and the net effect is very satisfying -- you gradually add snacks to the "light" side until it makes a soft and very definite *click* as it falls.

This kind of 'very mild persuasion' example is a great demonstration of how a simple physical property can be used to inform the user - the conventional modern solution in this area might be to monitor users' behaviour, e.g. by weighing the amount of food put into the bowl, and then display it electronically, with an indication of whether a pre-set portion size has been exceeded. But these bowls simply tilt, with no electronics or moving parts (other than the bowl itself) necessary. It's an elegant poka-yoke style solution.

Portion perception (and unit bias) is a fascinating area - we've looked briefly at it a few times - but I hope to explore it in more detail in due course, along with a review of Dr Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating - in a post about how cognitive biases could be used in designing behavioural change.

Do you really need to print that? by Dan Lockton

Do you really need to print that?
Do you really need to print that?
This is not difficult to do, once you know how. Of course, it's not terribly useful, since a) most people don't read the display on a printer unless an error occurs, or b) you're only likely to see it once you've already sent something to print.

Is this kind of very, very weak persuasion - actually worthwhile? From a user's point of view, it's less intrusive than, say, a dialogue box that asks "Are you sure you want to print that? Think of the environment" every time you try to print something (which would become deeply irritating for many users), but when applied thoughtfully, as (in a different area of paper consumption) in Pete Kazanjy's These Come From Trees initiative, or even in various e-mail footers* (below), there may actually be some worthwhile influence on user behaviour. It's not 'micropersuasion' in Steve Rubel's sense, exactly, but there is some commonality.

Please consider the environment

I'm thinking that addressing the choices users make when they decide to print (or not print) a document or email could be an interesting specific example to investigate as part of my research, once I get to the stage of user trials. How effective are the different strategies in actually reducing paper/energy/toner/fuser/ink consumption and waste generation? Would better use of 'Printer-friendly' style sheets for webpages save a lot of unnecessary reprints due to cut-off words and broken layouts? Should, say, two pages per sheet become the default when a dicument goes above a certain number of pages? Should users be warned if widows (not so much orphans) are going to increase the number of sheets needed, or should the leading be automatically adjusted (by default) to prevent this? What happens if we make it easier to avoid printing banner ads and other junk? What happens if we make the paper tray smaller so the user is reminded of just how much paper he/she is getting through? What happens if we include a display showing the cost (financially) of the toner/ink, paper and electricity so far each day, or for each user? What happens if we ration paper for each user and allow him or her to 'trade' with other users? What happens if we give users a 'reward' for reaching targets of reducing printer usage, month-on-month? And so on. (The HP MOPy Fish - cited in B J Fogg's Persuasive Technology - is an example of the opposite intention: a system designed to encourage users to print more, by rewarding them.)

Printing is an interesting area, since it allows the possibility of testing out both software and hardware tactics for causing behaviour change, which I'm keen to do.

Water on the membrane by Dan Lockton

Smart sink, Cranfield University and Electrolux
The Cranfield/Electrolux Smart Sink - photo from Trespassers by Ed van Hinte and Conny Bakker. Ten years ago, teams from Cranfield University and Electrolux Industrial Design collaborated on an 'eco-kitchen', a family of related concepts for a kitchen of the future. Part of the intention was to demonstrate that eco-design could be a positive spur to innovation, rather than merely an 'environmental cost-cutting' exercise. The project is explained in this article from The Journal of Sustainable Product Innovation [PDF] (starting on page 51).

What's especially interesting from the architectures of control / design for behaviour change perspective is the Smart Sink (above), which, very simply, uses a membrane for the bowl, expanding (treefrog-vocal-sac-like,) as it's filled, thus making it much more easy to control the amount of water being used - along with some other neat features in the same vein:

The 'Smart Sink' is the centre of household water management. A membrane sink expands to minimise water use and a smart tap switches from jet to spray to mist to suit customer needs. A consumption meter and a water-level indicator in the main basin gives feedback on rates and level of water usage. Household grey water is managed visibly by an osmosis purifier and a cyclone filter located in the pedestal, and linked to the household grey water storage.

We've looked before at taps (faucets) with built-in water meters, in various forms, but the Smart Sink concept goes beyond this in terms of assisting the user control his or her own water use. Gentle persuasion or guidance rather than external control, but guidance that gives the user helpful feedback. Ten years later: are membrane sinks available? Why not? What else could be done in this line of thinking?

Biting Apple by Dan Lockton

BBC News headline, 28 September 2007 Interesting to see the BBC's summary of the current iPhone update story: "Apple issues an update which damages iPhones that have been hacked by users". I'm not sure that's quite how Apple's PR people would have put it, but it's interesting to see that whoever writes those little summaries for the BBC website found it easiest to sum up the story in this way. This is being portrayed as Apple deliberately, strategically damaging the phones, rather than an update unintentionally causing problems with unlocked or modified phones.

Regardless of what the specific issue is here, and whether unmodified iPhones have also lost functionality because of some problem with the update, can't we just strip out all this nonsense? How many people who wanted an iPhone also wanted to be locked in to AT&T or whatever the local carrier will be in each market? Anyone? Who wants to be locked in to anything? What a waste of technical effort, sweat and customer goodwill: it's utterly pathetic.

This is exactly what Fred Reichheld's 'Bad profits' idea calls out so neatly:

Whenever a customer feels misled, mistreated, ignored, or coerced, then profits from that customer are bad. Bad profits come from unfair or misleading pricing. Bad profits arise when companies save money by delivering a lousy customer experience. Bad profits are about extracting value from customers, not creating value.

If bad profits are earned at the expense of customers, good profits are earned with customers’ enthusiastic cooperation. A company earns good profits when it so delights its customers that they willingly come back for more—and not only that, they tell their friends and colleagues to do business with the company.

What is the question that can tell good profits from bad? Simplicity itself: How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?

If your iPhone's just turned into the most stylish paperweight in the office, are you likely to recommend it to a colleague?

More to the point, if Apple had moved - in the first place - into offering telecom services to go with the hardware, with high levels of user experience and a transparent pricing system, how many iPhone users and Mac evangelists wouldn't have at least considered changing?

On the level by Dan Lockton

Patent image of Tilt sensor
A tilt-detector from this 1984 US patent, with intended application on a packing box. The liquid detection stickers in mobile phones, which allow manufacturers and retailers to ascertain if a phone has got wet, and thus reject warranty claims (whether judiciously/appropriately or not), seem to be concerning a lot of people worldwide. Around a quarter of this site's visitors are searching for information on this subject, and the comments on last October's post on the subject contain a wealth of useful experience and advice.

This current thread on uk.legal.moderated goes into more depth on the issue, and how the burden of proof works in this case (at least in the UK). While informed opinion seems to be that the stickers will only change colour when actual liquid is present within the phone, rather than mere moisture or damp, this may well include condensation forming within the casing, as well as the more obvious dropping-of-phone-into-puddle and so on. The main point of contention seems to be that the sticker may change colour (perhaps gradually) and the phone continue working perfectly, but when an unrelated problem occurs and the phone is taken in for repairs under warranty, the presence of the 'voided' sticker may be used as a universal warranty get-out even if the actual problem is something different.

Tilt detection Along these lines, one of the posts tells of a similarly interesting design tactic - tilt-detectors on larger hardware:

30 years in the IT industry and associated customer service tells me they are trying it on and most people buy it. In the olden days, hardware used to come with a similar red dot system indicating the kit had been tilted more than 45 degrees and the manufacturers claimed the kit could not be installed and had to be written off.

Of course, 99.9% of the time the kit was fine, but they had a get-out from a warranty claim or so they thought. When the buyers tried to claim on their insurance or against the transport companies insurers the loss adjusters got involved and invariably the kit was installed and worked fine for years rather than the insurers paying out.

In some cases, of course, tilt-detectors were (are still?) necessary in this role. A piece of equipment with multiple vertically cantilevered PCBs laden with heavy components - relays, for example - might well be damaged if the PCBs were tilted away from the vertical. Certainly some devices with small moving coil components would seem as though they may be damaged by being turned upside down, for example. (Do the ultra-fine damper wires on an aperture-grille CRT monitor such as a Trinitron need to be kept in a particular orientation when handling the monitor?)

This patent, published in 1984, from which the above images were extracted, describes an especially clever 'interlock' system using two liquid-based detectors arranged so that if the device/package is tilted and then tilted back again, the second detector will then be triggered:

...it is desirable that the tilt detectors not be resettable. In particular, it must be possible to combine a package with at least a pair of the tilt detectors such that attempting to reset one would cause the other to be tilted beyond its pre-determined maximum angle so that the total combination would always afford an indication that the tilt beyond that allowed had been effected.

This is something of a poka-yoke - but as with the phone liquid-detection stickers, it's being used to detect undesirable customer/handler behaviour rather than actually to prevent it happening. Other than making a package too heavy to tilt, I am not sure exactly how we might design something which actually prevents the tilting problem, aside from rectifying the design problem which makes tilting a problem in the first place (even filling the airspace in the case with non-conductive, low-density foam might help here).

But there's certainly a way the tilt-detector could be improved to help and inform the handler rather than simply 'condemn' the device. For example, it could let out an audible alarm if the package or device is tilted, say, 20 degrees, to allow the handler to rectify his or her mistake before reaching the damaging 45 degrees, whilst still permanently changing colour if 45 degrees is reached. In the long run, it would probably help educated users about how to handle the device rather than just 'punishing' them for an infraction. I'm sure that mercury-switch (or whatever the current non-toxic equivalent is) alarms have been used in this way (e.g. on a vending machine), but how often are they used to help the user rather than alert security?

The patent description goes on to mention using tamper-evident methods of attaching the detectors to the device or packaging - this is another interesting area, which I am sure we will cover at some point on the blog.

Dishonourable discharge? by Dan Lockton

Nokia phone with battery visible Long overdue, I'm currently reading Bruce Schneier's excellent Beyond Fear, and realising that in many ways, security thinking overlaps with architectures of control: the goal of so many systems is to control users' behaviour or to deny the user the ability to perform certain actions. I'll post a fuller comparison and analysis in due course, but one example Bruce mentions in passing seemed worth blogging separately:

Nokia spends about a hundred times more money per phone on battery security than on communications security. The security system senses when a consumer uses a third-party battery and switches the phone into maximum power-consumption mode; the point is to ensure that consumers buy only Nokia batteries.

Nokia is prepared to spend a considerable amount of money solving a security problem that it perceives - it loses revenue if customers buy batteries from someone else - even though that solution is detrimental to consumers.

As a battery authentication method, this is more subtle than the systems we've looked at before, which actually refuse to allow the device to operate if a non-original-manufacturer battery (or perhaps charger) is used.

Nokia's system attempts to persuade the customer that the new (cheaper) battery he or she has bought is "no good" by making the phone discharge the battery more quickly - in an extremely underhanded way. From the point of view of the (uninformed) consumer, though, it makes Nokia look good. "Oh, that cheap battery I bought is rubbish, it doesn't seem to hold its charge. Nokia make them so much better, guess I should stick to them in future."

But if the Nokia batteries were genuinely 'better' than the cheap replacement ones, surely this kind of underhanded tactic wouldn't be necessary?

P.S. I have no idea whether this Nokia 'trick' is real/common/still used, as Beyond Fear has no references, or whether other manufacturers do something similar (as opposed to outright battery authentication-and-denial). I'll ask a friend at Nokia.

P.P.S. Jason Kottke also noted this tactic back in 2003.

Making energy use visible by Dan Lockton

Harry Ward Orb
Photos courtesy of Harry Ward We've looked recently at water taps with meters built in, the thinking being the 'speedometer' approach to shaping users' behaviour - making users aware of the scale/rate/level of some activity should cause them to adjust that behaviour.

A number of projects and initiatives also apply this approach to electricity use - one of the most explicitly 'designerly' being Wattson - but there are a variety of different approaches, a handful of which I've reviewed here.

Harry Ward: Orb Energy Monitor Recent design graduate Harry Ward's Orb energy monitor (above and below) is especially attractive: a toroidal inductor is clipped around the cable being measured, and transmits data wirelessly to the Orb itself, a hand-held unit which glows different colours depending on the power being drawn.

The display on the Orb could show the user the direct electricity cost and CO2 emissions equivalent, as well as the actual power being used and cumulative energy (kWh) used over a period. Harry has applied for patents and is looking to license the design in order to get the Orb into production.

UPDATE (27.vii): The Orb Energy Monitor website is now online with more information, images and contact details.

Harry Ward Orb
Harry Ward Orb
Images courtesy of Harry Ward

Ambient Devices: Energy Joule The Energy Joule / Home Joule from Ambient Devices of New York (found via Michael Jefferson's blog) shares some similarities with Harry's Orb, but addresses a different problem: demand response, rather than actual consumption reduction.

The Energy Joule is designed to remain in situ, plugged into a wall socket, and it glows different colours (red, yellow, green) according to the price of electricity at the time - the idea being to encourage users to shift discretionary electricity use to times when there is less demand, and help the electricity generators balance their loads (an increasing problem), in return for 'rewards'. As part of a wireless network (the Ambient Infocast Network - this is getting closer to everyware), the unit also displays other information such as temperature, weather forecast, and so on - and it's the community's electricity usage which is generally intended to be displayed, rather than the individual user's.

Ambient Devices Energy Joule
Image from Ambient Devices' website

(Ambient Devices also have a product called the Energy Orb - no relation to Harry's product above - a version of their general Orb specifically locked-in to displaying the same electricity price/demand level as the Energy Joule.)

Gustafsson & Gyllenswärd: Power Aware Cord Stemming originally from the Static! project at Sweden's Interactive Institute, the Power Aware Cord by Anton Gustafsson and Magnus Gyllenswärd, is illuminated proportionally to the power being drawn:

Take the use of an everyday iron. A microprocessor within the Power Aware Cord immediately detects and converts the amount of energy used to power the appliance into a phosphorous thread that glows. The modern blue light intensifies and diminishes relative to energy flow. Increase the temperature of the iron and the cable will instantly glow brighter.

The versatile cord can be built-in or connected to the modern electrical appliance both directly or in distribution board format. Turn the appliance on and the flow of energy lights up the cord with a decorative glow.

This is an interesting approach: it allows users to be immediately aware of the devices which are consuming power, perhaps on standby, and is visually distinctive enough to make it difficult to ignore. As with all these products, extra energy is used to power the monitoring and display (lighting, etc), but this amount is small compared with the amount that may be saved if users do adjust their behaviour significantly.

Power Aware Cord Power Aware Cord
Images from Power Aware Cord website

Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switch Kieva Mussington, a product design graduate from the University of Brighton, has specifically addressed the problem of devices left on standby, with the Energy Monitor Switch:

This product concept helps reduce wasted electricity in the home caused by appliances that have inefficient standby modes by making users aware of how much energy they use. Further developments include a light switch and plug socket disabling device that will make it easier for the user to save electricity.

Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switches Kieva Mussington: Energy Monitor Switches
Details and images from the University's 2007 design graduate directory

I've made the observation before on the blog that without undertstanding what being 'on standby' involves for many devices, a lot of users assume that because just that one red LED is lit, that's all the power being used. Anything which can bust the myth by showing that significant power is still being used is very much worthwhile, although changing the way that standby modes operate would ultimately be preferable (I'm dubious about the moves to ban standby functions entirely, for reasons explained here).

But do these kinds of things actually work in reducing energy use? Eric and Alex let me know about an ongoing research project by Jordan Fischer, Sarah Jones and John Kestner at the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago in which methods of making users aware of their energy use are tried out:

They wired up a house to constantly monitor energy consumption in real time to increase awareness... no one knows how users might respond unless the concepts are tried out and feedback is gathered. What my classmates found when they prototyped their system was that the housemates (who are concerned about sustainability if not acutely aware of their impact) ended up turning the system into a game. “How low can we get the number to go?” Not sure how such a game would work for long term behavior change yet, but who knows. If it’s fun, it might work.

Alex, a participant in one of the experiments, sheds some more light on the 'game' aspects:

One thing that I never expected was that I tried a couple of time to see not only how low we could get the number, but also how high. I am not sure either what the more long term effects of such a game might have been, but thinking back, as with these water meters, it is difficult to improve your consumption habits once the obvious sources of waste are eliminated. Or, if it is a game, are we trying to beat our own averages those of our friends or neighbors or some ideal rate? What are we to compare to, A Bill McDonough Zero Waste standard or incremental improvement?

It will be interesting to see the results of the project as it progresses - one intriguing aspect is the Watt Watchers trial [PDF link], where a network of light bulbs dims if too many are left on, and thus 'coaches' the user not to leave lights on unnecessarily:

All the light bulbs in a house have special collars that find each other via a mesh network and say whether they’re on or off. Then they all decide based on how many of them are on whether to dim to remind the occupant that too many things might be on.

Jordan Fischer, Watt Watchers
Image from Watt Watchers summary [PDF]

Overall, there are some very interesting products and projects in this field of 'making energy use visible', and if it does have the potential to influence user behaviour significantly, more widespread adoption must be likely in the years ahead.

Another charging opportunity? by Dan Lockton

A knife blade cutting the cable of a generic charger/adaptor Last month, an Apple patent application was published describing a method of "Protecting electronic devices from extended unauthorized use" - effectively a 'charging rights management' system.

New Scientist and OhGizmo have stories explaining the system; while the stated intention is to make stolen devices less useful/valuable (by preventing a thief charging them with unauthorised chargers), readers' comments on both stories are as cynical as one would expect: depending on how the system is implemented, it could also prevent the owner of a device from buying a non-Apple-authorised replacement (or spare) charger, or from borrowing a friend's charger, and in this sense it could simply be another way of creating a proprietary lock-in, another way to 'charge' the customer, as it were.

It also looks as though it would play havoc with clever homebrew charging systems such as Limor Fried's Minty Boost (incidentally the subject of a recent airline security débâcle) and similar commercial alternatives such as Mayhem's Anycharge, although these are already defeated by a few devices which require special drivers to allow charging.

Reading Apple's patent application, what is claimed is fairly broad with regard to the criteria for deciding whether or not re-charging should be allowed - in addition to charger-identification-based methods (i.e. the device queries the charger for a unique ID, or the charger provides it, perhaps modulated with the charging waveform) there are methods involving authentication based on a code provided to the original purchaser (when you plug in a charger the device has never 'seen' before, it asks you for a security code to prove that you are a legitimate user), remote disabling via connection to a server, or even geographically-based disabling (using GPS: if the device goes outside of a certain area, the charging function will be disabled).

All in all, this seems an odd patent. Apple's (patent attorneys') rather hyperbolic statement (Description, 0018) that:

These devices (e.g., portable electronic devices, mechanical toys) are generally valuable and/or may contain valuable data. Unfortunately, theft of more popular electronic devices such as the Apple iPod music-player has become a serious problem. In a few reported cases, owners of the Apple iPod themselves have been seriously injured or even murdered.

...is no doubt true to some extent, but if the desire is really to make a stolen iPod worthless, then I would have expected Apple to lock each device in total to a single user - not even allowing it to be powered up without authentication. Just applying the authentication to the charging method seems rather arbitrary. (It's also interesting to see the description of "valuable data": surely in the case that Apple is aware that a device has been stolen, it could provide the legitimate owner of the device with all his or her iTunes music again, since the marginal copying cost is zero. And if the stolen device no longer functions, the RIAA need not panic about 'unauthorised' copies existing! But I doubt that's even entered into any of the thinking around this.)

Whether or not the motives of discouraging theft are honourable or worthwhile, there is the potential for this sort of measure to cause signficant inconvenience and frustration for users (and second-hand buyers, for example - if the device doesn't come with the original charger or the authentication code) along with incurring extra costs, for little real 'theft deterrent' benefit. How long before the 'security' system is cracked? A couple of months after the device is released? At that point it will be worth stealing new iPods again.

(Many thanks to Michael O'Donnell of PDD for letting me know about this!)

Previously on the blog: Friend or foe? Battery authentication ICs

UPDATE: Freedom to Tinker has now picked up this story too, with some interesting commentary.

Smile, you're on Countermanded Camera by Dan Lockton

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora's website We've looked before at a number of technologies and products aimed at 'preventing' photography and image recording in some way, from censoring photographs of 'copyrighted content' and banknotes, to Georgia Tech's CCD-flooding system.

Usually these systems are about locking out the public, or removing freedoms in some way (a lot of organisations seem to fear photography), but a few 'fightback' devices have been produced, aiming to empower the individual against others (e.g. Hewlett-Packard's 'paparazzi-proof' camera) or against authority (e.g. the Backflash system intended to render a car number plate unreadable when photographed by a speed camera). The field of sousveillance - lots of interesting articles by Régine Debatty here - is also a 'fightback' in a parallel vein.

Taking the fightback idea further, into the realms of everyware, Miquel Mora's IDentity Protection System, shown last month at the RCA's Great Exhibition (many thanks to Katrin Svabo Bech for the tip-off), aims to offer the individual a way to control how his or her image is recorded - again, Régine from We Make Money Not Art:

With IDPS (IDentity Protection System), interaction designer Miquel Mora is proposing a new way to protect our visual identity from the invasion of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. He had a heap of green stickers that could stick to your jacket. Or anywhere else. The sticker blurred your image on the video screen.

"With the IDPS project I wanted to sparkle [sic.] debate about all the issues related to identity privacy," explains Miquel. "Make people think about how our society has become a complete surveillance machine. Our identities have already been stored as data in many servers ready to be tracked. And our self image is our last resort. So we really need tools to protect our privacy. We need tools that can allow us to hide or reveal our visual image. We must have the control over it."

"For example in one scenario a girl is wearing a tooth jewellery with IDPS technology embedded. So when she smiles she reveals it and it triggers the camera to protect her. With IDPS users can always feel comfortable, knowing that with a simple gesture like smiling, they are in control. The IDPS technology could be embedded in all kind of items, from simple badges to clothes or jewellery. For the working prototype I'm using Processing to track the stickers and pixelate the image around when it founds one."

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora's website

While the use of stickers or similar tags (why not RFID?) which can be embedded in items such as jewellery is a very neat idea aesthetically, I am not sure what economic/legal incentive would drive CCTV operators or manufacturers to include something such as IDPS in their systems and respect the wishes of users. CCTV operators generally do not want anyone to be able to exclude him or herself from being monitored and recorded, whether that's by wearing a hoodie or a smart black hat with maroon ribbon. Or indeed a veil of some kind.

Something which actively fought back against unwanted CCTV or other surveillance intrusion, such as reversing the Georgia Tech system in some way (e.g. detecting the CCD of a digital security camera, and sending a laser to blind it temporarily, or perhaps some kind of UV strobe) would perhaps be more likely to 'succeed', although I'm not sure how legal it would be. Still, with RCA-quality interaction designers homing in on these kinds of issues, I think we're going to see some very interesting concepts and solutions in the years ahead...

Changing behaviour: water meter taps by Dan Lockton

Three student projects on show at Made in Brunel earlier this month took the idea of moving the function of a water meter to the tap (faucet) itself, to act as a 'speedometer' and thus encourage users to reduce their water usage (or wastage). The three projects, while similar, have slightly different emphases: Tap Meter, by Henry Ellis-Paul

Henry Ellis-Paul's Tap Meter, above, which was also exhbited at the Ideal Home Show, shows the user the amount of water used in that particular instance. As he says, "this information changes the user's habits and behaviour through involvement and emotional attachment to the product" - it could also presumably be used to measure out the amount of water used for recipes or to ensure that we each drink the right amount each day.

Water & Energy Saving Tap, by Stefan Grosvenor

Stefan Grosvenor's Water and energy saving tap (above) additionally addresses electricity usage due to hot water, combining both water and electricity usage in an 'equation' to make users more aware of the total impact they have each time they turn the tap. The project was intended as a future concept for the Red Cross, to be used as part of a campaign which would "both help others less fortunate, as well as educating users with their potential."

Squirt, by Meghana Vaidyanathan

Meghana Vaidyanathan's Squirt (above) is specifically intended for children, hence the bright colours and anthropomorphism of the design:

At our current consumption rate, it is predicted that we could use up to 40% more water in the next 20 years. Squirt is an awareness-based water meter designed for children aged 3 to 6 and aims to instil conservational etiquette in the mind of a child. Squirt has a child-friendly interface and displays the amount of water consumed over a period of time from the tap to which it is attached.

The term "conservational etiquette" is interesting - how easy is it to instil a social constraint of this kind in western societies where the resource is (apparently, at least) in abundance? Most of us have a conservational etiquette regarding money, and thus many 'speedometer'-type devices - such as Wattson - incorporate a display translating the energy usage into its financial consequences.

This could, of course, go further - as Crosbie Fitch comments,

[Car] fuel economy would probably be greatly improved if there was a UI that could simulate the consumptive clink of a particular denomination of coin (at the users’ choice).

and:

I'm not sure how many owners of gas guzzlers would like to enable the sounding of a cash register ding each time 10 pence worth of fuel had been consumed.

Just imagine the cacophony whenever the Chelsea tractor driver uses kick-down.

Key issue by Dan Lockton

SonyEricsson W880i Is this simply poor design or a deliberate feature? A friend tells me of his irritation with his Sony Ericsson W880i's 'internet' key, which is positioned such that it frequently gets pressed accidentally when pressing the buttons above and below it - "three or four times a day", he says - and, to avoid incurring internet charges, needs to be immediately cancelled.

Clearly any device with many functions and small keys is always going to have some issues with accidental key-presses, but when a single accidental key-press can actually cost the user money and the user not necessarily notice it straight away, this would seem to be a bad choice of layout. Is the 'internet-via-a-single-key-press' such a valuable feature that replacing it with, say, a process involving two presses (e.g. a confirmation in addition to the original press) would inconvenience users more?

It seems perhaps unlikely that this is an intentional architecture of control to increase revenue for the network operators by causing accidental connections, but the fact that my friend suggested this - straight off - as the reason for the design, demonstrates how, as users of technology, we're increasingly aware and suspicious of architectures of control in the products and systems around us, even if we don't have a full grasp of the concept in a wider context.

Who serves whom by Dan Lockton

Joel Johnson:

Stop buying products that serve any other master than you.

(via Boing Boing )

Bruce Schneier also wrote something along similar lines last year, though the context was different:

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive.

I mentioned before that to a large extent, that's what architectures of control are: features of products, systems and environments designed to serve someone other than the user:

Now that ’someone else’ might be ‘the good of society’, but in more cases than not, the someone else is a company [or a cartel] wanting to enforce a business model on the user, or a government wishing to enforce an ideology or mode of behaviour.

For all the hoo-hah about 'user-centred design', there's a very simple way of saying what it should be: design which serves the user and helps him or her do stuff. Something can serve two masters (e.g. BitTorrent serves the user, and the community of users) but in too many cases technology is expressly created not to serve the users, but to further someone else's agenda.

Some links by Dan Lockton

Some links. Guess what vehicle this is. First, an apology for anyone who's had problems with the RSS/Atom feeds over the last month or so. I think they're fixed now (certainly Bloglines has started picking them up again) but please let me know if you don't read this. Oops, that won't work... anyway:

  • 'Gadgets as Tyrants' by Xeni Jardin, looks at digital architectures of control in the context of the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas :

    Many of the tens of thousands of products displayed last week on the Vegas expo floor, as attractive and innovative as they are, are designed to restrict our use... Even children are bothered by the increasing restrictions. One electronics show attendee told me his 12-year-old recently asked him, “Why do I have to buy my favorite game five times?” Because the company that made the game wants to profit from each device the user plays it on: Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, Game Boy or phone.

    At this year’s show, the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro, spoke up for “digital freedom,” arguing that tech companies shouldn’t need Hollywood’s permission when they design a new product.

  • The Consumerist - showing a 1981 Walmart advert for a twin cassette deck - comments that "Copying music wasn't always so taboo".

    I'm not sure it is now, either.

  • George Preston very kindly reminds me of the excellent Trusted Computing FAQ by Ross Anderson, a fantastic exposition of the arguments. For more on Vista's 'trusted' computing issues, Peter Guttmann has some very clear explanations of how shocking far we are from anything sensible. See also Richard Stallman's 'Right to Read'.
  • David Rickerson equally kindly sends me details of a modern Panopticon prison recently built in Colorado - quite impressive in a way:

    Image from Correctional News

    ...Architects hit a snag when they realized too much visibility could create problems.

    “We’ve got lots of windows looking in, but the drawback is that inmates can look from one unit to another through the windows at the central core area of the ward,” Gulliksen says. “That’s a big deal. You don’t want inmates to see other inmates across the hall with gang affiliations and things like that.”

    To minimize unwanted visibility, the design team applied a reflective film to all the windows facing the wards. Deputies can see out, but inmates cannot see in. Much like the 18th-century Panopticon, the El Paso County jail design keeps inmates from seeing who is watching them.

    Image from Correctional News website

  • Should the iPhone be more open?

    As Jason Devitt says, stopping users installing non-Apple (or Apple-approved) software means that the cost of sending messages goes from (potentially) zero, to $5,000 per megabyte:

    Steve typed "Sounds great. See you there." 28 characters, 28 bytes. Call it 30. What does it cost to transmit 30 bytes?

    * iChat on my Macbook: zero. * iChat running on an iPhone using WiFi: zero. * iChat running on an iPhone using Cingular's GPRS/EDGE data network: 6 hundredths of a penny. * Steve's 'cool new text messaging app' on an iPhone: 15c.

    A nickel and a dime.

    15c for 30 bytes = $0.15 X 1,000,000 / 30 = $5,000 per megabyte.

    "Yes, but it isn't really $5,000," you say. It is if you are Cingular, and you handle a few billion messages like this each quarter.

    ... [I] assumed that I would be able to install iChat myself. Or better still Adium, which supports AIM, MSN, ICQ, and Jabber. But I will not be able to do that because ... it will not be possible to install applications on the iPhone without the approval of Cingular and Apple... But as a consumer, I have a choice. And for now the ability to install any application that I want leaves phones powered by Windows Mobile, Symbian, Linux, RIM, and Palm OS with some major advantages over the iPhone.

    Aside from the price discrimination (and business model) issue (see also Control & Networks), one thing that strikes me about a phone with a flat touch screen is simply how much less haptic feedback the user gets.

    I know people who can text competently without looking at the screen, or indeed the phone at all. They rely on the feel of the buttons, the pattern of raised and lowered areas and the sensation as the button is pressed, to know whether or not the character has actually been entered, and which character it was (based on how many times the button is pressed). I would imagine they would be rather slow with the iPhone.

  • Shaping behaviour: Part 2 by Dan Lockton

    Dashboard of 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST, on B1098 somewhere near March
    Speedometer, rev counter and fuel and temperature gauges on the dashboard of my 1992 Reliant Scimitar SST. Photo taken on B1098 alongside Sixteen Foot Drain, Isle of Ely, England. In part 1 of 'Shaping behaviour', we took a look at 'sticks and carrots' as approaches for shaping (or changing) people's behaviour. It's especially worth reading and thinking about the comments on that post as there are some very thoughtful analyses which go beyond my rather cursory treatment. 'Shaping behaviour' is a vast field, encompassing pretty much all of politics, advertising and marketing alongside much of religion, education, psychology (and psychiatry?), product and graphic design.

    The 'sticks, carrots and speedometers' classification was originally mentioned to me as a possible method by Chris Vanstone, of the UK Design Council's former research arm, RED. The idea is that you can get people to change their behaviour by persuading (or forcing) them with 'sticks' (punishment/disincentives), 'carrots' (rewards) or 'speedometers' (showing them the results of their actions, how they're doing, or how well they could be doing if they changed their behaviour). Having looked at sticks and carrots - and found the classification rather limiting - let's take a look at speedometers.

    Some gauges provide information which directly relates to a user's actions at that time. An actual speedometer or rev counter allows the user to determine what effect his or her actions are having on a vehicle, and take corrective action if the information displayed is outside the 'correct' range (of course there are other factors, such as the resistance to motion from drag or going uphill, and if one can hear the engine, a rev counter's perhaps not really necessary, but I digress). Other gauges, such as fuel or temperature gauges (see photo at top) show us information over which we can't have so much direct influence (or, in the case of a clock, say, no influence...) but about which we need to take action if certain levels are reached. Certainly, we change our behaviour as a result of taking in the information displayed. Usually. And the speedometer can of course be a metaphor for other methods of feedback or information displays - which I'll get to later on.

    Energy use

    Sticking with physical gauges for the moment, in recent times there's been a lot of design effort put into devices which monitor and display our energy or fuel use, with the hope that they'll persuade us to change our behaviour, or bring to our attention which devices (e.g. in a home) are more power-hungry than others in an immediately persuasive way. The Design Council's Future Currents project, which investigated a range of interesting techniques and design approaches, put the idea well:

    Energy is invisible, which makes it difficult to control. We can give people the tools to monitor their own energy use. Studies show that if people can see what they’re using, they use up to 15% less energy.

    An anecdote in Kalle Lasn's Design Anarchy claims an even larger reduction:

    The manager of a housing co-op was increasingly frustrated with her tenants. No matter how much she reminded and badgered them... the tenants would not, could not reduce their energy consumption. Finally she hit an idea. What would happen, she wondered, if the electricity meters were moved from the basement to a conspicuous spot right beside the front door, so that each time the tenants left or entered their home, they could see how fast their meter was whirring? The meters were moved. Lo and behold, within a few weeks electricity consumption fell 30 percent.

    (It's not clear whether there were individual meters so tenants could see each other's consumption - that kind of "control by embarrassment", or social pressure, may be effective in this free-rider or unequal contribution situation.)

    Wattbox by Gary Lockton, 1992 You make waste visible. From Design Anarchy by Kalle Lasn
    Wattson - image from diykyoto.com Example 'greenness gauge' from Design Council's Future Currents website
    Flower Lamp Power Aware Cord
    Above left: Wattbox by Gary Lockton, Brunel University, 1992, a simple unit which displayed the cost of electricity being used as well as estimated bills; Above right: 'You make waste visible' from Kalle Lasn's Design Anarchy; Centre left: Wattson, from DIYKyoto; Centre right: An example 'greenness gauge' from the Design Council's Future Currents project; Bottom left: Static! Flower Lamp 'blooms' when a household has reduced its power consumption for a period; Bottom right: Static! Power Aware Cord glows with an intensity related to the power being used. First image courtesy of Paul Turnock; other images from the websites linked.

    The convergence of new monitoring and connectivity technologies such as home wireless networks and RFID, with the pressure to scrutinise our environmental impact, has meant that there are more opportunities for potentially persuasive, interesting ways of approaching this area. Tom Coates has some good thoughts on this, and the relation to continuous monitoring of other parts of our (and others') lives, and how fascinating it can be. Wattson (thanks to both Richard Reynolds and Michelle Douglas for originally bringing this to my attention) takes an especially 'designer' approach, becoming a coffee-table talking point as well as showing (in different display modes) the power currently being used, the costs, and, via a coloured glow projected onto the table below, a non-numerical indication of the intensity of power usage. Similarly playful methods are used in some of the Static! projects from Stockholm's Interactive Institute - perhaps, in fact, when the 'event' which occurs as the 'speedometer' registers more desirable values is exciting in itself, the technique is closer to a 'carrot' than a speedometer.

    EU energy label A mess of adaptors
    Left: The Energy Label, required on certain products/packaging in the EU; Right: A typical mess of adaptors powering home electronic equipment. Here we have a scanner, a power drill charger, a printer (plug hidden), a battery charger and a cutting plotter. How easy is it for a consumer to audit the power usage of this kind of mess?

    The related debate over standby buttons on home electrical equipment which I covered briefly in July last year, brought home an important point to me, as someone who's worked on quite a few consumer electronic products powered from adaptors: many users think that if a red LED is on when the product is 'off', that little LED is all that's being powered. That's quite an important issue when it comes to consumers having a better understanding of their home energy use.

    When seeing the Wattson and Future Currents projects for the first time, I was tempted to say "well, why don't people just look at the power ratings on the appliances they buy?" but soon realised that that's a pretty entrenched engineering mindset rearing itself in my mind. People don't want to have to look on a label on the back of the product. They mostly don't think about energy use when buying products. Even the use of 'green' labelling on the front of products (e.g. the EU label shown above) doesn't hit home the actual monetary costs of different devices over typical usage periods. In this sense, monitoring devices which really get the user interested in using products more efficiently do seem to be very much worth it, even when they themselves use more power than strictly 'necessary'.

    (There are a few points I'd like to make about home lighting and 'energy saving' light bulbs, especially since some aspects of the recent blogosphere commentary made me think a little further, but they can wait for another day...)

    Economy gauges

    Economy vacuum gauge MPG meter from Toyota Camry
    Left: A traditional analogue vacuum gauge showing 'fuel economy'. Image from brochure for Reliant Rialto 2, 1984; Right: Toyota's Eco Drive meter from the Camry - image from HybridCars.com. As an aside, I have no idea how 35-40 mpg can be considered 'excellent'! What year is this?

    Moving away from home electricity consumption, the increased prevalence of electronic in-car trip computers, usually built-in, has meant that second-by-second fuel economy read-outs are much more common, and can again inspire a kind of self-challenge to maximise economy while driving. As the miles-per-gallon (or perhaps L/100 km) figure drops (or increases) with every blip on the accelerator or rapid acceleration from the traffic lights, drivers really can train themselves to change their behaviour (indeed, I know a couple of people who are constantly shifting their gaze from the road ahead down to, alternately, the speedometer and the miles per gallon figure, to see "how well they are doing", which is not necessarily ideal). Economy gauges in cars are nothing new - vacuum gauges were quite a popular home-fit accessory at one time, but they generally did not directly relate to the fuel consumption per distance travelled, merely the vacuum in the inlet manifold, hence the amount of fuel-air mixture being drawn through, whether or not the car were moving.

    An alternative type of economy gauge was that once used by Volvo and other manufacturers, which compared the engine's rpm (or the gearbox rpm?) to the gear selected (manual only, I presume) and illuminated a gearstick icon when the driver was in the 'wrong' gear, i.e. driving at less than optimum efficiency. Even more simply, some car companies used to mark the 'gearchange points' on the speedometer with dots at certain speeds - assuming the driver could not tell from the engine note that the gear engaged was too high or low, the dots would at least give some indication, though of course different driving conditions and loads would make the dots' positions guidelines rather than absolutes. (I do have photographs of both these designs, somewhere, but will have to post them at some point in the future.)

    Speedometers and control

    Certainly, then, physical speedometers and gauges can have an effect on users' behaviour and can encourage people to change; technology seems to be making this easier and more interesting and engaging. There are so many opportunities; already in some countries, there are roadside speed displays to make motorists aware of their speed (which present a fun challenge for drivers, or indeed cyclists, wanting to see what they can achieve) - how long before we have roadside CO2 monitoring (with displays)?

    But are any of these 'architectures of control'?

    In the sense that they are methods of persuasion rather than methods of restriction or enforcement, they are on one side of a line with rigid control on the other, but when we look at techniques such as the "control by embarrassment", or social pressure mentioned earlier, we can see that there is some kind of continuum related to how the information displayed by the speedometer (of whatever form) is used: if only you can see your personal energy usage habits within a house, you can make the choice whether or not to change your behaviour, but if the rest of your household can also see your habits, and see that you're costing them unnecessary money, the pressure on you to change is much greater.

    That, I think, is where the 'control' element comes in. Say that every household's yearly carbon emissions (however this were to be calculated) were monitored. If the information were available to the householders, it may give them food for thought, and may inspire changing behaviour. If the information were available to the government, it may lead to taxation, and may lead to changing behaviour. If the information were legally required to be displayed on an illuminated sign outside the house, so neighbours could see who was "getting away with more carbon emissions", it may (perhaps) lead to people changing behaviour too, or risk recriminations from the community, possibly worse than just social embarrassment. This last case is pretty much speedometer + blackmail, and I would say that that crosses the line to become control. If you want to fit in, and not be censured by others, you have to conform. That is an architecture of control, very much so, and hence we can see that speedometers, as with many other possible design elements, can be used as part of systems of control, but are not in themselves necessarily political. It's the way they're used that makes them, possibly, controversial.

    The speedometer metaphor

    Metaphorically, of course, a speedometer can be any method of making users aware of their behaviour, or the link between their behaviour and some other effect. Many of the examples studied and created by Stanford's Captology / Persuasive Technology lab fall into this area, offering users feedback on their actions, or encouraging them to behave in a certain way (e.g. giving up smoking) through highlighting causal relationships.

    But isn't this, to some extent, what all persuasion is about, if we allow our 'speedometer' to have, in some situations, only two values (on/'good' vs off/'bad')? Everything 'persuasive', from advertising campaigns to counselling, is about saying "A is happening/not happening because you're doing/not doing B; it will be better/stop happening if you stop/start doing C." A speedometer is saying "You're doing OK because this is the result of your actions" or "Look at the results of your actions - you need to change what you're doing!"

    Is it true, then to say that any situation where one entity (person/animal/plant) is trying to change the behaviour of another entity is resolved either by control (forcing the change in behaviour) or persuasion (inspiring the change in behaviour), or a combination of the two (e.g. by tricking the entity into changing behaviour)?

    Or is that too simplistic?