As we may understand

A constructionist approach to ‘behaviour change’ and the Internet of Things

In a world of increasingly complex systems, we could enable social and environmental behaviour change by using IoT-type technologies for practical co-creation and constructionist public engagement.

Image for post
Image for post

Understanding things

The internet, particularly the world-wide web, has done many things, but something it has done particularly well is to enable us to understand the world around us better. From having the sum of human knowledge in our pockets, to generating conversation and empathy between people who would never otherwise have met, to being able to look up how to fix the washing machine, this connectedness, this interactivity, this understanding, has—quickly—led to changes in everyday life, in social practices, habits, routines, decision processes, behaviour, in huge ways, not always predictably.

Image for post
Image for post

Design and behaviour change

For the last few years, I’ve been working in the field of what’s come to be known as design for behaviour change, mostly, more specifically, design for sustainable behaviour. This is all about using the design of systems—interfaces, products, services, environments—to enable, motivate, constrain or otherwise influence people to do things in different ways. The overall intention is social and environmental benefit through ‘behaviour change’, which is, I hope, less baldly top-down and individualist than it may sound. I am much more comfortable at the ‘enable’ end of the spectrum than the ‘constrain’. The more I type the phrase ‘behaviour change’, the less I like it, but it’s politically fashionable and has kept a roof over my head for a few years.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

The Internet of Things as an innovation space

One of the nicest things about the Internet of Things phenomenon—and indeed the Quantified Self movement—as opposed to that other, related, topic of our time, the top-down ‘Smart City’, is the extent to which it crosses over with the bottom-up, almost democratic, Maker movement mentality. I’m using ‘the IoT’ here as a broad category for the potential to involve objects and sensors and networks in areas or situations that previously didn’t have them.

Image for post
Image for post

Constructionism and co-creation

I suspect there is something about the open structure of many IoT technologies (and those which have enabled it) which has made this kind of distributed, collaborative community of builders and testers and people with ideas more likely to happen. It may just be the openness, but I think it’s more than that. There are three other elements which might be important:

  • …which are then tested and iterated, because nothing ever works first time. This means people learn through doing things, through coming up with ideas about how things work, and testing those hypotheses by their own hand, often understanding things at quite different levels of abstraction (but that still being just fine). It’s not a field that’s particularly suited to learning from a book (despite some excellent contributions)…
  • …and indeed the boundaries of what the IoT is for are so fluid and expansive in a ‘What use is a baby?’ sense that the goal is one of exploration rather than ‘mastery’ of the subject. There is no right or wrong way to do a lot of this stuff, nor limits imposed by any kind of central authority.
Image for post
Image for post
  • to address problems which are meaningful for them, in their life contexts…
  • in which they participate through making, testing and modifying systems or parts of systems…
  • partly facilitated or supported by designers or ‘experts’…
  • in a way which improves people’s understanding of the systems they’re engaging with, and issues surrounding them…
Image for post
Image for post

Behaviour change through constructionist co-creation

Now, let’s go back to behaviour change. I mentioned earlier my contention that much of what’s wrong with the ‘behaviour change’ phenomenon is about deficiencies in inclusion. People (‘the public’) are so often seen as targets to have behaviour change ‘done to them’, rather than being included in the design process. This means that the design ‘interventions’ developed end up being designed for a stereotyped, fictional model of the public rather than the nuanced reality.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Invisible infrastructures and the Internet of Things: avoiding the demon-haunted smart fridge

The thing is, the systems around us are complex and becoming more so, and often invisible—or “distressingly opaque”—in the process, which makes them more difficult to understand and engage with. This includes everything from ‘the Cloud’ (which, as Dan Hon notes, is coming to the fore with news stories such as celebrity photo hacking) to Facebook (as danah boyd puts it, “as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing”) to CCTV and other urban sensor networks.

Image for post
Image for post
An interesting infrastructure ‘business model’ from the Public Safety Charitable Trust—see http://www.elyplace.com/bluetooth-rates-avoidance-scheme-fails/
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
“Algorithm is going from black box code to black box language. Everything is being explained away as “algorithm”. No surprise really.” Scott Smith, 6 July 2014 — https://twitter.com/changeist/status/485793232396509184
Image for post
Image for post

An opportunity

The opportunity exists, then, for more work which uses a constructionist approach to enable us—the public—to investigate and understand the complex hidden systems in the world around us, in the process potentially changing our mental models, behaviour and practice. Tools based around IoT technology, developed and applied practically through a process of co-creation with the public, could enable this particularly well. In general, co-creation offers lots of opportunities for designing behaviour change support systems that actually respond to the real contexts of everyday life. But the IoT, in particular, can enable technological participation in this.

Image for post
Image for post

Introducing ‘knopen’

I want to propose some examples of projects (or rather areas of practical research) that could be done in this vein, but before that—because I can—I am going to coin a new word for this. Knopen, a fairly obvious portmanteau of know and open, can be a verb (to knopen something) or an adjective (e.g. a knopen tool). Let’s say ‘to knopen’ conjugates like ‘to open’. We knopen, we knopened, we are knopening. Maybe it will usually be more useful as a transitive verb: We knopened the office heating system. The app helped us knopen the local council’s consultation process. Help me knopen the sewage system. Maybe it’s useful as a gerund: knopening as a concept in itself. Knopening the intricacies of the railway ticketing system has saved our family lots of money.

Tools for understanding

What does knopen mean, though? I’m envisaging it being the kind of word that’s used as description of what a tool does. We have tools for opening things—prying, prising, unscrewing, jimmying, breaking, and so on. We also have tools that help us know more about things, and potentially understand them—a magnifying glass, a compass, Wikipedia—but just as with any tool, they are better matched to some jobs than to others.

Image for post
Image for post

Some areas of research for knopen

These are all about people making and using tools to understand—to knopen—the systems around them, in particular the whys behind how things work. They all have the potential to integrate the quantitative data from networked objects and sensors with qualitative insights from people themselves, in co-created useful and meaningful ways.

Image for post
Image for post

DIY for the home of the future

In the UK, “at least 60% of the houses we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built” (and that quote’s from 2010). That means that whatever IoT technologies come to our homes, they will largely be retrofitted. The ‘smart home’ in practice is going to be piecemeal for most people, the Discman-to-cassette-adaptor-to-car-radio rather than a glossy integrated vision.

Image for post
Image for post
By Toyohara, used under a Creative Commons licence
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Tom Coates’ House of Coates, and the Haunted Coates House
Image for post
Image for post

Seams, streams and new metaphors

The idea of seamful design — in contrast to the seamlessness which so often seems to be goal of advances in human-computer interaction—is useful here. We are used to systems being promoted as invisible, seamless, frictionless as if this is necessarily always a good thing, from contactless payment to Facebook Connect. There’s no doubt that seamlessness can be convenient, but there’s a cost.

Image for post
Image for post
Detail of Juliana, wife of Thomas de Cruwe, 1411. CC licensed by Amanda Slater.
  • or, more specifically, conflating particular nodes or introducing distinctions between nodes where others treat them as the same thing
  • two people’s models connecting the same nodes in different ways
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
What does energy look like? From the V&A Digital Design Weekend 2014. Photo by V&A Digital.
Image for post
Image for post

You’re not alone

Moving away from the home, this next group of ideas would use IoT technologies to enable ‘peer support’ for decision making: connecting people to others facing similar situations, and enabling people to understand each other’s thinking and what worked for them (or not). The aim of this knopening of situations would be empathy, but also practical advice and support.

Image for post
Image for post
Windows XP Event Viewer — image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Event_Viewer

The Shared ‘Why?’

  • This would be a tool for annotating situations with ‘what your thinking is’ as you do things (that may be logged automatically anyway) — a kind of ‘Why?’ column in the event logs of everyday life.
  • The question might be prompted automatically by certain situations being recognised (through sensor data) or could also be something you choose to record. These ‘Whys’ would then be available to your future self, and others (as you choose) when similar situations arise.
  • My thinking here is that (as Tricia Wang points out), the vast quantities of Big Data generated and logged by devices, sensors and homes and infrastructure, are largely devoid of human contexts—the ‘Why?’, the ‘thick’ data—that would give them meaning. There’s a great opportunity for introducing a system which makes this easier to capture. It could be an academic or design practitioner research tool, but my main priority is that it be actually useful to the people using it.
Image for post
Image for post
Annotating household objects to understand thermal comfort. From a study by Sara Renström and Ulrike Rahe at Chalmers, Gothenburg.
  • While there exist research methods such as experience sampling and sentiment mapping, with plenty of location- or other trigger-based mobile apps, these largely focus on mood and feelings, rather than the potentially richer question of ‘Why?’. Yet Facebook and Twitter have shown us that short-form status updates, with actual content (mostly!), are something people enjoy producing and sharing with others. When I worked on the CarbonCulture at DECC project, one of the most successful features (in terms of engagement) of the OK Commuter travel logging app was a question prompting users to describe that morning’s commute with a single word, which often turned out to be witty, insightful and revealing of intra-office dynamics around topics such as provision of facilities for cyclists.
  • Clearly there are lots of questions here about validity and privacy. Would people only log ‘Whys’ that they wanted others to know? Who would have access to my ‘Whys’? Would they ‘work’ better in terms of empathy or behaviour change if linked to real names or avatars than anonymously? We would have to find ways of addressing and accommodating these issues.
Image for post
Image for post

Helpful ghosts: ambient peer support

  • What this would involve is essentially being able to create helpful ‘ghosts’ for other people, which would appear when certain situations or circumstances, or conjunctions of conditions, were detected, through IoT capabilities. You could record advice, explanations, warnings, suggestions, motivational messages, how-to guides, photos, videos, audio, text, sets of rules, anything you like, which would be triggered by the system detecting someone encountering the particular conditions you specified. That could be location-based, but it could also be any other condition. It’s almost like a nice version of leaving a note for your successor, or anyone who faces a similar situation.
Image for post
Image for post
The Stone Tape (BBC, 1972). Image from http://anamericanviewofbritishsciencefiction.com/2013/12/16/the-stone-tape-1972/
  • Maybe it’s better to think of this like If This Then That (see below), but allowing you to create rules that trigger events for other people instead of just for you.
  • How would it be different to Clippy? (thanks to Justin Pickard for making this connection). We should aim to learn from the late Clifford Nass’s work at Stanford on why Clippy was so disliked, and how to make him more loveable. It would also be important that the helpful ghosts did not just become a form of ‘pop-up window for real life’. Advertisers should not be able to get hold of it. It should always be opt-in, and the emphasis should be on participation (creating your own ghosts in response) and understanding. It is meant to be at least a dialogue, a collaborative approach to learning more about, and understanding—knopening—a situation, and then passing on that understanding to others.
Image for post
Image for post

A Collective If This Then That

  • This is probably already possible to achieve with clever use of If This Then That together with some other linked services, but the basic idea would be a system where multiple people’s inputs—which could be a combination of quantitative sensor data and qualitative comments or expressions of sentiment or opinion—together can trigger particular outputs. These might also be collective, or might apply only in a single location or context.
  • There are obvious top-down examples around things like adaptive traffic management, but it would more interesting to see what ‘recipes’ emerge from people’s—and communities’—own needs. There could also be multiple outputs to different systems. They could work within a family or household or on a much bigger scale—connecting families who are often apart, for example.
  • The knopen element comes with being able to understand—right from the start—how to make action happen, and collaboratively create recipes which address a community’s needs, for example. The system might be complex but would be not only visible, but fully accessible since the participants would be involved in creating and iterating it.
  • It could involve ‘voting’ somehow, but it would also be interesting to see effects emerge from unconscious action or a combination of physical effects read by sensors and social or psychological effects from people themselves.
  • I’m inspired here particularly by Brian Boyer and Dan Hill’s Brickstarter—in which the collective desire/need/interest of the crowdfunding model is applied to urban infrastructure—but also by the academic research (and workshop at Interaction 12) I did exploring ‘if…then’-type rules of thumb and heuristics that people use for themselves, often implicitly, around things like heating systems, and how different people’s heuristics differ.
  • There’s some really interesting academic research going on at the moment by teams at Brown and Carnegie Mellon—e.g. see this paper by Blase Ur et al from CHI 2014—on using IFTTT-like ‘practical action-trigger programming’ in smart homes as a way to enable a more easily programmable world, and it would be great to explore the potential of this approach for improving understanding and engagement with the systems around us. As Michael Littman puts it:
Image for post
Image for post

Storytelling for systems: Five whys for public life

Five whys’ is a method for what’s called root cause analysis, used in fields as diverse as quality management and healthcare process reform. It’s similar to the interview technique of laddering, which has seen some application in user experience design. The basic principle is that there is never only one ‘correct’ reason ‘Why?’ something happens: there are always multiple levels of abstraction, multiple levels of explanation, multiple contexts—and each explanation may be completely valid within the particular context of analysis. In ‘solving’ the problem, the repeated asking ‘Why?’ enables reframing the problem at further levels up (or down) this abstraction hierarchy, as well as giving us the ‘backstory’ of the current state (which is often considered to be a problem, hence the analysis).

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post

Conclusion: what next?

This has been a long, rambling and poorly focused article. It tangles together a lot of ideas that have been on my mind, and others’ minds, for a while, and I’m not sure the tangle itself is very legible. But I welcome your comments.

Image for post
Image for post

Written by

Design — people — technology — society. Assistant Professor, Carnegie Mellon University. Director of the Imaginaries Lab: http://imaginari.es

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store