Creating opportunities

Rather then just telling people to go the gym, public health professionals and advocates must work with architects, urban designers, and planners to reverse the design trends that have contributed to declining physical activity. Creating opportunities for exercise in daily life routines can increase physical activity and assist in controlling epidemics related to obesity, as well as contribute to environmental sustainability.

from New York City’s Active Design Guidelines.

What stuck me about the above paragraph form the Active Design Guidelines was the phrase “creating opportunities.” What I like about this is that it recognizes that the people we are designing for have agency and choice.

There has been a lot talk about behavior change for the last several years. I’ve written before that I’m not entirely convinced by it. Not least because it’s not always successful. Such as when nudging Republicans backfires and they actually start using more—rather than less—energy when shown how their energy use compares to their neighbors.

The idea of “behavior change” all too often leads us to think of people in the abstract, which leads us down the route of believing all people can be easily manipulated. This flawed assumption leads to not understanding the people you’re for whom you’re designing (e.g. not doing enough research) and to designs backfiring.

Creating opportunities, on the other hand, means we need to understand what opportunities are needed. It encourages us to look for something that has been missed, rather than using the same cheap tricks to try to get people to do what we want them to. It means creating more value than you capture, rather than extracting as much value as you can.

After taking Dan Ariely’s beginner’s guide to irrational behavior, I’m convinced that behavioral economics is a truly useful tool. I’m also convinced that much of behavioral economics has been badly used by the design community.

When I linked to a spirited criticism of nudging on Goolge+ (a post which seems to have gone missing), one of the replies was began with the assumption that “technology is morally neutral.” Even if I agreed with that (which I’m not entirely sure I do), language isn’t neutral. And the connotations of “behavior change”—power, arrogance, manipulation and control—make me very uncomfortable.

Focusing on “creating opportunities for change,” rather than “changing behavior,” puts the onus on us as designers. It means we should understand the people we are designing for and use that understanding to help them make their lives better. In other words, thinking about “creating opportunities” works as a kind of a handrail that guides us toward to the type of work that we should have been doing all along.

Update (September 18, 2015) I’ve realized a year after writing (while still thinking about the idea of open nudges) this that focusing on creating opportunities rather than specifically on behavior change fits in nicely with what Clay Shirky says about behavior being motivation filtered through opportunity. Understand people’s motivations and you can design an opportunity which will help them change their behavior. This is why nudging Republicans to reduce their home energy use backfires: the motivation simply isn’t there.