Designed against

Architectural deterrents to skateboarding and sleeping are interesting because – when noticed – they draw attention to the way that managers of spaces are always designing for specific subjects of the population, consciously or otherwise. When we talk about the ‘public’, we’re never actually talking about ‘everyone’.

When you’re designed against, you know it. Other people might not see it but you will. The message is clear: you are not a member of the public, at least not of the public that is welcome here.

Ocean Howell, former pro skater and currently an assistant professor of architecture history at the University of Oregon talking about anti-skate architecture in a Guardian article on defensive urban architecture.

What struck me was Howell’s point that people who are designed against know it. This was certainly true when I was a skateboarder: public spaces didn’t feel so public. This feeling of being “designed against” could certainly explain why Republicans use more energy when nudged to use less or the recently reported partisan nudge bias.

I’ve long suspected that nudges aren’t as subtle as some of the nudgers (myself included) think they are. Put another way: people who are using nudges and other tools to change behavior tend to overestimate themselves, and more often than not, they underestimate (and often offend) the people on the end of these nudges. No one likes to feel manipulated. More and more, I’m starting to believe that nudges are more effective when they are a stage whisper: we’re happy to go along when we’re included in the “secret.”

Harry Brignull has spent the past few years collecting and cataloging dark patterns used on the web. These are usually designed to get people to do something they didn’t intend to do, such as clicking on an ad, paying for a service or sharing personal information. In many of these cases, people figure (often after it’s too late) what has happened. While the designers may have believed that they were “changing behavior” most people simply wind up feeling tricked.

In Living with Complexity, Don Norman talked about desire lines: the paths that are worn into the grass over time, as person after person takes the quickest route rather the route than urban planners and architects intended them to take. As Norman points out, urban planners and architects tend to view this as an aberration, an error on the part of the people using the spaces they designed. But, then again, error is architecture.

All of this brings to mind the debates around Apple’s introduction of ad blockers in iOS 9. As online advertising has become more aggressive, the Internet starts to feel hostile, people start to feel designed against. John Gilmore once pointed out that the Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Overly aggressive advertising can certainly be interpreted as damage. The rise of ad blockers and the success of services like Instapaper, Pocket and Evernote’s Clearly could be interpreted as desire lines.

Howell is right, people know when they are designed against, even when that may not be what designers set out to do. At work, we recently redesigned a key part of our application. Both before and after we launched these changes, I spent a lot of time with our customers. For the most part, feedback was positive. During the redesign, we removed a few features that saw little usage. It helped us simplify the interface for customers. In speaking with those customers, they overall feeling was that they had been designed against. We had removed something that was a part of their overall workflow. We’d introduced new tools that we believed met those same needs, and we’re continuing to refine those tools with the feedback of those customers. Nevertheless, those initial conversations will stick with me: the very real of having been defined against, of having something that you want to do thwarted by somebody else’s decision. When that happens, it’s entirely understandable to feel that those decisions are aimed directly at you.