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.

Technology precedes understanding

Engineering was the key. The Wright brothers functioned as engineers, not as scientists. Science, the drive to understand the ultimate principles at work in the universe, had little to do with the invention of the airplane. A scientist would have asked the most basic questions. How does the wing of a bird generate lift? What are the physical laws that explain the phenomena of flight?

The answers to those questions were not available to Wilbur and Orville Wright, or to anyone else at the turn of the century. Airplanes would be flying for a full quarter century before physicists and mathematicians could explain why wings worked.

How is it possible to build a flying machine without first understanding the principles involved? In the late twentieth century, we regard the flow of technological marvels from basic scientific research as the natural order of things. But this relationship between what one scholar, Edwin Layton, has described as the “mirror image twins” of science and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, technological advance has more often preceded and even inspired scientific understanding.

pp. 174-175, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom D. Crouch

This is something I’ve often wondered about: whether it was possible for a technology to be based on an inaccurate model. When I’ve asked friends about this, often over a pint in the pub, they’ve looked at me as if I was crazy.

If Tom D. Crouch is to be believed, the scientific models that the Wright Brothers based their plane on were not inaccurate, they simply didn’t exist.

This is not to disparage science. A better understanding of why wings work has lead to better, faster and safer airplanes.

What interests me here is the a similarity between this and Don Norman’s claim that technologies precede our need for them. There Wright Brothers, Wilbur in particular, certainly lend credence to Norman’s statement that “technologists invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.”

It’s complicated

I distinguish between complexity and complicated. I use the word “complexity” to describe a state of the world. The word “complicated” describes a state of mind. The dictionary definition for “complexity” suggests things with many intricate and interrelated parts, which is just how I use the term. The definition for “complicated” includes as a secondary meaning “confusing,” which is what I am concerned with in my definition of that word. I use the word “complex” to describe the state of the world, the tasks we do, and the tools we use to deal with them. I use the word “complicated” or “confused” to describe the psychological state of a person in attempting to understand, use, or interact with something in the world. Princeton University’s WordNet program makes this point by suggesting that “complicated” means “puzzling complexity.”

One of the things in the back of my mind when trying to make sense of the Buxton test was Don Norman’s distinction between complicated and complexity, which he laid out in the first chapter of Living with Complexity (PDF).

It’s a distinction I’ve found useful: complexity refers to the state of the world and complicated refers to a state of mind. On first viewing Bill Buxton’s presentation on Designing for Ubiquitous Computing, I thought that he might be confusing the two. I’m not so sure now. Thinking about his discussion of the “society of appliances” and its relationship to the society of people, I think he sees the two as inextricably linked. By considering the devices we use, the contexts we use them in and the transitions between them, I think Buxton’s intention is to reduce the complexity of the world, rather than just the psychological state of the people using those devices.

Related posts

Desire lines

Walk around parks or college campuses and there, amid the neat sidewalks and pathways, you will find messy trails of people, worn-down dirt paths through the lawns, grasses, and even flowerbeds. The trails are social signifiers, a clear indication that people’s desires do not match the vision of the planners. People try to simplify the paths they take when walking, taking short routes rather than long ones, even if it means walking across gardens or scampering up hills.

Landscape architects and urban planners are not pleased with the resulting destruction of their grounds. Some planners resent them, treating them as a destruction by thoughtless, lazy people of carefully laid-out plans. These human-made trails are called “desire lines,” for they reflect desired paths even though the formal layout of streets and sidewalks do not accommodate them. Wise urban planners should listen to the message underlying these desire lines. When a desire line destroys the pristine plan, it is a sign that the design did not meet human needs.

Don Norman, Living with Complexity, p. 126