Opportunities to practice

Design thinking is absolutely experiential, and I think the first mistake that we made when we started rolling this out eight years ago was, if you’re going to change the way people work day to day, that’s going to take a long time. You can’t just ask people to do it and expect them to change. You have to give them ample opportunities to practice so that they can then understand it and make it their own.

When we started eight years ago, the first mistake that we made was telling people to please do this. Everyone nodded their head and said, “Yep. We got it.” Then they went away, and then a year later no one was doing it.

So we tried again. The second year we said more forcefully, “Please do this.” from the CEO down. No one did anything.

We brought in inspirational speakers. We had really convincing Power Point slides about why they should do it. Everyone nodded their heads and nothing happened for two years.

It wasn’t until we had our first workshop–where we said, “Do it and do it now.”–that things really started to change. Because it went from being in their heads to being in their hearts and in their fingertips. They were starting to practice it themselves. We found that it takes people eight to ten times of practicing it before it finally resonates with them: what it means to them and how to start doing it every day.

Suzanne Pellican talking about introducing the practice of design thinking at Intuit. The whole talk makes a great listen, but there are three things that I want to pull out of from her story.

The first is that telling is not usually the best strategy for getting people to listen to you.

The second is that people change what they do on a day to day basis, not because they’ve been told to, but because opportunities are created for them to change.

The third is the importance of letting people practice, which means allowing people to get it wrong.

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.

Amazing things happen all the time

Amazing things happen all the time if you just believe in opportunity. People say that things can’t be done. Well that’s bullshit.You give people opportunity and things happen all the time. You just have to create the opportunity.

Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon and my new hero. RA016 | Kathrine Switzer: Creating Opportunities for Women in Running – Runner Academy | Runner Academy


Motivation filtered through opportunity

Look, behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity. So if you see people behaving in new ways, like with Wikipedia and whatnot, it’s very unlikely that their motivations have changed, because human nature doesn’t change that quickly. It’s quite likely that the opportunities have changed.

Clay Shirky, speaking with Daniel Pink about cognitive surplus and intrinsic motivation.

This was an eye-opener for me. If we really are entering an era in which the role of UX design is to encourage behavior change, then Shirky’s view of behavior is important. The idea that we’re providing opportunities—rather than trying to persuade or seduce—makes a lot of sense to me. It’s a step in the direction of treating people like people rather than users.