End of the year

Asides, Blog, Design with Intent, PhD, Site Announcements

It’s been a very very very busy year, and that’s my main excuse for not blogging for far too long. There are many interesting people, interesting things and ideas and opportunities, and unresolved thoughts that need to be talked about, but haven’t been. And many people who’ve got in touch that I just haven’t got round to replying to. I apologise. For quite a while it’s been easier to use Twitter than to blog here. That’s a shame, but it’s also enabled me to get to know (virtually or otherwise) a great group of very clever people. I’ve been to Copenhagen, Ghent, Delft and Enschede on Design with Intent-related business, as well as managing to go camping on the Isles of Scilly with Harriet, which was fantastic.

As things are, in September I started a job as research assistant on EMPOWER, a collaboration between More Associates, Brunel* and Warwick University’s WMG. With funding from the Technology Strategy Board and EPSRC, we’re investigating a participatory, user-centred approach to designing more energy efficient behaviour in workplaces, with quite a high-profile ‘client’ organisation. The project builds on More’s ongoing CarbonCulture work, and (potentially) allows some of the Design with Intent patterns to be applied and tested in a real context. It’s a kind of fusion of building services, HCI, user experience, service design, product design, environmentally sensitive design, ergonomics and ethnography. As a Brunel employee, I suppose I probably now need to state (for the first time ever on this blog) that the opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my employer.
The bit of work I’m doing at present involves investigating building users’ mental models of heating systems, which has some history in cognitive science and interaction design, as has been discussed here on the blog a few years ago. As I explored in my talk at Design for Persuasion in Ghent back in September, I’ve come to believe that better understanding people’s mental models of systems with which they interact – and then deciding whether it’s more appropriate to work with them, try to change them, or downright ignore them – is an important component of design for behaviour change. We need to understand the environmental (and mental) contexts in which people make decisions (or not) about what to do, and use that understanding appropriately. It seems clear that designers do have different models of ‘what users are like’ and ‘how users think’ – we explored some of this in a couple of workshops at UX London back in May, resulting in this paper [PDF] presented at ERSCP-EMSU in Delft in October. We need to bridge the gap between designers’ models of the user, and users’ models of the system. Which is pretty much what Don Norman was saying 25 years ago, of course, but often seems to be left out of current discourse on behaviour change. I have a suspicion that if we get this right, the whole attitude-behaviour morass becomes possible to understand through a kind of cybernetics / systems theory approach.
I haven’t finished the PhD thesis yet. It was clearly a mistake from a sanity perspective to start working on EMPOWER before finishing the thesis write-up, but it was just the way the funding worked. But it does mean I’ll be able to include results of a survey of DwI 1.0 users in the thesis – more on which I’ll hopefully announce very soon.
On the subject of the DwI cards, as of this evening there have been around 130,000 downloads of the PDF that I can track, since it went online in April (together with an unknown number from people who’ve mirrored it elsewhere). I’ve also sold (or given away) 164 physical packs of cards to some very wonderful people. Zero profit, but it’s a great feeling to know that those cards are on the shelf (or even being used!) in places all over the world. And it isn’t just design consultancies and universities – in a current bit of freelance consultancy working with some clever people, a subset of the DwI patterns/gambits, with some additions, are being applied in the context of helping a local authority develop a ‘behaviour change’ capability.
When the PhD’s done, I will certainly be writing about the experience. But I’m not going to do it yet.
The blog will return in a new and better form once this massive burden is out of the way. And I’ll be doing some other things: amid all this research and writing, I realise how much I actually miss making things. 2011 needs to have some of that.
Thanks to everyone who’s helped this year, from those who’ve blogged or tweeted about or downloaded or indeed bought the DwI cards, to everyone who’s helped me progress my work via conferences and workshops and seminars and recommendations, to those who’ve helped me negotiate the endless paperwork that come with university-industry collaborations, to my PhD supervisors David and Neville, to people who’ve just come and said hello in real life after following the blog or seeing the cards online. And to family, and friends, and most of all, Harriet, for putting up with me. This phase won’t be forever.
Good luck, everyone, for 2011.
*I believe they’re sorting this website out sometime very soon. As diplomatically as I can put it, I would not have applied as an undergrad back in 1999 if Brunel Design’s website looked like this. We had something much better, thanks to Len Breen.

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