designing for behavioral change for the purposesof sustainability

1 May 2008 - 8:35pm
5 years ago
1 reply
698 reads
Marijke Rijsberman

This is a fascinating topic to me, in part because it runs into what feels
to me like a sort of knee-jerk resistance.

In the first place, let me say that I think it would be much better if
designers (and everybody else) got on top of the challenge of designing
products that are not energy hogs, to obviate the need to teach people how
to use their stuff so it doesn't waste energy doing nothing or to use it
more sparingly, or whatever. But in general terms designing products and
information resources in such a way that they encourage consumers to reduce
their footprint does seem like a laudable enterprise.

What's more, it seems to me to be in line with the general outlook of the
discipline to create things that modify behavior. Whether we design social
shopping experiences, or phones that are actually rich internet devices, or
online FAQs or complaint systems, or online communities, we are in the
business of changing behavior, even though we don't normally use the words.
Except that we do it, pretty much, without regard to footprint. On the
whole, the upshot of our work tends to be to get people to start doing
things they didn't use to do or to do the same things in a different way, or
the same things using a different provider.

So then what makes us jerk those knees? Is it just the words, "changing
behavior"? Oh, my god, sounds like communism! But that's social engineering,
my students said with an offended sneer seven years ago (as if Apple doesn't
dirty its hands with that kind of thing).

The creator of the website Dave pointed us to says, "placing others' welfare
above ones own desires [is] widely perceived to signify a reduction in
lifestyle quality or choice," which may well be the common perception--I
don't really know. But it is in conflict with the preponderance of
psychological research on what makes people happy, which suggests that above
a certain level of material well-being, happiness doesn't go up very much
with further increases in material wealth, whereas happiness does increase
progressively as people have more positive experiences involving friends,
family, and community.

This applies the notion that we adopt behavior changes for sustainability
for "ourselves" (as Alex pointed out) not only to the hoped-for outcome, but
to the process of engaging in the behaviors itself. If you do things for and
with a community of people you care for (and I'm going to assume for the
moment that green behaviors qualify), you are likely to experience an
enhancement of lifestyle quality. That is, you can do it for yourself.

All in all, it seems to me, if we get an opportunity to design a phone with
more "manageable" energy consumption, we'd be fools to turn up our noses at
it. Same thing if we get the chance to design the information resources that
have the purpose of modifying individual behavior to increase the longevity
of the species (and many other species besides). We'd be fools not to try to
translate to online experiences those findings in social psychology about
what is effective in motivating individuals to change their behavior
offline. In my understanding of it, that is very much the province of
interaction design.

Kind regards,


-----Original Message-----

Alex said:

A couple of days ago somebody wrote something very wise:

"The grand myth of environmentalism is that it's all about saving the Earth.
It's not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving


1 May 2008 - 9:40pm
Itamar Medeiros

There was this really interesting article at UX Matters about
sustainable interaction design

"As UX designers%u2014and just people who are concerned with the
fate of our planet%u2014the most important actions we can take are to
incorporate sustainability into our professional and personal thinking
and make it the basis of the actions we take in our daily lives. If
our goal really is to achieve sustainability, in the long term, we
must effect broad cultural changes as well.

To this end, there are several professional-practice pledges you can
endorse, including The Designers Accord
( and Design Can Change.

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