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Design With Intent: How Designers Can Influence Behavior

Design With Intent: How Designers Can Influence Behavior

Robert Fabricant / GOOD

April 27, 2010

Over the past several months, I’ve been fortunate to meet and talk to a number of people—among them Jan Chipchase of Nokia, Peter Whybrow of UCLA, and Caroline Hummels of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands—about the role of the designer in behavior change. Our conversations echoed the pent-up ambitions I’ve often heard from the young designers I teach and work with. They also reinforced my belief that we’re experiencing a sea change in the way designers engage with the world. Instead of aspiring to influence user behavior from a distance, we increasingly want the products we design to have more immediate impact through direct social engagement. Institutions that drive the global social innovation agenda, such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have shown an interest in this new approach, but many designers hesitate to pursue it. Committing to direct behavior design would mean stepping outside the traditional frame of user-centered design, which provides the basis of most professional design today.

Questioning User-Centered Design

The central idea behind UCD is that designers create experiences based on a rich and nuanced understanding of observed and implied user needs over time. UCD grew out of a functional, usability-oriented philosophy that began in the workplace, but it has since expanded beyond the purely functional to take into account many dimensions of the user’s experience, including emotional needs and motivations.

Using the UCD approach, designers are one step removed from the action. We influence behavior and social practice from a distance through the products and services that we create based on our research and understanding of behavior. We place users at the center and develop products and services to support them. With UCD, designers are encouraged not to impose their own values on the experience.

The design media celebrates the UCD approach. Gary Hustwit’s recent film, Objectified, praises design icons like OXO and Flip for their well-planned simplicity. This and other popularized notions of design inform the business community so that it now considers “improving ease of use”—not aesthetics—as the primary value that design offers.

Designers like Naoto Fukasawa have taken the UCD method a step further. For him, the role of design is not just ease of use but invisibility. In other words, the design should fit so well with user needs and expectations that it “dissolves into behavior.” The user is unaware of the choices the designer has made. In fact, the user should be unaware of the existence of the designer at all.

Examples of the “disappearing designer” approach are products with greatly increased value, designed with exquisite sensitivity, that fit beautifully into our lives, such as Fukasawa’s Muji line of products. They bolster our appreciation of everyday experiences and enrich our connection to other people. The best even achieve “heirloom status” or “ensoulment,” concepts rich with implications for sustainability. According to Erik Stolterman and Harold Nelson in their book, The Design Way, “There is a belief that if we put a lot of effort, focus, energy, carefulness in details, and so forth into the design and production of an artifact, we can ‘ensoul’ the artifact,” improving its personal value and longevity.


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