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InDecision is a blog run by early career researchers and practitioners in judgment and decision making. We want to give younger scholars a voice, reach a wider audience with their work, and give everyone a chance to see what happens inside decision-making science. 

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Outside the Matrix: Dan Lockton

danlockton_5This week we’re returning to our Outside the Matrix series with Dan Lockton who is a senior associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, a specialist research centre at the Royal College of Art in London, and does freelance work as Requisite Variety. He received his PhD in Design for Behaviour Change from Brunel University, based around the Design with Intent toolkit, and has worked on behavioural research projects, particularly on energy use, at the University of Warwick and at Brunel, before his current role in a collaborative project between the RCA, Imperial College London, the Institute for Sustainability and a number of European partners. Before returning to academia, Dan worked on a range of commercial product design and R&D projects; he also has a Cambridge-MIT Institute Master’s in Technology Policy from the University of Cambridge (Judge Business School), and a BSc in Industrial Design Engineering from Brunel.
Tell us about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? All design necessarily embodies models of people’s behaviour—assumptions about how people will make decisions, and behave, when using, interacting with or otherwise experiencing products, services, or environments. It’s a fairly basic component of design, although it’s perhaps only rarely considered explicitly as being about decision making psychology. Whether or not designers think about their work in these terms, it is going to have an impact on how people behave, so it’s important to try to understand users’ decision processes, and how design affects them (or should be affected by them). So both in research projects themselves, and in teaching design students how to do ‘people-centred’ design research, psychology plays a big role in my work.

Understanding how different people make decisions, through research in real contexts, becomes even more crucial when trying to do ‘design for behaviour change’, of course. You end up (hopefully) confronting and questioning many of the models and assumptions that you previously had, and develop much more nuanced models of behaviour which usefully preserve the variety of real-life differences.

In my current main project, SusLab (which is a small part of a major European project), I’m working with Flora Bowden on reducing domestic energy use through a combination of technology and behaviour change, but we’re taking a much more people-centred approach than much of the work in this field has done previously—doing ethnographic research with householders to uncover much more detailed insights about what people are actually doing when they are ‘using energy’—the psychology of the decision processes involved, the mental models people have of the systems around them, and the social contexts of practices such as heating, entertainment and cleaning. We then co-design and prototype new products and services (somewhat grudgingly termed interventions) with householders, so that they are not test subjects, but participants in developing their own ways of changing their own behaviour. This is the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design’s forté —including people better in design processes, from ageing populations and users with special needs to particular communities underserved by the assumptions embedded in the systems around them.

Reducing energy use is a major societal challenge—there is a vast array of projects and initiatives, from government, industry and academia as well as more locally driven schemes, all aiming to tackle different aspects of the problem. However, many approaches, including the UK’s smart metering rollout, largely treat ‘energy demand’ as something almost homogeneous, to be addressed primarily through pricing-based feedback, rather than being based on an understanding why people use energy in the first place—what are they actually doing? We think that people don’t set out to ‘use energy’: instead, they’re solving everyday problems, meeting needs for comfort, light, food, cleaning and entertainment, with a heavy dose of psychology in there, and sometimes with an emotional dimension too.

Equally, people’s understandings—mental models—of what energy is, and how their actions relate to its use, and their use of heuristics for deciding what actions to take, are under-explored, and could be extremely important in developing ways of visualising or engaging with energy use which are meaningful for householders. This is where ethnographic research, and in-context research on decision-making in real life, can provide insights which are directly useful for the design process.  

The overall project covers a broad scope of work and expertise, including environmental scientists and architects alongside design researchers, and benefits from ‘Living Lab’ instrumented houses in each country, which will provide a platform (albeit artificial) for demonstrating and trialling the interventions developed, before they are installed in houses in real life.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I first got interested in the area while doing my Master’s back in 2004-5. For my project, I was looking at how technologies, and the structure of systems, have been used to influence (and control) public behaviour, and as such, approaches such as B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology were very relevant. While Persuasive Technology has tended not to employ ‘behavioural economics’ techniques too much, it was initially through this angle of ‘persuasion’ that I read people like Robert Cialdini, then followed the thread through to learn more about cognitive biases and heuristics, from authors such as Scott Plous, the Russell Sage Foundation-supported collections of Tversky, Kahneman, Gilovich, Slovic et al’s papers, then Gigerenzer and the ABC group’s work. Herbert Simon’s work has also been a huge influence, because his multidisciplinarity enabled so many parallels to be drawn between different fields. It was partly through his work, I think, that I became interested in cybernetics and this whole body of work from the 1940s onwards which attempted to draw together systems across human psychology, technology and nature, but which in public consciousness seems mainly to be about people with robotic hands.

In parallel, I was familiar with concepts such as heuristics, affordances and mental models from the cognitive ergonomics literature, one of the other main intersections between design and psychology. Here, the work of people such as Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen is hugely influential; this had first become interesting when I was in industry, working on some products which really would have benefitted from a better understanding of the intended customers’ perceptions, thought processes, needs and abilities, and I was hungry to learn more about how to do this. The idea of applying psychological insights to the design process greatly appealed to me: I had something of an engineer’s mindset that wanted, Laplace’s demon-like, to be able to integrate all phenomena, social and physical, into something ‘actionable’ from a design standpoint. While I now appreciate my naïvety, the vision of this ‘system’ was a good inspiration for taking things further.

For my PhD—supervised by David Harrison (Brunel) from the ‘design’ side and Neville Stanton (Southampton) from the ‘psychology’ side—I tried to bring together insights relevant to behaviour change from lots of different disciplines, including behavioural economics, into a form which designers could use during design processes, for products, services and environments, with a focus on influencing more sustainable and socially beneficial behaviour. Various iterations were developed, via lots of workshops with designers and other stakeholders, ending up with the Design with Intent toolkit. This is still a work in progress, though it’s had to take back seat to some more practical projects in the last couple of years, but I hope in 2014 to be able to release a new version together with, perhaps, a book.

Why you decide to stay in academia instead of going into industry?
I like to think I’ve found the best of both worlds: the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design acts as a consultancy for many of its projects with commercial clients, but also (as part of the Royal College of Art) works as part of many academic research projects (though always with a practical focus). During my first six months here, I’ve worked on commercial projects for new startups and a mobility products manufacturer, as well as two academic research projects. Alongside this job I also do some freelance consultancy in industry, which often involves running workshops on design and behaviour, writing articles, and generating early-stage ideas for companies interested in including a ‘behavioural’ element in their design processes.

There are advantages and disadvantages of academic and industrial work contexts. The freedom to pursue ‘pure’ knowledge (whatever that really means), and indeed more open-ended research, with longer timeframes, is a wonderful aspect of academia, a luxury that most companies cannot really afford given the constraints of the market. However, I found the bureaucracy at both Brunel and the University of Warwick crushingly slow: there was a lot of research that just never got done because the system made sure it took too long, or involved too much paperwork to bother with. That was deeply frustrating, when there are many very good researchers at both institutions who would thrive given a bit more freedom to do things. The RCA (perhaps because it’s so small) is refreshingly fast: it’s possible to decide to try something in the morning and go and do it in the afternoon, or even immediately.

Perhaps also, despite being relatively knowledgeable about behaviour change—one of the biggest buzzwords of the last five years!—I was very reluctant to go straight into a commercial application of the work which has no social benefit. I don’t want to use insights to sell people more things they don’t need, or exploit biases and heuristics to segment and profile consumers to target them with more advertising. I apply John Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ wherever I can: I hate it when advertisers and marketers make assumptions about me, and my likely behaviour, so I don’t particularly want to do that to other people. That rules out a lot of organisations who want people with ‘behaviour change’ credentials.

What do you enjoy the most in your current role? While doing lots of projects is a lot of work, and there’s a tendency for this sort of thing to take over your life, in all honesty this is a very enjoyable job. Meeting lots of different people—members of the public—and actually involving them in the research: designing with them rather than for them, is incredibly satisfying. Also, I think most of the people working for the Helen Hamlyn Centre, because their jobs involve so much research with the public, are actually genuinely nice people.So they’re great to work with.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? Most designers are not trained in psychology, so there is always a barrier to adoption. There is also the risk that highly popularised approaches and trends, such as what Nudge has become, lose their nuance and the cautious scientific approach when they just become another soundbite or quick-fix ‘solution’, applied to any context without doing any actual user research. And I’m aware that Design with Intent was essentially this, a context-free toolbox of ideas to apply to any situation, and I now see it as a major flaw which needs to be addressed in future versions.

But if I see the DDB/VW Piano Stairs video one more time used as a kind of example universal panacea for deeply complex social problems (“Design can fix anything, just look at how they made taking the stairs fun!!!!”) then I’ll scream, or more likely mumble something grumpily at the back of the room.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? Design isn’t really an academic subject in itself—it’s a process. I might have a PhD in it, but I’ll be honest and say that it’s lacking in a lot of formal theory. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—again, Herbert Simon (in The Sciences of the Artificial) and then Donald Schön (in The Reflective Practitioner) did good jobs of explaining in different ways why it is aqualitatively different approach to knowledge the natural sciences—but what it does mean is that the most interesting and useful research for designers is often not in design at all, but in other fields that overlap. Designers need to be learning from psychologists, anthropologists, social researchers, economists, biologists, and actual practitioners in other fields. It also means there are a lot of design research papers which are basically restatements of the “What is design? What does it mean to be a designer?” question, which are fine but become tiring after a while.

So, to return to the question, academic ‘design’ research is generally very poor at being useful to practitioners. Part of this is the eternal language / framing barrier between academia and practice—there are so many assumptions about terminology and so on which prevent easy engagement—but there is also the access problem. Design consultancies very rarely subscribe to academic journals, and even if they do subscribe to design journals, it’s probably journals from outside the field (see above) that would bring more useful insights anyway. When I did a brief survey on this, these were a few of the points which came up.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? I would very much like to see more designers drawing on the heuristics work of Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd, et al, and exploring what this means in the context of design for behaviour change and design in general, given that bounded rationality seen as a reality, and essentially adaptive, rather than a ‘defect’ in human decision-making, seems to marry up quite well with the tenets of ethnography and people-centred design. Some people have started to do it, e.g. Yvonne Rogers at UCL, but there is a massive opportunity for some very interesting work here.

Also, consider cybernetics. Read Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro’s work and think about systems more broadly than the disciplinary boundaries within which you may have been educated. In general, read as much as you can, outside of what you think ‘your subject’ is. The most interesting innovations always occur at the boundaries between fields.

More than anything else, work on projects where you do research with real people, in real, everyday life contexts, rather than only in lab studies. It will change how you model behaviour, how you think about people, and how you understand decision making.

Visit Dan’s website: http://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/dan-lockton/

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