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Design for Behavior Change: Ethics & Trending

By Kim Dowd


“Design for Behavior Change” is a trending theme in our graduate studio this year. We call it different things—”A New System for This” or “A Game to Foster That,” but the basics are the same:

  1. People have a habit (e.g. driving to work)

  2. People should change habit (biking to work)

  3. Encourage habit change through clever design (iPhone application with point system that rewards biking behavior.)

In my particular nook of this movement, I initially posed: “If American teens change one small habit now—use of plastic, riding bikes, buying fewer disposable items—the impact in 40 years would be phenomenal.” I pitched this to colleagues, teachers, and really any stranger that would listen. Little did I know how quickly I could anger people! Responses ranged from “Yes, the world needs this,” to “Well, humanity doesn’t need to last forever,” to “You are obliterating human volition,” with a subtext of “You’re an icky, icky propaganda pusher.” It was not my intention to manipulate, but surely no dictator ever thought themselves a monster. This last comment lead me to complete a literature review covering the ethics of design for behavior change. I collected a few tenets, wrote them on Post-It notes and stuck them in my studio space:

  1. To design is to create something new. To use something new is to create new behavior. Thus, all design incites behavior change.  (The car, the bike and the application all incite behaviors.) (Redstrom, J., 2008)

  2. Do not do anything to people that you would not want done to yourself. (Do not lie and say the car is broken and biking is the only option.)

  3. Disclose your motivations, methods, and intended outcome to users. (Tell users the goal is to bike to work to improve their health and the environment. If they have no interest in these goals, they can opt out.)

  4. Take responsibility for expected outcomes of use of a design. (If the application rewards people with $1000 for biking 100 miles the first time they use the application, the resultant health problems are the designer’s fault.) (Berdichevsky et al., 1999)

This list has helped me to stay within the ethical boundaries of design for behavior change. Attending the Design for Conversion Conference in New York helped me to learn why it is trending. First, research institutions like the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab are helping designers to understand the underlying psychology of habit formation and change. Second, maturing technology and proliferating online personal information allow products like FitBit, PNC’s Virtual Wallet, and AllState’s Drive Wise Program allow people to capture every day behavior to first expose and then to modify habits. Third, as Design Thinking extends into classrooms, businesses, and services, designers face new challenges. Fourth, any product that becomes part of a user’s habits also becomes part of their life and is a sustained, profitable connection between the sponsor of the product and the user. Nike+ and Mint.com are two examples. Last, designers are creators and need to alter some part of our shared world. Abstractly viewed, a person is an individual collections of habits. If each thing we do is a manifestation of a habit, if one wanted to change the world, they need only to change the habits of enough people.

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