Designing for conscious human behaviours for eco-friendly interaction

Posted on February 15, 2010


I’m off to CHI in April.   Last year I was impressed by all the work going on in Sustainable Interaction Design (see my post on Sohn’s paper).    Nearly 12 months later,   I’m not so sure.    Here’s my position paper for a workshop on SID.

Much of the work in Sustainable interaction design (SID) has taken a line similar to that proposed by Thaler and Sunstein (2009) in Nudge. Sohn et al. (2009), for example, aims to produce products that are “used unconsciously by users with reduced environmental impacts”.  In doing so, Sohn and her see themselves as doing better than existing approaches to eco-friendly design mainly focus on educating users, or making them recognise the need for sustainability. In Designing with unconscious human behaviors for eco-friendly interaction, Sohn and her colleagues instead try to make the sustainable behaviour an unconscious or habitual action.

While I think this drive for unconscious action is important, it is premature to dismiss the wider goal of educating users. The behaviourist approach of making it easier to behave in a preferred manner will only be lasting if the external force (ie the clever design) remains. The best we could hope for is that learning through repetition will occur so that the person behaves appropriately when confronted with a less well designed interface. What would happen if the sustainably preferred option is actually hard? Or indeed there is no clear preferred option and we are faced with complex social dilemmas? (Osbaldisto and Sheldon 2002).

Schendler (2009) describes the scale of the problem as being “so great that to many people it is incomprehensible”. He describes how individual actions – using canvas bags at the supermarket – are necessary but inadequate: “we can’t afford the delusion that such individual action is enough”. Instead, he argues that we need to define meaningful actions, and then “get those jobs done”. Thus, he says, we should indeed change our light bulbs, but more important is the task of figuring out “how can you help ensure that everyone on the planet changes their light bulbs?”.

Schendler argues:

To lessen the charges of hypocrisy that could be brought against any of us, it seems obvious that the best thing to do would be to implement even more sustainable practices— the real ones, things that really matter and drive real change. To do that you need to be clear-eyed about how you can make a real difference: you need to find your biggest lever and use it.

For Schendler, a manager in the Aspen ski business, his lever was leadership through brand recognition, for Walmart, he argues, it is supply chain influence (“what really matters is what’s on the shelves”). Schendler argues that “our job is to find out how we can have a vastly disproportionate impact”. Such “levers of change” are described by Parris and Kates (2003) as forces that both control the rate of positive change and are subject to policy intervention.For those of us in education, our biggest lever is our ability to positively influence the skills, values and behaviours of our graduates. This leverage extends beyond sustainability. It is, of course, why we have an education system at all.

Applied to people, we can think of change agents (AtKisson (2008) argues that “change agents – people dedicated to promoting sustainability ideas and innovations – are needed in every field, in ever increasing numbers”. So, if we want interaction designers to become a sustainable practitioners, we need to identify our biggest lever- and pull on it.

So, I think SID’s biggest lever is bigger than “unconscious change”. Instead we should not give up on bigger goals. As a society we have to learn to live in a complex world of interdependent systems with high uncertainties and multiple legitimate interests. These complex and evolving systems require a new way of thinking about risk, uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (Stagl 2007). These systems require that we can think simultaneously of drivers and impacts of our actions across scales and barriers of space, time, culture, species and disciplinary boundaries.

This means everyone needs skills in the following set of attributes. How can SID help with these?

– Systems thinking
– An understanding of the connected nature of our socio-ecological system
– Critical and creative thinking
– Ability to themselves act as change agent
– Understanding of ethics
– Sense of participation and action
– Values conducive to sustainability (note, not a particular prescribed set of values but rather a recognition of the importance of values).

What can SID do to educate users to promote sustainable (in both senses) behaviour change, without this education becoming a barrier itself? Perhaps  SID’s biggest lever is to ensure our interaction experiences build on an individual’s capacity to think systematically, creatively and critically?

Michael Lambert (2004) describes elements of successful change in behaviour. The core elements are: a person’s readiness; that the environment is conducive (it is possible to change); and relational factors are aligned – positive regard, congruency, and empathy.

Proving support for behaviour change is clearly not as simple as more providing information. SID can learn much here from Education for Sustainability. Sterling (2004) describes the early days of environmental was the basis of early environmental education that what is needed is information to “remedy environmental ignorance” and the idea has persisted.

Onwueme and Borsari (2007) argued that everyone carries a sustainability deficit. Their sustainability asymptogram shows that perfect sustainability is not possible. An implication of this is that if everybody carries a sustainability deficit (everyone is somewhere short of 100 percent sustainability) then, there is need for more humility and sensitivity in conveying the sustainability message to others.

A holier-than-thou attitude towards people with a lower sustainability index is likely to stigmatize the listener and harden resistance to the message. Such sanctimonious superciliousness only invites resistance from those we are trying to inform and educate. An alternative position could be the one that recognizes the shared frailty or culpability of speaker and listener, in that each one carries a sustainability deficit, large or small.

Recognising that 100 percent sustainability is a perfect state that is practically unattainable by anybody or any system is an empowering position. It accepts that no matter what their behaviour, everyone can be seen as on a journey towards sustainability.

On this journey we need two things from interaction design. First we can help with the actual behaviours – for instance giving a great boost to ecoliteracy by making impacts visible (Goleman 2009). Second, and equally important, by helping people with the elements of Lambert’s successful change.

To do this latter task, we need to unpack our understanding of where people are on this journey. Too often, as people committed to sustainability, we make the mistake of stigmatizing our fellow travellers, demeaning them as incapable or unwilling to embrace the sustainability paradigm. Too often the assumption is that someone acting unsustainably doesn’t know about – or doesn’t care about – degradation of the earth’s systems. We make the mistake of then deluging them with facts about the state of the glaciers, or ocean acidity levels, or the perilous state of  … (insert your favourite charasmatic megafauna).

We can instead see a continuum of readiness to engage in sustainable behaviours. Here for example is a set of statements regarding people’s readiness to act as a sustainable practitioner (you can easily convert for home).

Tell me when you stop agreeing with these statements:
1. Ecosystems are under stress and are declining, and this is affecting human conditions and futures.
2. Sustainability – defined broadly as meeting the needs of all current and future generations – is a reasonable approach to addressing this decline.
3. Sustainability is the responsibility of everyone, in their whole lives – including work (this work component we call sustainable practice).
4. This work component – the sustainable practitioner – applies to every career, every discipline.
5. Acting as a sustainable practitioner means both reducing my footprint (reducing harm) and increasing my handprint (actions towards sustainability).
6. I am currently integrating sustainable practice into my work (ie acting as a sustainable practitioner).

At each stage in this continuum, different barriers hinder people’s ability or willingness to act in a sustainable manner. The opportunity is for sustainable interaction design to get a lot smarter at recognising the complexities of these barriers and then in developing strategies and tools to assist people to make successful change.

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Lambert, M. J. (2004). Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change, Wiley. 854
Onwueme, I. and B. Borsari (2007). “The sustainability asymptogram.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8(1): 44.
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