Monday, March 07, 2005


changing user behavior

If "the customer is always right", one might say as a corollary that "the user is generally right (but not always)." Watching BBC World news tonight, I'm reminded of a deep philosophical assumption of user centered design: people don't change, so designs must. At its core, user centered design is a reaction to the once popular grand theories of reconditioning people, building a better (hu)-man, and naive or optimistic views (your choose) of human behavior as malleable.

The news story involved the price of oil, and what to do when it spikes. The International Energy Agency is looking not just at the supply side, but the demand side as well, how to curb demand, at least temporarily, when oil is in short supply (temporarily). The Dutch government (I love them) points out that energy demand can be reduced if drivers (users) simply change a few habits they use with how they drive. What wonderful common sense -- don't burn rubber while driving when oil is scarce. The advice of the Dutch and the entire International Energy Agency also quietly challenges the false assumption that price alone alters behavior.

What is not tested is if behavior can be altered by appealing to reason. Reason may work for the Dutch, but for the rest of the world, it is a tough sell. We are creatures of unconscious habits.

Will people learn to be more conscientious drivers? Despite my true desires that they might, I have my doubts. Several weeks ago, I found myself looking at a couple of old driver manuals that were produced by the Automobile Association. (I know that may sound odd, but I was in a used bookshop at a time when my wife is just now learning to drive.) One manual was from circa 1960, the other circa 1978. I didn't recognize the instruction in either of them. The older one seemed like it was for driving a tractor -- lost of stuff about the choke in the engine. The 1970s edition had elaborate theory on steering wheel hand positions and maneuvers I believe have been superseded by more contemporary research-informed opinion. I suspect when the publications were issued people didn't worry too much about the very informed, conscientious detail provided by the Automobile Association, and just did whatever minimally worked to get from one place to another.

I have to salute the Automobile Association for producing wonderfully clear instructions. Just how much good instructions change user behavior is not self-evident. Some things are too important not to try, though. The user is always reluctant to change, but is not always "right."

One thing that always gets my spider-sense tingling is when a client talks about "educating the user/customer" - a phrase I've heard all too often when they are proposing a change of behavior (i.e., using their product in the way they want to) that will happen when people finally understand the advantages of their product.

It's always a concern to me, because it suggests that the organization is interested in having me help them understand users but is not interested in changing anything they are doing; they are going to stand still and expect users to come to them - through "education" - a rhetorical term if ever there was one.
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