Wednesday, May 11, 2005


good neighbor design

Just because emotional design is intended to make the user feel good, doesn’t mean it is necessarily about entertainment. Design that reflects and enhances one’s values and sense of personal meaning will bring a sense of well-being. I would like to explore this idea through a design perspective I will call “good neighbor design”.

I suspect most people will agree that having good neighbors is important. People may differ on why it is important. And if you ask people in different cities if they have good relations with their neighbors, the responses will likely vary widely. In some Western countries there is a feeling that neighbourliness is in terminal decline. One sociologist referred to the phenomenon of “bowling alone” to capture the sense that social ties are weakening. Insofar as people feel socially isolated, there exists an opportunity for design to try to improve the social well-being of people, even if modestly.

Let’s say that designers decide that an emotional criterion of a design is that it reflects the user’s desire to be a good neighbor. Sounds nice, but how? One approach is to use techniques from phenomenology. The idea is to get a wide spectrum of people to tell stories about being, or having, a good neighbor. One would then distil these stories for their essence – common factors that arise from different kinds of stories told by different people. Without having done such research on neighborliness, I can only guess some of the themes that might emerge. Themes might include looking out for others, especially kids; lending a helping hand; taking action to prevent mutual problems from arising; and so on.

Once one has a set of design goals, one can explore possible ways to realize these goals. Note that the process starts with the needs of people. It is a very different process than trying to “sex-up” an object that one has already decided to design.

Out of generic design goals, one can explore concepts to reflect neighborliness. If the goal is to take action to prevent a mutual problem from arising, one can look at general occurrences of such problems: trees that might fall over, dogs that dig up other people’s gardens, rubbish bins that blow over on windy days. Perhaps there is a general solution (a sensor that alerts the user/owner perhaps, or the phone number of a service to ring if the owner is out of town), or maybe the problems need solving on product level basis.

The good neighbor example is way to solve a specific design problem, but it can yield wider emotional benefits. The user feels he or she has taken action to be a good neighbour, and other neighbours can appreciate the action taken. Small acts of altruism can build a climate of social reciprocity.

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