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Design’s impact on wellness, prevention, and healthcare.

Designing Life-Changing Solutions

The boundaries between design and psychology are progressively blurring. With designers increasingly facing high stakes challenges and more psychologists jumping off the academic pedestal to get their hands dirty with real people in real contexts, the two disciplines are more intertwined than ever before.

About a decade ago, the job of the designer was making the path from A to B as easy and streamlined as possible. During this “usability” golden age, the main focus was to remove any type of cognitive friction along a predefined path to a predefined goal. Anyone interested in buying a book online, for example, only needed to know where they were in the process and what steps were necessary to ensure the right product was delivered to the right address. Other key elements of the experience, such as where the need for the book originated or how reading the book would enrich a person’s life, were given little to no consideration.

Today’s landscape is quite different. Designing highly usable products and services to help people buy books online is still significant but designers also have the chance to influence people’s lives and decisions on a much deeper level.

The spread of widely available technology, such as sensors, smartphones, and high-speed mobile networks, puts us on top of a mountain of data and allows designers to tackle problems in ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago. By making sense of this abundance of data, designers are able to create life-changing products and services that help people achieve goals and objectives in relevant, meaningful, and actionable ways.  This ability moves design beyond the “A to B” scenario to embrace whole new solutions in which the starting point is known but the destination and the path to get there cannot be precisely defined upfront. Clear goals with clear paths have broadened, becoming as vague as “taking good care of yourself,” “living a healthy lifestyle,” or “managing your personal finances.”

This creates the opportunity for designers to work together with psychologists, as well as other subject matter experts, to better define how these broad challenges can be translated into meaningful products and services that are able to become true life companions. It is an ambitious goal and our experience at frog suggests that, in order to achieve it, we need to help people to frame the purpose, to find commitment, and to forge resolution over time.

Frame the Purpose

In the 1980s, glucose meters were among the first consumer medical devices introduced to the market. These devices allowed diabetic people to conveniently self-measure their blood glucose level and adjust their insulin shots accordingly. It was a huge step forward in diabetes management, relieving many diabetics from a good number of the chores that filled their daily routine. On the other hand, this revolutionary tool didn’t change the focus of a diabetic person’s life. No matter how usable and well-designed the glucose meter was, managing diabetes still meant keeping blood glucose fluctuations in range while being prepared to face emergencies such as hypos and hypers.

In the past few years, things have rapidly changed and diabetes management is experiencing another revolution. Companies like Medtronic and Cellnovo are introducing new ecosystems of products and services that approach diabetes management from a more holistic perspective. By including fundamental information, such as food intake, physical activity, and personal notes, this new generation of devices shifts the overall focus from a single number (the blood glucose value) to the person as a whole (“I need to take good care of myself.” ) As a result, diabetics gain a much higher degree of control over their condition.

Find Commitment

In September 2010, five colleagues from frog’s Milan studio decided it was time to start running after a way-too-relaxed summer. Rather solely hoping that their willpower would be stronger than the inevitable pain, they decided to set up a private challenge on the popular Nike+ platform.  All of a sudden, what was a vague and undefined goal (“Let’s get back in shape.”) became a clear objective with a defined deadline (running the longest aggregated distance over the next 30 days.) This was enough to get people started. Social pressure took care of the rest. During the entire duration of the challenge, teasing between competitors about their respective performances was a common practice in the workplace as people exhausted themselves on a daily basis to avoid slipping down to the bottom of the chart.

The outcome of this private experiment was outstanding. Although no prize was up for grabs, aside from the “glory” of being the best runner in the studio, each of the five participants ran an aggregated distance of more than 100km at the end of the 30 days. Not bad for a bunch of sedentary designers trying to reduce their waistline.

Rather than requiring people to become athletes overnight, Nike+ helped my frog colleagues, along with millions of people around the world, find commitment by setting reasonable goals, focusing on the objectives at hand, celebrating new achievements, and staying motivated while approaching their long term purpose.

Commitment doesn’t necessarily grow from a deliberate choice and subsequent willpower. The environment around us and the objects we interact with often influence the way we behave without us even noticing it. A breakthrough experiment conducted in a suburban Chicago movie theatre, and described in Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating, illustrates this influence.

After purchasing a ticket for Mel Gibson’s new action movie, Payback, every moviegoer received a soft drink and either a medium-size or a large-size bucket of popcorn. The popcorn in both bucket sizes was stale, having been popped five days earlier.  The buckets were also large enough to ensure nobody could finish them. The experiment’s goal was to see if people would eat the stale popcorn and whether there was a correlation between the quantities eaten and bucket size. After the movie, participants were asked to return their buckets so they could be weighed and to fill out a form with a few questions. The researchers discovered that the participants not only ate the stale popcorn, but those with the bigger bucket ate 53% more. When asked if the size of the bucket influenced on the quantity of popcorn eaten, participants replied with statements like "I'm pretty good at knowing when I'm full” or “that wouldn’t happen to me.”

When designing to help people find a commitment for change, we should always seek to understand whether it’s a motivation issue or an environment issue and be ready to design accordingly.

Forge Resolution Over Time

Did I mention what happened after the frog Milan running challenge ended? In a matter of weeks, the magic was over and all of the challengers quickly became accustomed to the comfort of their sofas again.

To be a real life-changer, a design should be effective not only in the short term but also in the middle to long run, even when this means years or decades. In fact, the risk that the effectiveness of a product or a service goes away with the initial excitement is extremely high and it’s up to us, designers and psychologists, to take the right countermeasures.

Take Mint.com, for instance. The popular personal financial management service not only allows its users to set their financial goals, but it explicitly encourages the use of automatic deposits on dedicated accounts that are difficult to withdraw money and linked to each goal. By doing so, Mint.com creates an environment that, on one side, supports users’ initial decisions and makes them extremely easy to pursue – thanks to automatic deposits – and, on the other side, makes it harder to turn back on a decision – no cards or checks to spend the money beforehand. This way, the likeliness that a goal is reached is radically increased, even after the initial motivation fades away.

In the stale popcorn example, we saw how the design of certain items we interact with may influence our behavior without raising our awareness and motivation. But how can we make sure this behavior change will be sustainable over time?

On January 10th 2005, the Italian government introduced a smoking ban in all of the public spaces, throwing millions of smokers literally out in the cold with their guilty pleasures. During the following 5 months, the Ministry of Health promoted a series of initiatives to raise the awareness around the ban and the risks of secondhand smoke, especially for children or pregnant women. At the same time a network of anti-smoking support centers expanded throughout the country in order to properly support those who were willing to quit.
To the surprise of the many skeptics, the ban not only was widely respected with little or no enforcement by public authorities but, over the course of the years, lead to an overall reduction of the number of smokers across the country and to a significant reduction of heart attacks among the population. By increasing people’s awareness after a hard ban and supporting the choice of those who were willing to quit, the Italian government managed to change the behavior and the habits of millions of people almost overnight and to properly sustain it over time.

By designing products and services that frame the purpose, find commitment, and forge resolution over time we have the unprecedented chance to help people not only mechanically change their behavior in the long-term but to also bring meaning and order to their life on a wide scale, shaping what  psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “unified flow experience.”

When this is accomplished, people feel in control of their lives and reach a state of harmony and happiness, whether they are managing a chronic disease such as diabetes, conducting a healthier lifestyle with no smoke and more exercise, or saving for retirement. Adding meaning to people’s lives and making  them happier is one of the most exciting challenges we, as designers and psychologists, have in front of us and it’s up to us to turn it into an opportunity for the good.  

Image Credit (from top): 123, 4 

Giorgio Baresi is a principal designer based in frog's Milan studio.