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The 'Ethnography Defense'

As I continue to explore the issues around behavior and influence I find myself caught up in a debate between the proponents and critics of 'Persuasive Design'. This is not a trivial debate, though it can come down to some very fuzzy semantics, such as the difference between intent, influence, persuasion and coercion. Try to imagine Fred Thompson's booming voice here:

"Mr. Fabricant, did you Design with the express purpose of persuading end users?"

"No, your honor. I swear, I was just responding to user needs. In this case the users kinda 'asked' for it. Really. I was just doing what they wanted. At least I thought so at the time."

"Do you have any evidence at all to support your claim?"

"Well,to be perfectly honest, the users never came out and actually told me exactly what they wanted. You know how unreliable users are. As a Designer we are trained to have a powerful sense of intuition...you see, your Honor, I observed the users on multiple occasions and identified these 'unmet needs' that they weren't even aware of."

"Do I need to remind you that you are under oath?"

"Your honor, at this point my attorney has advised me to plead UCD so that I don't incriminate myself any further. Are you familiar with the Ethnography Defense?"

This question most recently popped up in two very thoughtful responses to my designmind article on blogs related to design and behavior: Design with Intent and Design and Behavior. I recently struck up a dialogue with Dan and we had talked about these issues previously. This trust helped to get around the minefield of language that seems to be kicking around the academic community. This is not the case with Jamie who questioned my position on 'Persuasion', speculating that I might be more 'in favor of persuasive techniques' than I realize.

Fair enough. I don't know that I have aritculated a terribly clear position. But I have yet to idenitfy a simple boundary between designs that have persuasive intentions and those that don't (other than, perhaps, the awareness of the designer that he/she is using persuasive tools). Dan has taken a crack at defining this boundary: "I would argue that in cases where design with intent, or design for behaviour change, is aligned with what the user wants to achieve, it’s very much still user-centred design, whether enabling, motivating or constraining. It’s the best form of user-centred design, supporting a user’s goals while transforming his or her behaviour." 

I dont find this distinction to be sufficient in practice. How do we decide what the user really 'wants to achieve' as Dan describes it? The fact is that there are a host of different influences that come to bear in any experience. And a host of different needs that drive user behavior. This is particularly true as more sources of information (and influence) are brought into day to day situations through mobile technologies. Designers are constantly making judgement calls about which 'needs' we choose to privilege in our designs. In fact, you could argue that this is the central function of design: to sort through the mess of user needs and prioritize the 'right' ones, the most valuable, meaningful...and profitable.

But according to what criteria? These decisions, necessarily, value judgements, no matter how much design research you do. And few designers want to be accountable for these decisions. From that perspective, UCD, starts to seem a bit naive, possibly even a way to avoid accountability for these value judgements.

More importantly, I dont think the design community has the right models and frameworks to really substantiate these decisions. This is the critical issue to me, and the one I am trying to explore by opening up a dialogue with Dan and others. There is a lot to be said for intuition – it is the basic principle on which frog was founded – as well as empathy. These capacities are critical to the design process so that we can appreciate the effect of different choices from the user's persepctive. They are the right starting point. But are they sufficient?

Empathy and insight increase our awareness of the rich and nuanced motivations and desires that underscore personal behavior and social interaction. They help to uncover insights that are not obvious. But how do we then weigh one insight against another; one desire against another? And weight them, I might add, both for their perceived importance to the individual user as well as for their practical ability to motivate the user to modify his / her behavior.

Perhaps it is here that the risks of 'Persuasion' emerge. Even if you have a strong understanding of what the user wishes to achieve, the mechanisms that will most effectively drive that behavior may seem contrived or manipulative. In some cases these mechanisms are things that might make the user uncomfortable – if they were aware of them. But that is precisely the point: users are not very self-aware. Shouldn't designers be?

As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.