Article Comments: “Designing Behaviour”

Tromp, T. and P. Hekkert. 2012. “Designing Behaviour” in Gunn W, Donovan J, eds. 2012. Design and Anthropology. London: Ashgate

Tromp & Hekkert’s article is about how artefacts can affect or change human behaviour, and the broader implications of this idea. As I have discussed previously on this blog, products are carriers of values – they often work as expressions of beliefs and attitudes, and they can even change our behaviour without us being totally conscious of that change. The purpose of Tromp and Hekkert’s article is to lay out a foundation of ways that designers and design anthropologists can recognize this particular role of products, so that they may take responsibility for shaping the products they design (Tromp & Hekkert in Gunn & Donovan 2012: 184).

The focus of this chapter is on how products can change human behaviour: how can we support designers in morally judging? Which/whose values do we take into account? How do we support the active designing of “influence”?

In Tromp and Hekkert’s fictional study, they address the problem of obesity with the goal of inducing a behavioural change. Their goal is to brainstorm a product or service that prevents people from over eating – in an effort to do so, the study implements a number of conceptual schema for framing the issue, and hypothesizes a product of service based on each concept:

  • Affordance: taken from ecological psychology, an affordance is what the product is perceive to allow the user to do. This is dependent, however on the user’s ability to perceive an afforded action in the product. Affordances can manipulate behaviour, because the user’s perception of a product influences how that thing can and will be used.
    • The resulting product of service hypothesized is a small bowl that does not allow much food to be held or contained. The bowl no longer affords the act of over eating because it cannot contain enough food to make that behaviour possible.
  • Nudge: taken from behavioural economics; defined by a subtle “push” towards choosing one action over the other based on the architecture of choice. The intention is to trigger a natural inclination to one option over another.
    • The designed product is a plate with a circle at its center, designating the “normal” amount a food one should consume.
  • Persuasion: taken from social psychology. Persuasive features of a technology are explicitly designed to change a behaviour, like an ATM that beeps when you forget your card. It in some ways actively engages with persuading the user when that user fails to make the desired choice of action.
    • The designed product that Tromp Hekkert hypothesize already assumes that the motivation to eat less is already present in the user, and so they hypothesize a plate that contains a way to measure the portion of food a user puts on it. In doing so, the product actively interacts with the user and makes the “right” choice of action impossible to ignore.
  • Practice Theory: taken from sociology and anthropology, a practice is the smallest unit of behaviour interconnecting a social context and the body through which it occurs. This perspective treats eating as a practice with a distinct set of social-historical rules.
    • The designed object was a container that keeps food fresh outside the fridge. The purpose of which was to play on the social pressure of not wasting food, but in a way which makes saving the food by not eating it just as convenient as eating it.
  • Side effects paradigm: taken from system dynamics, its emphasis is on the “side effects” of design. It necessitates looking at the feedback loops of technology, looking to either reinforce certain typical behaviours that result from their use, or balance them.
    • The design was to treat over-eating as a side effect of something else. For example, overeating has been statistically linked to things like stress. Therefore, the service designed was a physical-educational program which would intervene in the amount of stress created in children.

Each is an investigation into obesity is motivated by a different intention, and a different frame of understanding. Tromp and Hekkert illustrate this notion further with the example of the toothbrush:

“consider the role the brush plays in how one brushes one’s teeth in operational terms e.g. orientation of the brush, duration, but also in social behavioural terms, e.g. how it may produce intimate interaction when one is brushing one’s children’s teeth, and even in routine behaviours that belong to a specific culture e.g. how a toothbrush is part of and contributes to the norm of brushing one’s teeth before going to bed.” (193).


Each approach to a problem necessitates a perspective from which to see the problem, and also a way to solve it. While this may appear as a truism at first glance, the complexities of this idea are not straightforward. Seen as a problem of individual behaviour (psychology), the behaviour is identified at the dinner table – overeating is rectified with a different kind of plate design. Seen as an issue of culture, the behaviour is identified in the storage of food. Seen as a side-effect of stress, the behaviour is rectified at a different level of the individuals’ life. Each of these approaches has its merits, its feasibility of implementation, and its drawbacks.

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