After last week’s post on designs with unintended uses, one of my readers mailed in a couple of pictures of this rather extreme example: a cable car in the Italian ski resort of Cortina which has been transformed into a bar for tired skiers to have a drink and snack at.

Every design that makes it out into the real world is almost certain to be subverted. It’s just a matter of time. Designers should be aware of this when they set their own designs free and take advantage of the ingenious new uses that people find for them.

They should  should also remember that the designs of others can be used in ways that their makers would never have expected. Inspiration, if you are open to it, can be everywhere.

More below:


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Many public toilets across the country have been fitted with blue lights to make it hard for heroin users to see their veins. It works… just about, but has enoughs issues to illustrate of two basic rules of design:

Rule 1: Your design probably won’t have the desired effect on the behaviour you want to change

Case in point – it didn’t take long for addicts to work out that you could just mark your veins beforehand. The blue lights also make things worse for some

“Blue lights make it more difficult to see superficial veins, such as those in the forearm. However, when people are injecting into deeper veins such as the femoral vein, the presence of blue lights is an ineffective deterrent. Groin injectors are not looking for a visible vein, and so can continue to inject in such bad lighting. ” 

“The provision of blue lights does not prevent or reduce injecting per se. Rather, it results in displacement of the problem from that arena to other arenas. Worse still, it is likely to mean that activity is moved from one specific location to a number of locations.”

Etc… more points here.

As Dan Lockton would say as part of his excellent Design With Intent, it’s a flawed architecture of control:

“So the blue lighting ‘works’, but is it really a good idea to increase the risk that an injection will be done wrongly – maybe multiple times? This is perhaps a similar argument to that surrounding delibrately reducing visibility at junctions: the architecture of control makes it more dangerous for the few users (and those their actions affect) who ignore or bypass the control. This seems to be an architecture of control with the potential to endanger life, although the actual stated intention behind it probably includes ’saving lives’.”

UPDATE 27 Mar 09 – Dan Lockton pointed out another flawed scheme yesterday: pink lighting to deter teenagers by highlighting their acne… 

Rule 2: Your design will probably affect behaviours you didn’t want to change at all (!) 

In economics there’s a great concept called an externality, which is when other people bear a cost (or receive a benefit) from things you did but didn’t pay (or get compensated) for. For example, when you drive your car you pollute, but don’t really take into account the full cost of the damage your exhaust fumes are causing. That cost to the environment which you don’t have to cover is the negative externality, or side effect.

Almost every design will have side effects where they affect areas which have nothing to do with the purpose of the design – a kind of design externality. The blue light is a good example of this too, spotted from an article about the town of Rugby which installed UV lighting in 2000, only to find that there were uninteded consequences:

Public toilets in Church Street, in Rugby town centre, were closed in February after a shocked cleaner discovered two people having sex inside. In a report to officers, Rugby borough council head of engineering and works David Johnson said the toilets were still suffering anti-social behaviour. 

He said: “The lighting scheme has not achieved its aim. Drug users can mark their veins before entering the building.

“The subdued lighting encourages an atmosphere conducive to sexual activity, while it is off-putting to the public wishing to use the facilities.

“Another problem is that graffiti written in certain pens looks spectacular under UV lighting.”

Now council officers have suggested many of the toilet blocks in the town centre be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch to combat the problem.

Every non-trivial design will have unintended consequences – by being aware of this you can capture them and turn them to your advantage. This is particularly important when dealing with complex social issues.

The larger the gap between the simplicity of the solution and the complexity of the problem, the larger the potential for side effects.

This makes it extra important to put yourself in the shoes of your users (no pun intended) to work out what they need and iterate until you can provide it.

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The most important thing in design and business in general is to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. Unless your target base is yourself, you will not see the product/service you have created in the same way as them. Just as importantly, even if you do understand your customer, or user, they will experience your creation in a different way. For example, they will probably have to discover it (you know everything there is to know), buy it (all you need to do is ask) and use it without anyone telling them what to do (you made it, you know how it works). Finally, how can you know that the service you have designed is delivered right?

The answer is this: dogfooding. Use your product! It’s that simple – although it sometimes means going out of your way (and it can be particularly difficult if you aren’t the target audience). And it’s not just about putting yourself in the position of the ultimate customer – you also have to understand the people making and delivering your idea.  The concept is well known from programming, but applies absolutely everywhere. Take Bobby McFerrin, an amazingly talented singer. He has found a way to manipulate his voice so that when he performs he doesn’t need any accompaniement to create multi-layered compositions. For example:

How does he do it? By being brutally honest with himself:

“It took me at least 2 years, 3 years, of going into a room by myself and turning on a tape recorder and singing before I felt comfortable singing in front of other people. I was afraid to sing around anyone. I was intimidated by the sound of my own voice. I would wait until the house was empty and then I would sing. So it took time. It took six years before I did my first solo concert. So it took about six years of singing constantly, doing a lot of practicing. For the first two years I didn’t listen to another singer. Because I wanted to find what my voice sounded like. Knowing myself, I’m very impressionable. It would have been very easy for me to shop around for a singer whose technique I liked, and use that as my base and try and do what they did, but I made the conscious decision not to do that. I just wanted to make sure that I had a strong base of my own, because I could easily flounder by going out and just copping somebody else’s licks. I used to do that as a piano player and I knew that wasn’t going to get me anywhere.” (link)

You can’t improve until you know what you’re doing.

A bit of homework

So take this concept of dogfooding and think about these two stories about the management of two well known companies. Here’s your homework: which of these two companies has bucked the trend of a declining industry, becoming a globally recognised innovator, and which one is the poster child for its tragically collapsing, bailout-needing sector?

AirAsia’s and its CEO, Tony Fernandes – (link)

Mr Fernandes says that he came to the industry with no preconceptions, but found it rigidly compartmentalised and dysfunctional. He wanted AirAsia to reflect his own unstuffy, open and cheerful personality. He is rarely seen without his baseball cap, open-neck shirt and jeans, and he is proud that the firm’s lack of hierarchy (very unusual in Asia) means anyone can rise to do anyone else’s job. AirAsia employs pilots who started out as baggage handlers and stewards; for his part, Mr Fernandes also practises what he preaches. Every month he spends a day as a baggage-handler; every two months, a day as cabin crew; every three months, a day as a check-in clerk. He has even established a “culture department” to “pass the message and hold parties”.

General Motors and its top management-(link)

Not only are managers and executives insulated from learning what goes in their company because they generally talk rather than listen, they are also insulated from experiencing what it is like to buy and own a car.   GM has a perk for managers down to fairly low levels where all are given a GM car to drive – they rotate from one car to another.  I am not sure of the exact details, but answers to the questions I’ve asked over the years  suggest it goes something like this: the lowest level managers have to buy their own cars, the ones at somewhat higher levels get a new car to drive every six months or so but have to do some servicing, the managers who are somewhat higher-up get somewhat fancier cars and are freed from any servicing (gas is even put in the cars of some executives so they don’t have to go to the service station), and the highest level executives get a car and a driver.

In other words, this system effectively insulates people in management – especially those in senior management — from experiencing what it is like to shop for, bargain for, purchase, service, and sell a car. They only get the driving experience. Well, except for the most senior executives, who don’t even get that experience — they watch a person in the front seat drive a big car.  Now, it is true, that the most senior executives do own GM cars for personal use, but it is my understanding that when a car is delivered to a senior executive, special attention is devoted to the car – even during the production process –to make sure the top brass aren’t exposed to a car with any flaws. Wouldn’t that be nice?

So there you have it, a system that seems designed to isolate executives from reality.  They talk instead of listen and are protected from the experience of owning car.   I might be exaggerating some, but not much.

It’s not too hard to guess…

Michael Dudok de Wit is a master animator and the creator of this short from 2000, which has deservedly won an Oscar, Bafta, Grand Prix at Annecy and a dozen other awards.

It’s called Father and Daughter, and really needs to be seen by any creator who wants an emotional reaction to their work.

It’s a wonderful and inspiring piece of work, not just because it is superb from a technical point of view (that alone should be an example to all interaction designers) but mostly because of the strong feelings it throws up – it’s hard not to be affected, and even drawn to tears.

Wikipedia has this to say about him:

Michael Dudok de Wit (born in 1953, Holland) is an animator, director and illustrator. In 1978, he graduated from the West Surrey College of Art with his first film The Interview. After working for a year in Barcelona, he settled in London where he directs and animates award-winning commercials for television and cinema. In 1992, he created the short film Tom Sweep, followed by The Monk and the Fish (1994), which was made in France with the studio Folimage. This film was nominated for an Oscar and has won numerous prizes including a César Award for Best Short Film and the Cartoon d’Or. Michael also writes and illustrates children’s picture books and teaches animation at art colleges in England and abroad.

His most well-known film Father and Daughter (2000) won an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, the Grand Prix at Annecy, and dozens of other major awards. His most recent short film is “The Aroma of Tea” (2006), drawn entirely with tea.

All of his films since Tom Sweep feature Michael’s trademark brush stroke drawing and his use of ink and watercolour, very much inspired by Chinese and Japanese art.

Check out his other masterpieces below and some of his advertising work on the ACMEfilmworks site.

Tom Sweep (1992)

The Monk and the Fish (1994)

The Aroma of Tea (2006)


PS – get this book: Secrets of Oscar-winning Animation: Behind the Scenes of 13 Classic Short Animations

PSS – If you speak French, you can read an extract from the book about Father and Daughter on the publisher’s site and read an interview with the director.

The other day I popped into my local branch of Lloyds TSB and saw this next to the ATM:

Picture 166

Taking a closer look:

Picture 165

A heatmap shows the busiest times for that particular branch, with a bit of analysis above to help people make sense of it and explain, for example, the grey block on wednesday morning (staff training day).

Short interview with the guys who put it up

This is very interesting – a bank visualising its data to change customer behaviour. Rebecca Reeves, the branch manager, was kind enough to answer a few questions about it:

Raphael D’Amico: Thanks for agreeing to explain this display a little bit. So, why did this start?

Rebecca Reeves: We noticed that we had both business and personal account holders coming in the lunchtime rush hour, even though business customers can generally choose to come at any time of the day. The idea behind this was to try to get our business customers to come by when the branch was quieter.

RD: How does it work? 

RR: It uses the transactions done in the branch. We record the data and a team at the head office feeds back these heatmaps.

RD: Is it just this branch?

RR: No, it is done across the country.

RD: Has it worked?

RRIt has actually. We started recording data about a year ago, and put the first heatmap on the wall six months ago. When we analysed the data again quite recently we saw that customer transactions were more spread out across the day.

In particular, it didn’t make that much of a difference to personal customers – they still came mostly at lunchtimes – but business customers did start coming more often at other times.

RD: How did you measure the improvement? Did you measure queue lengths, for example?

RR: Just by sight – the only formal measurement was the transaction data, which tells us the time and type of customer, for example.

RD: Thanks for your time.

Neat, but what could it do better?

This idea is clearly a good one and has worked, but there is as always room for iteration. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Make it bigger and move it slightly further from the cashpoint. Putting it next to a cashpoint is a good idea and gives it exposure, but the size and positioning means you have to be close to the wall to see it. This leads to two less than ideal situations:
    1) You look at it while taking cash out, which slows you down and makes people behind you wait.
    2) You take a proper look afterwards, which means you have to stand directly next to and very close to the next person taking money out, which tends to make both you and them uncomfortable. It is almost a social taboo to do this, and probably keeps a a fair few people away.
    A larger, more legible display would solve this.
  • Put it near to other queues in the branch, not just the ATM. The queue for the bank teller is longer than the one for the ATM, which would make customers even more receptive to this kind of display.
  • Measure how long you are actually taking to serve customers. While the transaction data is a good proxy, Lloyds should spot check exactly how long it takes them to serve each customer (how do they promise four minutes?). This may also allow them to segment their customers better – perhaps there are some transactions that are more time consuming and could be addressed in the heatmap display.
  • Show customers the changes. Showing people that this display has already changed behaviour may make it even more effective through social proof.
  • Share data. Comparing customer patterns across branches might reveal some good techniques they can learn from each other. I didn’t ask about this, so it could be that the branches already do this – I imagine the data analysis is centralised for this purpose. 

It’s really great to see a large organisation using this kind of technique (particularly a bank, right now!).

Are there other companies feeding the behaviour of their customers back to them?


A few weeks ago I wrote about Kickstart, the innovative company which has already helped half a million poor African people to lift themselves out of poverty. By designing products like the SuperMoneyMaker pump and selling them instead of giving them away, they make sure that 80% of them are used to start businesses, which does two thing: 1) it takes the average farmer’s income from $110 dollars to $1100 a year and 2) absolutely flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Wonderful!

After the post the great folks there got in touch and Ken Weimar, Senior Development Officer at Kickstart agreed to answer a few questions. Read on below.

The tools to end poverty.

Raphael D’Amico: What Kickstart brings to poor communities is tools which allow them to help themselves, so the design is all important.  When you and your designers were creating these tools for poor African farmers, what preconceptions (Western or otherwise) got in the way? How did you get into the minds of your future customers?

Ken Weimar: Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome was the very western idea of tools and technology to save time and labor.   Saving labor is good, right?  Well not if that “labor” is someone’s job.  We love to save time because it feels so scarce and precious.   But in the developing world, time and labor are a poor person’s greatest assets—they have them in abundance and they can be quite valuable. That’s why our designs are focused on turning time and labor into cash rather than “saving” them.

R: How did you involve locals in the design process? 

K: This was a team effort and our team is mostly  Kenyan engineers and craftsmen.    As a bunch of guys our first approach was to make the pump as powerful as possible and that meant long treadles.  But we quickly found that women did not like that.  The bigger stride required by the longer pedals is hard to do when you are wearing a skirt.  Plus the longer treadles meant the users backside was elevated to about eye level and women thought it unseemly.   So we reconfigured the treadles, stepping them down to keep the user lower to the ground, and went to work to increase the power with a more efficient valve design.

R: Was there any local design ability?

K: Yes, of course.  There is a tremendous amount of creativity born out of hardship. It is amazing to see how creatively EVERYTHING in Africa is reused.  We have a whole team of locals in our Tech Development department.   Some are trained engineers, others are skilled fabricators. In Africa we have creative craftsmen and tinkerers, and we have trained engineers.  What we are missing are the entrepreneurial inventors who can create the tool or technology that can be widely adopted.

R: What made you pick IDEO as a collaborator?

K: Martin has  known David and Tim for a long time and has a great deal of respect for the work they’ve done in creating the Design School at Stanford.  Any engineer could do the calculations we need, but I think IDEO shares our vision and loves to work around the challenges.  A lot of people would have been stumped by the limitations of the raw materials and processes available to us in East Africa.  IDEO jumped in with us and said, “OK, we know the limitations, let’s work around them.”

R: What were the characteristics of your most successful designers?

K: Tenacity, of course, is a needed in any good designer.  But you said “successful” so let’s interpret that to mean that a design gets widely adopted and used and maybe even changes the way we live.  To be successful then means thinking way beyond the design of the “thing”.  Creating a new machine is the easiest part (and this is plenty hard).  But you have to be able to understand the economics, you need to be thinking about how is my “thing” going to get from my workbench to a factory to a store and ultimately into the hands of a consumer.  And you need to be able to design these systems as you are working on the design of the thing.

R: In 2005 I had the privilege of visiting one the workshops where the MoneyMaker was being made. How many others like it were there, and what made you move production to China?

K: If you saw our factory, you saw one of the most advanced manufacturing plants in Africa.  And I am sure you recall it was pretty primitive.   You want a design challenge?  How about this:  you are trying to create a design that can be mass produced locally, but the raw materials can vary as much as 10% in dimensions from one batch to another.  Manufacturing in China opens so many more options for manufacturing that just don’t exist in Kenya.  We can also ship to anywhere in the world more easily from China.  Like everyone else, we can manufacture more cheaply in China, which means we become more self sufficient.

Of course everyone asks about creating jobs.   Well, we’ve created maybe 50-75  jobs in the manufacturing of our pumps, and over 100,000 jobs through the use of our pumps.  Helps put that decision in perspective.

R: The most impressive thing about Kickstart is the way you’ve flipped the traditional view of aid – instead of seeing the poor as a burden to carry, you’ve realised that they can help themselves, why is why you charge for the MoneyMaker pump and created a supply chain where everyone benefits.

K: Thank you, yes! It is about sustainability.  Everyone uses that term differently and often to mean “when are you going to stop asking me for money”.   It’s a valid question but not the most important.  The most important measure of sustainability is “will the people who are helped, stay helped?”  The next is “can additional people avail themselves of this solution without additional cost to the donor?”  That is the beauty of and the importance of the supply chain.  As long as there is demand, and each player makes a profit, our pumps (or anything distributed this way) will be available to everyone who wants one.

R: How did you develop this approach? Did you try any others before this one?

K: Oh yes indeed.  Nick Moon and Martin worked on every kind of development/aid programme you could imagine.  They were both were idealistic young guys and went to Africa wanting to make things better.  They built schools and ran training programs and built factories and installed huge water systems and not a single one of their projects lasted more than a few years past the end of our involvement.

Perhaps the first lesson they learned what that giveaways don’t work—not because the recipients are ungrateful, but because we tend to give away what we want to give rather than what is actually needed.

R: How did you go about creating this sustainable system? What were the challenges?

K: It wasn’t easy.  We wanted our pumps in Agro-Vet stores that sell other ag inputs.  Makes sense right?  Well not many were interested at first.  These were new and so much more expensive than anything they ever sold.  Our first retailers were butchers and hairdressers.  But the bigger challenge is getting funders to understand what we are trying to do and how building this supply chain means real sustainability.

R: Was there any cultural resistance as you went up against traditional methods?

K: God yes!  There still is!  There may have been some farmers who thought “if I wait around long enough they’ll just give it to me,” but the bigger cultural resistance was (and to a large degree still is) from the traditional aid organizations.    They think we are unfair to make people invest in themselves.  They think we are simplistic for insisting that the cause of poverty, the very definition of poverty, is not having enough money.

There is always the challenge of dealing with silos.  We get grouped with a bunch of different organizations but don’t really fit neatly in these categories.  For instance, we work with farmers and within the AG sector, but for us , Ag is an economic engine for income generation.  We get grouped with the water sector because we make pumps but for us pumps are  a means to an end.  And we get grouped with the new technology for the developing world group, and we have a lot of friends here, but again our technology has the very specific purpose of generating income, where most other technologies are about reducing a burden of some sort.   The upside is that we have a lot of friends in a lot of sectors, and even if we can’t collaborate, it’s exciting and energizing to talk with other social entrepreneurs.

The downside is that we always seem to be about ten degrees off plumb with major funders.  That is the challenge of being the innovator, the first mover, the leading edge…it takes a while for the world to catch up with you!

R: Where do you see Kickstart going next? 

K: We have just scratched the surface on what is possible with our pumps.  There is a worldwide potential for over 40 million pumps and we’ve sold 125,000.  There is a lot of room for growth.  We’ve got some allied technology, like a pretty effective well-drilling technology that we’d love to get out on the market, and I’ve got a few other ideas I’d love to pursue, but for the foreseeable future, KickStart will continue to be about irrigation.

R: Finally, I wonder if there are other situations which are waiting for this kind of turnaround. Crudely speaking, your products act as a catalyst which allow a community to use the same resources they had before to reach a higher standard of living, which would could otherwise only achieve by pumping money and aid from outside. Everybody wins when this happens – the community get better off and the resources which would previously have been diverted to helping them can go to help another. In business you would crudely call this turning a cost center into a revenue center. 

K: We changed our name from ApproTEC (appropriate technology for enterprise creation) to KickStart because KickStart really captures what we are trying to do—to stimulate economic growth.  A lot of people think that these farmers climb up to some plateau and stay there.  In reality, these people continue on this upwards spiral of prosperity—growing their businesses, diversifying, creating jobs and hiring.  So yes, there is a ripple effect.

The ripple effect we talk about though is better governance.  A fundamental problem in Africa is bad governance.  To be fair, think about where the US was 40 or 60 years post independence—we were heading into a horrible civil war that nearly destroyed our country, so we need to keep post-colonial Africa in perspective.  But in these nominal democracies, you can buy a vote for a handful of rice because people are starving.  But when I have enough money to feed my family you can buy my support for dollar.  When I’m not worried about basic survival, I can start demanding things like roads and schools and electricity and you, as a politician had better deliver or get voted out.  That’s how an entrepreneurial middle class brings better governance.  Not the other way around.

R: I’m sure this could be done elsewhere. For example, schools often see controlling kids as a necessity, hence costly investment in attendance tracking software and reporting of discipline. Maybe there is a product out there that would cast this in another light.

Have you seen any other areas ripe for this kind of shift? 

K: Absolutely.  There are so many goods and services that we want to give away for free that could be provided far more sustainably through the marketplace.  We’ve long championed the idea of franchised, for-profit schools in Africa and our friend Jay Kimmelman is doing just that.  Bridge International Academies will provide a higher quality education for less than what parents might pay to send their kids to public schools.

Medical care is another.  In Kenya (and in most of Africa) the “free” public clinics are so underfunded that you have to bribe doctors and nurses to get care.  Or people pay witchdoctors or charlatans for ineffective or dangerous care.  Imagine if that for less what you would pay for a bribe, you could buy decent care and real medicines.   Our friends at SHEF in Kenya had done some of this and work and others are taking the idea to the next level.

I know, some people recoil in horror to think about asking poor people to pay for things like medical care or education.  But without a tax base these will always be dependent on external donor funding and is that really the model we want to continue?  And think for just one moment about how it would feel if everything in your life was provided by some donor—your food, your clothing, your house, your church, your medicine.  Is there anything “empowering” about that? 

R: What lessons from solving poverty would you apply back to the first world?

K: We’ve always said that solving poverty is Africa is so much easier than solving poverty in America or the UK or Europe.   In the developed world, maybe 10% of the population is a permanent underclass.  These are the people with serious mental health and substance abuse issues who need a lot of “wrap around” services to get to a basic functional level.

 In Africa, 80% of the people are poor.    Within that 80% are all of the people who would have been solidly middle class had they been born elsewhere.  More importantly, within that 80% are the people who would have been doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.  These people still have the same basic intelligence and the same drive and determination.  They just happen to live in a place where there are few opportunities.

No matter where in the world you live, poverty is about money and income (specifically the lack thereof)

Thanks for the great interview and I wish the best of luck to Kickstart getting a pump into the hands of the 40 million farmers and families who need them! 

How long until this is realised?

UPDATE  – 2019, if Microsoft is to be believed (well, more or less)