Controlling consumers' behaviour through design

“Imagine if you found that your expensive, top-of-the range new digital camera refused to photograph you and your friends standing in a city street because of a load of trademarked logos behind you. Or if your camcorder video of baby’s first steps cut out suddenly because baby walked in front of a TV?”

I’m doing some research into how, increasingly, products are being designed to control or restrict consumers’ behaviour in a way that parallels what’s going on with DRM/‘trusted’ computing in software - architectures by Dan Lockton - and it would be great to get some comments from other designers on how you see this field evolving in the next few years. Any comments gratefully received ( Thanks.

Interesting thoughts-- I think this will make an extremely compelling thesis paper. You might also want to contrast this concept of “hyper-controlled” design with the open-source movement-- ‘products’ designed with the intent to be tinkered with and user-controlled. Keep us updated.

I have a hunch that our objects have been modifying our behavior for a long time now. Are you interested in looking backwards?

Guest - you’re right, of course, that products have been modifying our behaviour, way of life, emotions, everything, for centuries. That’s why we’re designers!

What I’m trying to look at specifically is if the examples of actual ‘hyper-control’ as fueledbycoffee puts it, that are becoming increasingly common with computers, movies and music players, can/will be translated into similar control architectures in other products. Will it become the norm?

Contrasting with open source products could be very useful, thanks for the tip. Some of the work on using open source thinking to develop new products (e.g. Eric von Hippel’s stuff) is relevant here, and shows how innovation suffers the more tightly controlled product designs are. The freedom to tinker is important.

Thanks for your comments.

The RISKS Forum will have lots of examples of the type of system error, if you will, that you propose above, where assumptions about how a system should be working will prevent ordinary usage.

They cover many many other types of risks to the public from computer systems, many due to technology or human error, but I think you’ll find your types of examples - with often some interesting analysis.

Thanks Steve,
That RISKS forum is very interesting, and such a large archive will be fascinating to peruse to find precedents in control architectures and mismatches between consumers’ assumptions about products & systems, and how they actually operate. Very useful.

That camera would have the same fate: no one would buy it. The market still rules.

Research the failure of Sony to compete with the iPod for exactly this reason. They were stubbornly resistant to supporting the piracy-prone MP3 format because of their own record labels fears. In the meantime how much as Apple made on both iPods and their music store? Wired did a good feature article on it last summer.

On the flipside, witness Sony’s brilliance in developing a new media format for the PSP. It fits games and feature-length movies, but is piracy-proof without a media writer available, and without an onboard hard-drive.

Hopefully you’re right, Chris, and consumers will reject products which limit/restrict their behaviour, preferring those that don’t.

But there may come a point with some products where there is no choice in the marketplace, e.g. all the major CPU manufacturers have signed up to the ‘Trusted Computing Group’ (Page not found | Trusted Computing Group ). If legislation along the lines of the DMCA is applied to more products, as part of a general trend, it may only be old hardware that can get round restrictions - and it will be increasingly sidelined as new file formats, etc, make it no longer a viable option for businesses.

You’re right with the Sony/Apple comparison, BUT, a lot of people are becoming very disillusioned with Apple’s restrictions, especially when the terms are modified after purchase (e.g. with the number of users that you can stream to each day, or whatever) - see BBC NEWS | Technology | Online music lovers 'frustrated'

people tend to buy things that gives them more options. it might not be the case for small groups or few individuals. that’s the norm. if some companies develop technologies to do better business ( avoiding getting sued or finding alternatives,etc) it’s not going to change behavior because consumers also seek products that deliver higher performance and performance doesn’t go well with limit or restriction unless there’re conflicting performances which usually are distinguished and finalised at primary stages. accordingly, these performances are sorted out due to their competetive importance more so than their limiting or restrictive preference.

in a sense this arguement resonates the same way the digital divide arguement did a while back. companies realized that their real customers are those with average or lower than average income and young, not the millionaires in their 60’s. so they started competing on price and we all have seen the way the market has changed from an elitist one to an average user one.

therefore looking at it from a different perspective, you can see that there’s more to it than just technology or behavior, and what we assume right now to be the correct technology for the correct behavior might not be the case a few months or years later.

I’m showing some age here, but in the mid 1980’s, PC Magazine made it a policy to not review software products that included copy protection. My IBM word processor fit under that category: it would let you make 3 backups, total of the master floppy disk. Then it would cease to function.

The policy worked for quite some time, but it’s creeping back. Today it would require more than one magazine to pull a stunt like that, but it just goes to show the power of the consumer market.

Hey, at least it’s not a story about COMPUTE! magazine or even worse, Creative Computing. That was my day…or at least my high school days.

(not really adding to the conversation here, sorry)

Okay, some content


Perhaps this is a variation on the theme, but it ties into a lot of other fascinating issues emerging in product usage these days - the potential for amazing hacking, or simple enabling of new functionality.

Short version is that users want Hebrew on their iPod,Apple won’t do it, so someone figured out how to do it, and Apple is saying “no” this voids the warranty.

So not only do manufacturers control behavior and usage by limiting capability, they also block known capability. Much of this ends up in product lore you can find online (i.e., your DVD player may switch from PAL to NTSC through a soft-code enabled by combination of button presses while powering on, etc.; all the stuff about “unlocked” cellphones)

Maybe these are second-order effects from the first stuff - where the company says you can do this and you can’t do that, and people with some knowledge of technology try to work around it - and maybe the nominal examples are to prevent usage and the emerging examples are to enable new usage. It’s too early in the AM and the philosophical issue is too PoMo for me to articulate if those are the same or different :slight_smile:

…copy write infringment is one thing and consumer behavior is another to my confused little mind…are we talking customization or something more akin to open architecture?..tweaking something your way and using something as a tool for your own end is something else is it not?..

Hi everyone,

I’ve put together a website and blog based on the Architectures of Control in Design research - over time, I hope it’ll be a useful archive of examples in product design (as well as systems and environmental examples), and a place to discuss and analyse the implications of the ideas.


I suppose what it comes down to is this: as a designer, when planning a new product, do you (or those who specify the brief) go into it with the intention of only permitting users to do certain things with the product?

For example, when the audio cassette was invented, the ‘recording’ function was an integral feature of most cassette players. The design team didn’t say “we must only allow people to play pre-recorded tapes”; the recording function was important, and indeed it probably fuelled the spread of the technology. It offered customers a benefit that they couldn’t get from, say, a record player. Someone may have considered that ‘illegal copying’ may occur (and of course, later we had the whole “Home Taping Is Killing the Music Industry” campaign), but it presumably wasn’t considered particularly important by the cassette recorder designers or their bosses.

Nowadays, the equivalent thinking in an increasing number of companies (and government agencies) seems to be centred on controlling what the user or consumer can do with the product. Can you imagine if twin-deck DVD recorder/players, together with unencoded DVDs, were the norm? Perhaps it isn’t designers themselves who are driving the change (I don’t remember it ever being expressed as any kind of methodology when I did my design degree), but it must surely be an influential mindset in setting the product specifications or brief in the first place.

Sure, music players and DRM generally are a tired example to use, but they show a clear historical progression from “we’ve designed a product that opens so many doors for the user, so many ways to use it that we haven’t even thought of (think the development of breakbeat and mixtapes)” to “we’ve designed a product that allows the user to do the following thing: 1) Play audio purchased from the following stores, in the following file formats, a limited number of times (if we decide so).”

So, yeah, copyright infringement and user mods of products are different things, but they both relate to how users can interact with designed systems. If you can’t modify a product you own because it’s been designed to be impossible to do so, that product is restricting your behaviour. There are examples of this kind of thinking from other fields—from the layout of cities, to poka-yoke, to speed monitoring technology in cars, to prison architecture.

P.S. As Ringo Starr said in the Simpsons episode “Brush with greatness”, forgive the lateness of my reply

The virtual is slowly and also very quickly taking away the real.

the products have been modifying our behaviour, way of life, emotions, everything, for centuries. That’s why we’re designers!

does anyone know which standalone player plays wmv9

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Why cut out? Maybe they’d be highlighted. Pepsi might shell out billions to make sure their product looked best in any light.

Brilliant…no pun intended.

I understand that in one version of Photoshop (not sure which one it was), Adobe quietly added algorithms that would detect security features on Euro banknotes and make it impossible to edit them at high resolution. I think that’s a pretty valid idea – I can’t think of a LOT of places where you’d need a high-res image of money – but it makes you wonder if Pepsi, Sony, Microsoft, etc., would do the same.