FOUR – Love Thy User

Can design affect us subconsciously?

The obvious answer is yes. But what happens when we become conscious of the subconscious? Through exploring the concept of ‘thoughtless actions’ by observing humans acting on their subconscious we were able to examine how we often mindlessly interact with our immediate environment.

Thoughtless actions can be categorised and described as follows:

Reacting: interacting automatically with objects and spaces one enounters

Responding: some qualities and features which prompt particular behaviour

Co-opting: making use of opportunities present in the immediate environment

Exploiting: taking advantage of physical and mechanical properties

Adapting: altering the purpose or context of things to meet an objectives

Conforming: learning patterns of behaviour from others in social and cultural groups

Signalling: conveying messages and prompts to one’s self and others

Each of these identifies ways in which we may subconsciously be influenced by our surroundings. Whilst wondering the streets of Southbank, I found examples of the aforementioned actions all around…


REACTING – interacting automatically with objects and spaces one enounters

In the first instance above, classmates are autonomously walking on the left side of the footpath, perhaps without questioning why, whereas in the second image we observe that people tend to walk below structures that provide shade and follow footpaths. Similarly, It seems that smokers are compelled to congregate around ashtrays on their lunch breaks. In each of these images, individuals are reacting to surrounding objects and spaces according to their previous experiences and what they have observed from others.


RESPONDING – some qualities and features which prompt particular behavior

People avoid puddles to prevent getting wet – who would have thought? Others naturally walked to the right of the area occupied by tools. When one sees yellow and orange markers, it’s a sign that the area should be avoided. This is also an example of signalling. These qualities and features prompt evasive action.


CO-OPTING – making use of opportunities present in the immediate environment

Many cases of co-opting were found, and many had to be excluded for the sake of relevance. Individuals co-opt so frequently that it almost always goes unnoticed – even birds do it (see third example above). Leaning against poles, using retaining walls to study, nestling on intersecting wires and using an arcade game as a lounge all demonstrate how opportunities in one’s immediate environment can influence subconscious behaviour.


EXPLOITING – taking advantage of physical and mechanical properties

Exploitation is often subtle. In the above examples, the attributes of the wall have been altered to create an attraction for customers of a local coffee joint. Coincidentally, a fellow classmate caught me abusing the water fountain as a means to wash my hands.


ADAPTING – altering the purpose or context of things to meet an objectives

In the first instance above, the natural shade of a tree has been used to create a smart benching solution. In the second, a parcel delivery box has been utlised as a replacement for a bedside table. Adaptation to suit a location.


CONFORMING learning patterns of behaviour from others in social and cultural groups

People conform constantly. From parking to lining up at store fronts, whether abiding social standards or congregating in wait of your tutors, conformity is a natural part of our existence as social beings.


SIGNALLING – conveying messages and prompts to one’s self and others

Signals can be delivered through various mediums: action, text, visual aids, sound or touch. The featured samples display text as a medium of communicating relevant information. These two are also examples of adaptation. Other observations may include colour coded signs (black and yellow for caution, red for danger, green for goodness), the sound of a siren alarming a crowd, or a simple wave to acquaint yourself with a stranger.


Each of these thoughtless actions presented a perspective on design which I had not considered beforehand as reinforced by Bill Moggridge: “We are designing verbs, not nouns.” This conveys the simple truth that consumers are acting upon the myriad of designs they interacting with regularly, rather, claiming ownership over one particular production or service. In this light, it is essential that designers thoroughly observe the potential user. The following sketches present two scenes which I observed and was intrigued by:

On the left, I noticed that when choosing where to sit during lunch, users tend to position themselves in the vicinity of those they feel more comfortable around. Interestingly, a kind, Indian man was the only individual who chose to spend their short break at the same bench as myself (Indian in appearance), whilst other Caucasian males and females had the tendency to isolate themselves, seeking a bench of their own. This could lead to several generalisations: that Asians are more sociable, that Caucasians are more individualistic, both because of their respective cultures. Perhaps this is an example of cultural conformity.  In any case, it was a curious experience.

In the second sketch, a handful of boys are playing football on a basketball court. Entertaining indeed! Whilst a vast field of greenery was available for them to use in the background, they still chose to use the basketball boundaries as a guide for their game. This stood out as another example of exploitation and adaptation.


Observation requires much more than simply watching. Observation means understanding, experiencing, loving the user, and never making assumptions. It requires attention to detail and never assuming one knows their needs, wants, patterns of thought or behaviour. If we design for everyone – creating generalisations, we essentially design for no one. On the other hand, if we design for ourselves – overlooking consumer needs and wants, we dismiss any other possible solution, catering to no one but ourselves.

This enhanced understanding of the affect of design on user’s subconscious actions and the importance of tailoring design to be human-centered will influence the way I approach the design process. I will LOVE my user at every stage.

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