Small acts reveal how people’s behaviours are shaped by their environments. And if we pay attention to these, we can see opportunities for better design.

My sofa

Let me tell you a tale about post, mess and why I hate my favourite sofa.

In my house, the front door opens straight into the main living space. Post arrives, drops on the floor mat and is picked up as we come in. From there it’s carried to the sideboard near the sofa – a solid, comfy beast that we’ve had for years.

Later, we open the post, sit down to read it, and then tend to mindlessly place it (and the dirty, torn envelopes) on the sofa’s high, blocky armrests.

However, the post can stay there on the armrest for days. And because the armrests are high – when you sit down they are at shoulder height – the post piles up around our heads. After a while I feel penned in and grouchy, surrounded by dirty envelopes and bits of paper quietly nagging me that there are still bills to pay and Things To Do.

What does this tell us?

It says:

  1. obviously, that we’re a bit lazy at tidying over at my house;
  2. designing sofas with armrests that are flat, high and boxy results in them becoming resting places for tat and papers;
  3. and that the layout of the living room environment encourages the migration of post from floor -> sideboard -> sofa armrest

Affordances and UX

In Don Norman’s amazing book, The Design of Everyday Things, he writes about affordances – the perceivable ‘action possibilities’ that products communicate. Some of these possibilities are clearly related to their intended purpose, but other affordances are communicated too, ones which the original design never intended.

To illustrate this he has a great photo of a low wall atop a stairwell. Although it’s intended to stop people falling down the open stairwell, on this low wall people start to pile up rubbish – discarded coffee cups, takeaway boxes etc. Its flat top sends out signals that it can be used as a place to leave things.

Meanwhile a wall with a gently cambered top signals that it can’t be used in this way, as rubbish will simply fall off.

And this is exactly what’s happening with my sofa. It’s quietly communicating to me that it’s okay to use the armrests as a storage space.

Thoughtless acts and emotion

But at a deeper level, this scenario shows that people’s unconscious behaviours are influenced by the environment and the products around them.

And as well as behaviours, the ways people feel are influenced too.

In my case, the thoughtless acts I take with my post lead to stress.

As I’ve written elsewhere, if we focus our design efforts on addressing and improving emotional states, then we can find opportunities for products.

So if you’re looking for opportunities for products, observe the thoughtless acts that people undertake. And then observe the consequences of these acts and empathise with the resulting emotions people experience. With this approach you can create design solutions and find a product idea.

Case in point: the sofa buddy armrest organiser.

Okay… I know. And I can’t say I’d ever use one of these – their ugliness outweighs my frustration with the current state of affairs. But they are one design solution to the emotional problem of ‘how can we reduce stress’.

Maybe other ways of improving my emotional state would be a service that intercepts and processes my bills for me? Or a concierge service for my post?

Or at least a way to help me remember to do the tidying. 🙂