Wellbeing personas by Essential, included in a talk by founder Bill Hartman.

In what ways are you manipulated by design?  It happens everyday…  How many times have you picked up that last minute candy bar in the checkout lane or opted for a high calorie, low nutrition meal because it was faster than cooking at home?  On the other hand, maybe you’d like to move more and you walk into a building with peers and everyone goes for the elevator and you follow them because you don’t want to be different, or seem rude.  Today’s designers shape the behaviors of tomorrow’s masses.

This past Friday morning, I attended a presentation by Bill Hartman, CEO of Essential, hosted by the Design Museum Foundation at Red Thread + Steelcase in Boston’s Seaport District. As he spoke on the topic of “Designing A Healthy Lifestyle,” my eyes were opened to the power of design to effect human behavior on both a micro and macro scale.  In particular, the design team at Essential has been working on innovative ways for people to adopt healthier lifestyles, including but certainly not limited to wearable technology that helps them prevent or manage existing medical conditions such as diabetes.

Harnessing such power requires a basic understanding of human behavior. Here are my observations of how people react or respond to their environment.

Everyone either reacts or responds to their environment in one of three ways:

  1. Let it dictate their actions (reaction)
  2. Fight against it and do the opposite of what is easy (reaction)
  3. Change it to create a different experience (response)

Most people “go with the flow” and allow their environment to dictate their behavior with little protest.  They react by doing what’s comfortable and easy and while they may not be pleased with the results, they’re not willing to put in the time and effort needed to behave differently.  They hardly consider who’s “flow” it is they are going with because it’s just the way things are.  These are the masses who reflect the state of humanity on a global scale.

Some people, who recognize the need to behave differently than their environment may dictate, react by forcibly “going against the grain”, standing out among the crowd and encountering challenges at every turn.  It is difficult but they take pride in being different and overcoming the challenge of acting contrary to whoever’s “flow” the grain is going with–at least they’re not being controlled!  These are the folks that remind the masses that they have choice and provoke humanity to stay vigilant.

Few people recognize that their environment merely presents a context in which to create experiences. They look at how things are and envision how they could be.  They respond by setting out to create it.  These are the designers!  They set the flow and their vision (good or bad) determines which way the grain runs.

The idea that today’s designers not only have the power but the moral responsibility to enact a sort of libertarian paternalism is really an awakening.  It brings to light that nothing we create is neutral.  When creating anything that influences human behavior we must consider–does the nudge benefit the masses and do they have a choice?

When something is designed well and fulfills this moral responsibility, the overall well-being of humanity will increase, the opposition will serve to demonstrate that we still have a choice and designers will be inspired to continue solving problems and creating delightful experiences.

Books: Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman.

Mr. Hartman recommended the books and topics shown here for further study.

Disclaimer: This talk, in which the concept of libertarian paternalism was briefly mentioned, was in fact, my first introduction to the philosophy.  While I am commenting on the concept and what it means to me, there may be further details and nuances with which I may not agree.