Consumers Behaving Badly: Is Design to Blame?

lady-on-phoneI am waiting at an intersection in my car in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood, when a well-dressed, professional looking woman jumps out of her new Mercedes SL ahead of me. She reaches into the back seat, grabs a big armful of clothes (no bag) and runs up to the doorstep of a Goodwill outpost on the corner and unceremoniously dumps them aggressively in a scattered mess on their doorstep. She runs back to her still running car, jumps in and speeds off.

I think: Amazing.

Over the previous 48 hours I have observed multiple instances of seemingly normal people behaving badly, although lately this seems somehow normal. But this latest incident strikes me. In a moment of giving, this lady manages to be unbelievably rude.

I am not sure about you, but it feels to me that uncivilized behavior is clearly on the rise. But the clothes-dumping Mercedes lady causes me to think more about it. Why is this happening? Clearly, stress is at an all-time high. I've probably been quite rude at times myself unintentionally. I am sure the current economic climate is behind some of it, but then an unexpected question pops in my head. Is design in part to blame?

Here's my hypothesis: We are so connected now that peace is elusive. I know I have had to force myself at times to just say no to my iPhone—I find myself in social situations having to stifle the urge to crank up the ol' pocket pal just to see what is up. We are bombarded constantly with e-mail, IMs, Twitters, RSS feeds, YouTube, iPhone games, the list goes on and on. It's hard to find moments where the brain can just be still.

mobile phones
The culprits?

Bear with me, as here is where design comes in. I work on these connected devices, both on hardware and software. And all our emphasis is on giving people easy and seamless access to more and more information. We focus most on being able to do more in less time, and to help people be more connected all the time. But we seldom, if ever, consider the consequences of this hyper-easy connectivity. I am starting to think we should stop and ask ourselves: How can I make this thing give people some peace?

This brings me to the more interesting question: Should designers focus on changing people's behavior? That is, through what we create, can we help alter human behavior for the common good? And is this approach right, ethical, or in fact Orwellian in nature?

Of course there are macro issues where design can help modify people's behavior for the better. Reducing energy consumption comes to mind. But what about just encouraging people to be more civil?

Maybe. Your thoughts?

Read more of Robert Brunner's Design Matters blog

After graduating in industrial design from San Jose State University in 1981, Robert co-founded the design consultancy Lunar. Subsequently, he was hired as Director of Industrial Design for Apple Computer where he served for seven years. In 1996, he was appointed partner in the international firm Pentagram, helping lead the San Francisco office. In 2006, Brunner and entrepreneur Alex Siow launched the start-up Fuego, a new concept in outdoor grilling. In 2007, Robert founded Ammunition, focusing on the overlap between product design, brand and experience. He continues to lead Ammunition and Fuego concurrently.

In 2008, Robert co-authored the book Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company with Success Built to Last author Stewart Emery. He also teaches advanced product design at Stanford University.

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  • David Rogers

    Looking at the design of the Nintendo DSi console, you can see that this is a product that is destined to do well. It's chunky feel, and bright colours make it highly desirable for kids. It looks robust, yet elegant at the same time. I think 2010 will see in a new era of sophisticated electronics for kids, with strong designs, and chunky cases.

  • Anonymous

    No question at all whether we should influence people's behaviour for the better. How could question of ethics here even come up? Would we as designers intentionally create something that makes people behave badly? Sadly that has happened plenty in history, but we have the power to think the design of a product or service through and make it positive in every way.

    O and, a simple drop-off bin/door in Goodwill centers would do a ton of good, as opposed to back-of-the-building hard to access entrances they all seem to have now.

  • ioana alexa

    Everyone had a good time at the retail party, but now the combination of interest rates, petrol prices, wobbly housing prices and global financial uncertainty has made us collectively reconsider our spending.That's why we've cut back. For some people sailing close to the wind, it genuinely hurts. For the nation as a whole, we'll be better off for it down the track.
    cheap designer clothes

  • Timothy McDonnell

    I found your comments about Apple design true. Apple does design well, well enough to encourage design or discourage design? You bring up interesting thoughts that appear true to the up coming product designs from competitors. Companies who's product are similar in features, function, basically similar competitive, quality products must be careful to come up with good design. I am also a fan of Apple products. Companies who compete, launch new products in their lines, have just that to worry about it seems, are you just a copy, by design, or are you unique by design?

    Hope for Good

    Timothy B McDonnell

  • Brian Ward

    ABSOLUTELY! Or, am I being too aggressive or 'shouty' in my answer?

    I feel that as designers we have pushed the boundaries of function, aesthetic and manufacturing, however it is time to push the aspect of consequences in our actions in using these products. Social aspects of design are one of our strengths in the West, and should be emphasized.

    On the other hand, I would like to make a small point.

    People carry and use utility knives. They cut carpet, plastic and other materials. Most people who get into an altercation, do not think to use these 'tools' on a person... but the potential is there.

    In other words, the notion of trying to encourage certain behavior- is this nurture, or nature? Is the tendency to use a tool as a weapon inherent in a person, or does the tool encourage this behavior?

    The ergonomic hammer you designed could be used as a weapon, but is it?

    For my MA Industrial Design in London we took part in the RSA "design against crime" project. It was fascinating to observe how people under stress in an Emergency room waiting area reacted and displayed behavior. From demure to ultra violent, the difference was the person, and their state of mind. I saw gang members calmly waiting for a friend to be released, and a normal elderly man go on a rampage and hurl a metal garbage can at a nurse (as well as visa versa!)
    (IN the end we designed a soft garbage can to solve this particular situation!)

    All products have the potential to be used correctly and incorrectly.


  • carol troy

    Think about texting and teens:
    NY Times article, May 09.

    “Among the jobs of adolescence are to separate from your parents, and to find the peace and quiet to become the person you decide you want to be,” she said. “Texting hits directly at both those jobs.”

    Psychologists expect to see teenagers break free from their parents as they grow into autonomous adults, Professor Turkle [MIT] went on, “but if technology makes something like staying in touch very, very easy, that’s harder to do; now you have adolescents who are texting their mothers 15 times a day, asking things like, ‘Should I get the red shoes or the blue shoes?’ ”

    As for peace and quiet, she said, “if something next to you is vibrating every couple of minutes, it makes it very difficult to be in that state of mind.

    “If you’re being deluged by constant communication, the pressure to answer immediately is quite high,” she added. “So if you’re in the middle of a thought, forget it.”

    Michael Hausauer, a psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif., said teenagers had a “terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.” For that reason, he said, the rapid rise in texting has potential for great benefit and great harm.

    “Texting can be an enormous tool,” he said. “It offers companionship and the promise of connectedness. At the same time, texting can make a youngster feel frightened and overly exposed.”

  • Deborah Moulton

    A truly "smart" device might be designed to automatically turn off incoming phone calls, texts and other alerts when an appointment is indicated on the device's calendar.

    Design aside, human behavior will out. So the ADD/ADHD and insecure among us will always be too easily distracted, too hyper, too anxious to tune out an ever-connected device. The device is too perfectly matched to their brain chemistry, both over stimulated and overly distracted by constant inputs.

    For a large number of people, it's conforming to a social norm of what it means to be modern. To be unconnected is not modern. To shun constant connection, you must be older, unambitious, poorer or clueless and definitely not "hooked up," a doer, a mover/shaker, a master of the universe.

    If you're willing to leave your social class ambiguous by limiting or controlling your access to your connected devices, then there's the problem of rudeness and our hesitation in speaking up about it. If a friend or colleague constantly checks their device during a conversation, ask them to pocket it or reschedule for a time when they'll be less distracted. If a friend is alienating you by constantly attending to their device during dinner or while you're trying to tell them something important, tell them. If you wanted intimacy at a distance, you would have sent them email, a text, or posted a note on their Facebook wall. Hmmm... maybe they're an acquiantance after all, not a friend.

    Maybe all this rudeness is just an extension of our materialistic society; a desire to always consume more, count more, connect more. Being "connected" is not the same as making a connection.

  • Deborah Moulton

    I'd like to see "smart" devices designed to automatically suppress alerts, incoming phone calls, and texts if there is an appointment marked on the device's calendar. So if your calendar for 12-1 pm on June 12th says Lunch with Karen, the "smart" device temporarily turns itself off during the time alloted.

    Unfortunately, I fear no matter how "smart" the device, human nature will dominate. The ADD/ADHD and insecure among us will always be too distracted, too hyper, too anxious to turn off a continous feedback device like our ever-connected phones and devices. It complements how their brains are physically wired.

    That leaves a large majority who are simply conforming to a social norm that says "always connected" is the modern way to be. If you're not "on" then you are not modern: you're older, unambitious, poorer or clueless -- and definitely not an achiever, a doer, a mover/shaker, a master of the universe.

    If you can get past declaring your social class through your use/addiction to connected devices, then it's about rudeness and our failure to confront people with it. It's rude to take a call in the middle of another conversation. It's rude (and alienating) to meet a friend for dinner and constantly give your attention to the device and not your friend. It's like trying to hold an adult conversation with a 2-year-old in the room. There are so many interruptions and distractions that a coherent conversation between two adults is impossible.

    So what are we to do? I suggest we speak up and quit tolerating rudeness simply because so much of it is unintentional as we give ourselves over to these devices. Ask a distracted friend or colleague to either pocket the device or reschedule for a time when they'll be less distracted. Tell them it's interfering with your connection to them. After all, if you wanted intimacy at a distance, you'd email, post on their Facebook wall or text. Hmmm... maybe you're acquaintances, not friends, after all. Drop repeat offenders from your social calendar.

  • Barry Dennis

    I agree with you, but unfortunately that is not the way society or technology is headed. I have been writing about AnyThing, AnyTime, AnyWhere (AAA) for some time and I still believe and want that to be the Grail of Internet, of consumer utility of Information. However, and I think eventually a lot of people will do the same, I manage my "interface." I don't turn on the T.V. cable news the moment I wake up or turn on the lights; I turn everything off when I really don't want background brain "alert" status; when I want to think and write-which is what I do.
    And, this is really funny, while I'm writing this, my 34 year-old son just called from California(I'm in Maryland) while at Costco for shopping, and we talked throughout his shopping trip-I guess you could say he was multi-tasking.
    Did his activity dusturb other shoppers? I asked him that, and he said the helf the people around him were on their cellphones (with Bluetooth) at the same time.
    Confusion? Maybe.
    Distraction? For sure.

    We could be looking at a whole new level of violence what with the "concealed carry" gun laws, imagined slights, societal paranoia.
    "You talking to me? You talking to me? I hope you're not talking to me. You talking to me?" (paraphrasing Robert De Niro in
    "Taxi Driver").
    Civility Forecast? Chancy today, public challenge ring tomorrow, waiting line forms to the left.

  • Melissa Nery

    It's a funny situation you got into. But why would you blame design for the hasty woman's actions? Besides, she probably dropped hundres of dollars worth of designer clothes in to charity. There goes design!
    -Melissa (

  • Jeanne-Marie Byington

    Are you suggesting that you should design devices that help slow us down?

    As for the rude woman with who dumped clothes helter skelter, that might be ruined by rain, for others to pick up, product designers can't take responsibility for people who think only of themselves. There are great paper and green bags she might have used and didn't bother.

  • Kristian Brodie

    Well, design inherently affects behavior. To think that it does not is to believe that a shape of an object doesn't affect its use. The question is not a matter of whether or not designers should affect or modify behavior, it is a question of how do designers shape behavior?

    Here is an easy case study: Throw away culture

    Was it ethical for designers to try to make life "easier"? Maybe? But the consequences of the concept has resulted in many problems.

  • Nils Davis

    I should also add that, yes, design can often mitigate this bad decision-making, or at least take advantage of it to direct people so that their bad decision-making leads to better societal results. Ariely gives several examples in his talk.

  • Nils Davis

    Check out this Ted Talk by Dan Ariely about how people have certain cognitive limitations regarding decision-making - such as this lady deciding it was appropriate to donate her old clothes to Goodwill (yay!) by dumping them on the ground (boo!):

    The key point is that you don't need to blame this on cell phones or stress or anything like that, but one the fact that we, as humans, often make particularly bad decisions in certain situations.

  • Beryl Wing

    The “things” in our life can never “give” us peace. Peace is an inside job.

    The people you describe are searching for peace and self esteem in all the wrong places. And those who seek wholeness from without often use beauty of design as a badge which only exacerbates the problem. An iphone says cool; a Mac Air, cooler. Designer bags and acrobatically tall red-bottomed shoes announce I’m as good as, if not better than, you. An SUV shouts power; a Hummer clobbers the competition.

    An object of desire cannot be designed to mandate or even foster serenity. Civility, moderation and concern for others are decisions made in the private recesses of our souls and fought for moment to moment in the face of pressure to possess the latest beautiful object as proof that we are as good as the next guy. Or better.

  • Luke Westra

    I wrote a post about the change happening in human interactions due to the pervasive effect of being always connected last fall:

    I'm happy to see that others are noting the change. I think it is important to have designers of objects, experiences and other interactions be aware of the effects of their work. These objects are changing society, changing the way we interact and, most fundamentally, whether even interact at all.

    People are starting to tune out the real world and live in the digital ether. How many of you have had a day where you had more conversations via e-mail, IM, Twitter, etc. than you actually had with people face to face? Didn't NYC even ban iPods on the streets because so many pedestrians were stepping out in front of cars while rocking out on their iPods? As connectivity becomes increasingly ubiquitous this will only increase as we have the whole world at our finger tips at any given moment to distract us further.

  • connie o'Mara

    Suggest you read Winifred Gallagher's book: "Rapt" or the New York Times article on it.

  • connie o'Mara

    Suggest you read Winifred Gallagher's book: Rapt or the New York Times article on it.

  • Carolyn Snyder

    Any new technology goes through a period of rampant mis-use before we figure out what it's really good for. Mobile phones and social media are just two recent examples. We haven't caught up with all the implications yet. As Dan Lockton described in an earlier comment, there's an increasing body of research around how we relate and respond, not just to technology, but to choices and decisions in the low-tech world also. This stuff is really important.

    Recent advances in imaging technology have made it possible for researchers to study the brain like never before. For instance, paying for something with cash vs. credit card makes different areas of the brain light up. But proper scientific research can't keep pace with tech. We need to foster awareness of how design impacts our lives (thanks for your article), and designers need to share what they learn, failures as well as successes.

    One of my theories (don't take this personally Robert) is that techies are often not socially adept, and are wont to create elaborate solutions (e.g. defining a schedule to receive alerts vs. simply turning the damn thing off) that are fine for techies but not the other 90% of the population. Thus we end up with technologies that we don't understand, that creates more stress than they alleviate, and interfere with relationships.

    And ethical issues abound, but I believe that awareness of a phenomenon carries the responsibility to consider it in design, and there's nothing Orwellian about it. That's where we're headed, though each of us can choose whether we go there with our eyes open or shut.

  • Jim Meredith

    Perhaps you saw the recent article in the Wall Street Journal parallel to your concerns? ( The issue is complex, and much may be at work in this inverse relationship between the decline in social behaviors and the rise of "social media." I do suspect that "design" has a role to play in that wearing sweats to the theater induces (affirms?) a different kind of behavior than wearing a suit and tie does, and leaving a cell phone on in a social context signals (enables?) a resistance to (deep)connection rather than substantial connectivity.

    Does the behavioral change start with the design of the device (accessibility, transportability) or with the context (airline "cattle calls," sandwich boxes, and 17-inch wide seats), or with the management of the context ("no shoes, no shirt, no service")? Is the mobility and hyper-connectivity a response to a demand, or does the demand arise – and the behavior change – because the technology enabled a pocket-sized design (Ton Dair's column on the irrelevance of form to function)? Is the issue in the design of the device (hand-held) or in its content (text messaging software)?

    One of the commentators on the financial crisis talked of its origins in individual rationality but collective irrationality. I suppose that peer pressure has a compounding influence, and tolerance of the design-enabled superficial at the expense of respectful attention and connection may now be the sign of a collective irresponsibility.