Design and technology should not be thought as weapons used to make people do what we want, but tools to improve lives.

Last Saturday I went to breakfast with a friend to a coffee shop. It struck me to see that before ordering a coffee he went straight to pick up a newspaper placed on a shelf next to the front door.

I told him that it seemed a good idea to offer newspapers to customers, since for many people having breakfast while reading the press is almost a ritual. He agreed, but told me that often the customers keep the newspapers. Apparently, the “theft” of newspapers is so common that the managers of the coffee shop are considering eliminating this service.

I think they give up too fast. In the waiting room of my dentist, the magazines are attached to a heavy and bulging plastic board. In other places, I have seen similar solutions, all aimed at preventing customers from keeping newspapers and magazines.

All this reflection reminded me of the article by Bruno Latour, Technology is Society Made Durable. In the article, Latour explains the strategy carried out by hotel managers to prevent customers from leaving with the keys.

  1. Firstly, the receptionist reminds the customers that they must return the keys before leaving. However, most customers ignore this oral notice.
  2. Before this, the manager adds a written notice: “Please, bring back your keys”. Now there are more customers returning the keys, but many continue to keep them in their pockets and bags.
  3. Finally, the manager decides to attach large and heavy weights to keys. Now, the keys have become a cumbersome object that most customers are happy to get rid of.

To this sequence, I would add a previous step: custom and tradition. Often, it is not necessary to tell the user what to do. Those people used to hotels “know” that they must return the keys. This order does not come from the hotel, but from the experience. However, even the most experienced customers can forget this and that is why it is necessary to increase the strength of the “statement” by attaching loads.

Accorting to Latour, the number of loads that we need to attach depends on three factors: (1) The resistance, misrepresentation or bad education of the customer, (2) the interest of the hotel manager to “control” the customer’s behavior, and (3) the customer’s intelligence!

From my point of view from the field of design, Latour’s explanation not only seems simplistic, but even insulting.

In the first place, Latour presents design as a weapon used by the designer (the hotel manager) to control and influence the behavior of the user (the hotel customer). In short, social engineering. The user is a stupid and savage actor who must be manipulated through a series of increasingly aggressive tactics.

If the user does not do what he is expected to do, this is explained as a user error. The interests and needs of the user do not exist and the problems concerning the acceptance of the order by the user in no case are due to bad design, incongruous orders or a mistake of the designer.

In this article, the goal of design is to get the user to behave following the wishes of the designer. However, the purpose of the design should be to help the user, facilitate their life and improve their experience. Closing the rooms is what really matters. The keys are only a tool. If this object originates so much trouble, perhaps the hotel manager should consider designing another strategy to make life easier for customers and, at the same time, make sure that their belongings are safe.

The case of the keys and the newspapers are, in short, examples of Lines of Desire, that is, “traces of use that indicate preferred methods of interaction with an object or environment” (Universal Principles of Design). Following the model of Latour, in view of the behavior of passers-by who tread the grass to take a shortcut instead of using the paved path, the landscape architect should follow the following “program”:

  1. Placing sign asking people not to walk on the grass.
  2. Building a protective fence that only allows people crossing the garden through the path.
  3. Imposing fines.

However, the solution of many landscape architects comes from an opposite approach: Listening to the user. They allow passers-by to cross the lawn, allowing desire lines to emerge and then paving the lines. Surely, this is the reason why keys have been progressively replaced by cards or even the customers’ own smartphones.

By using Digital Key, Hilton HHonors members can bypass the front desk of the hotel

By using Digital Key, Hilton HHonors members can bypass the front desk of the hotel (The Gate)