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Be moved by design – right up the stairs!

In the 2005 paper “Using the Environment as an Interactive Interface to Motivate Positive Behavior Change in a Subway Station,” Anijo Punnen Mathew proposes a series of changes to a subway station, with the aim to use the environment as an incremental persuasion tool towards more pro-social behavior, such as taking the stairs rather than the escalator. While the project was not implemented, it acts as an interesting thought experiment in terms the use of public space as places of non-commercial persuasion.

The staircase

With the intent of decreasing use of the escalator in the place of more active use of the stairs, the author proposes to animate translucent glass stairs with a display that would only be visible once one was using the stairs, thus rewarding the walker for making this choice. The display could be information rich (e.g. the current outside temperature), or ambient (e.g. a pleasant illumination of the ground beneath the walker’s feet). Another option would be to emulate something like this stair-piano found in Volkwagan’s theory of fun series of advertisements, as discussed in a previous post.

As a bit of an aside, I recently got involved in a project to encourage people in the JMSB building to use the stairs. We made a gallery out of the stairwell and have animated the place with positive quotations about walking to encourage people to be more active throughout the day, while making use of this elegant underutilized space in the building. We have yet to conclude that this had led to an actual increase in use of the stairs, though it does, anecdotally, appear to be the case.

The Artist’s wall

The intention of the proposed Artist’s Wall was to “increase social interaction among the people using the subway station,” as well as to draw from the notion of social validation to encourage pro-social/health behaviors in this transient public place.

The Artist’s Wall would would be a relatively low wall, constructed of two transparent touch screens placed back-to-back (thus, enabling touch on both sides of the wall). The positioning of the wall itself would put people in the position to see the stairs, thus predisposing them to make use of the stairs rather than the escalator. When not in use, the proposed wall would be covered in blinking dots of light. By touching the screen on one of these dots the person interacting with the wall would leave a trace of their touch, in the form of a colourful blob of light, thus encourging the users to leave other blobby traces along the wall. People would be able to play by connecting blobs. Like a giant etch-a-sketch, the screen would reset after a brief idle period. It’s not clear whether the program would be able to minimize the creation of less desirable blobby images.

The Screens

The screens would make use of a technology that is now quote common in subway systems – flat-screen displays. Rather than constantly bombarding public transit users with advertisements for clothing and smart phones, the screens would instead contain a combination of useful information and persuasive messages to encourage target behavior such as exercise or compliance with transit rules. The messages would change in response to the position of the train – for example when a train newly arrives a very brief, large message might be displayed so to encourage the use of the stairs (e.g. Did you know? Climbing the stairs at this station burns an average of 23 calories! Take the stairs!), as the people exiting the stairs are in the position to choose the stairs over the escalators at that very moment. When passengers are waiting for the train, more subtle messages would be interspersed with handy information such as the time until the next train.

The main takeaway from this paper is one that is quite familiar to advertisers, an immersive environment is a persuasive environment. Rather than one tool that shares one message at one point in time, the author proposes that people are shaped by their environment, and the whole place has to be considered as an opportunity to nudge people towards model behavior using a variety of tried and true, as well as more experimental, methods.

Note: Anijo Punnen Mathew is currently involved in a ton of really cool interactive urban art projects that look to engage the public with the arts and visa versa. Check out some of these interesting research projects here.

Mathew, A. P. (2005, April). Using the environment as an interactive interface to motivate positive behavior change in a subway station. In CHI’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1637-1640). ACM.
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