Slow Change Interaction Design

Image from Interactions. © ACM, 2014.

As we begin the New Year, gyms around the globe will enjoy a predictable spike in membership. For days—perhaps even a few short weeks—rows of treadmills will be clogged with neophyte runners adamant in their belief that this year is the year for change. This year I will transform myself. I will lose the weight and keep it off. I’ll stick to my diet and exercise regimen. This year I’ll… and then slowly but surely their commitment starts wavering. They get home from the office and they’d rather kick back on the couch than run. They’d rather order a burger than a salad. They’d rather do anything—perhaps they’d even rather do nothing—instead of stick to their diet and exercise regimen. The extra pounds aren’t so bad. It could be worse…

It’s all too easy to rationalize away the transformation.

Self-improvements, be they physical, mental, or both, test resolve. They do not manifest a path of least resistance. For many, they are paths of the highest resistance. Anyone looking to start a new diet or exercise program or prevent the onset of disease, anyone looking to recover from addiction or reduce their personal debt, anyone looking to increase their community civility or their environmental responsibility—in short, anyone looking to change the way they or their organization, their community, or their nation thinks or behaves has a long, arduous road to travel. These people and groups are looking to initiate and sustain a slow change: a change whose results may take months, years, or decades to achieve. A change that is, essentially, an endless process.

The time and energy that interaction designers spend addressing change problems should be markedly paying off. But currently, it’s not.

This article sketches a theory of slow change interaction design as one way for designers to approach what we will call slow change problems—attitudinal and behavioral changes that are difficult to initiate and sustain. Those familiar with persuasive technology will recognize the theoretical foundation atop which slow change interaction design sits. The domains of persuasive technology and captology cast sufficiently wide nets as “the research, design, and analysis of interactive computing technologies created with the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors or both without using coercion or deception”. Slow change falls within these domains. Importantly, however, slow change offers evolved perspectives, or lenses, on the ethical, temporal, and systemic thinking that any designer should adopt in slow change interaction design practice.

The ethical lens lays bare the unique dilemmas a slow change interaction designer confronts in practice, and it will suggest ways of acting in light of these dilemmas. The temporal lens advises designers to reframe their way of thinking about the lifecycle of their users. We might summarize this lens with a modified Bill Buxton axiom: “If you do not do your best to anticipate the technical, social, and commercial ecology within which [your user] must live throughout [his or her] entire [change process], then you have not done your job [as a slow change interaction designer]”. Finally, the systemic lens focuses on the complexity of the technical, social, and commercial systems within which our users (and ourselves) already exist and that we anticipate in the future. These three lenses form the underpinnings of our proposed eight themes of slow change interaction design.