Friday 11 October 2013

Embodiment and design; the affordances of pedestrian crossings

I'm a sucker for good design. I'm interested in things that work well because they are designed with the right task in mind. Take the greatest potato masher of all time, the Spudnik. It works well because it mashes as the result of a very natural action with the arm, easier and less effortful than the more traditional device. Good design works with the user and the task (rather than trying to impose a behavior) because behaviours that are supported by the task and the environment will be stable, reliable and easy to maintain. 

Design is interesting for embodied cognition because it's an attempt to artificially manipulate the environment to create affordances for some but not other behaviours. Sometimes it's just a matter of getting the physical layout right (see the Spudnik). Some of these required behaviours, however, are quite complex and not the sort of thing that would typically create information if left to their own devices. A great example is the design of streets to promote safe driving and pedestrian behaviour; a lot of the rules being designed for are human conventions, not physical necessities, and so without someone intervening and building something there couldn't be perceptual information anywhere about that rule. In addition, the designed element often creates information about something other than itself (see the Aboutness dimension in Sabrina's information taxonomy). This in turn creates the possibility for there to be more than one way to create an environment that produces relevant information and can therefore shape behaviour, and in turn, this allows the possibility that some designs will be better than others.

With this in mind, let me introduce you to two examples of design that I would like to change; the staggered pedestrian crossing, and puffin crossings. Both of these artificially restrict access to useful information in ways that mean well but that I think fight too much against human behaviour. I actually started preparing a grant to empirically investigate these designs from a more embodied perspective, and the EPSRC thought it was in their ballpark. More pressing concerns intervened, but I would love to actually do these studies and would like to hear from anyone who might be interested in collaborating ("Dear Pamela lab..."). I think our embodied cognition approach (Wilson & Golonka, 2013), with it's focus on task analyses and information, could really have an impact on an interesting part of our day to day life.