Broken Window Theory and Design

4 minute read

I think that everyone knows the broken windows theory applied to criminology, but it’s quite obvious that it’s something valuable in many other fields, including design, because it’s a simple abstraction that could help drive a complex system.

Let’s see a few researches, testing how people’s behaviour change at the change of the environment around them:

Under normal circumstances, most people took the flyer with them and just 33% littered by throwing it on the ground. But that all changed when Keiser covered the wall with graffiti. With this innocuous difference, the proportion of litterers doubled and 69% discarded their flyers on the street.

When he placed four bicycles a metre away, just 27% of people disobeyed the detour sign and squeezed through the gap in the fence. But when the bikes were locked to the fence, in blatant disregard of the first sign, 82% of people ignored the detour sign too. With one rule broken, the other followed suit.

Keiser showed that the mere presence of graffiti can even turn people into thieves. He wedged an envelope into the slot of a mailbox, with a 5 Euro note showing in the transparent window. If the mailbox and the ground around it were clean, just 13% of passers-by stole the envelope. If the mailbox was covered in graffiti, or if the ground around it was covered in litter, the proportion of thieves doubled to 27% and 25% respectively.
Ed Yong citing Kees Keizer

And another study:

When the environment was unkempt, the volunteers expressed more stereotyped views on the questionnaire and they gave less to the charity – €1.70 compared to €2.35 when everything was neat.

They found that people who saw messy pictures, such as bookcases with chaotic stacks, were more likely to cite stereotypes than those who saw orderly pictures (a neatly stacked bookcase) or neutral ones (a chair).

Those who had the strongest need for structure also made the most stereotyped judgements.

Stapel and Lindenberg recruited 58 volunteers and flashed different words at the side of their field of vision. They couldn’t consciously read the words, but they registered them nonetheless. People who saw words like ‘chaos’, ‘anarchy’ and ‘mess’ expressed a stronger desire for structure, and more stereotyped views, than those who saw orderly words.
Ed Yong citing Stapel & Lindenberg (2011) Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination

This sequence is interesting because shows a shift of the studies from real world complex situations to more visual/cognitive ones, where people got conditioned just by seeing image or unconsciously perceiving words.

It’s also important to notice that it’s cross cultural: even if the exact meaning of “order” and “disorder” in a man made environment can be a social construct, it isn’t in cognitive terms, as demonstrated by a few experiments using shapes and words.

Then, even if it’s really hard to measure…

  1. Is it possible that Wikipedia’s cleaner redesign reduced the quantity of stereotyped contribution?
  2. What would happen if MySpace changes its layout to a more polished one on profile pages?
  3. What changes o behaviour exist between a badly designed service and the same service, but with a good design?
  4. What’s the equivalent of a digital interface with graffiti?

My thought at this moment is mostly related with a side consideration about successful bad design, a kind of service or product that is successful in spite of its design (Wikipedia, MySpace, Craiglist). In most situations, a badly designed service usually wins because there are no compelling alternatives (if you have counter examples, please comment!) and it gets superseded when an alternative with the same level of service (it’s blurry, I know) but a better design appears (Google vs Altavista, Facebook vs MySpace, iPod 1 vs Nomad).

But I think that we might have an exception here, and that exception could be Wikipedia: is it possible to create a digital environment that is the equivalent of a workshop? A kind of place with a feeling that tells you “don’t worry if you break something, try”? That digital environment might have been Wikipedia before its redesign. The crummy pages and incomplete texts might have given the same message as the sign telling “don’t lock bikes to the fence” with a bike locked to it. You can break rules. You can edit this entry, see how bad it is?

In a similar fashion but in a different context, I always suggest to include in my wireframes a crummy version of the real logo (black and white, badly drawn). More than once, the client asked me why I used that logo and that question allowed me to clear, now with a concrete example, that a wireframe is different from the final visual design, and how.

Design with errors.

In the end, we are still talking about complex systems and it’s probably not possible to get any definite conclusion out of this topic, but it’s still something worth thinking of.

What do you think? ;)