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Thursday
Mar 26 , 2009

Unintended Effects: Blue Lights Vs Heroin

Many public toilets across the country have been fitted with blue lights to make it hard for heroin users to see their veins. It works… just about, but has enough issues to illustrate of two basic rules of design:

Rule 1: Your design probably won’t have the desired effect on the behaviour you want to change

Case in point – it didn’t take long for addicts to work out that you could just mark your veins beforehand. The blue lights also make things worse for some:

“Blue lights make it more difficult to see superficial veins, such as those in the forearm. However, when people are injecting into deeper veins such as the femoral vein, the presence of blue lights is an ineffective deterrent. Groin injectors are not looking for a visible vein, and so can continue to inject in such bad lighting.”

“The provision of blue lights does not prevent or reduce injecting per se. Rather, it results in displacement of the problem from that arena to other arenas. Worse still, it is likely to mean that activity is moved from one specific location to a number of locations.”

Etc… more points here.

As Dan Lockton would say as part of his excellent Design With Intent, it’s a flawed architecture of control:

“So the blue lighting ‘works’, but is it really a good idea to increase the risk that an injection will be done wrongly – maybe multiple times? This is perhaps a similar argument to that surrounding delibrately reducing visibility at junctions: the architecture of control makes it more dangerous for the few users (and those their actions affect) who ignore or bypass the control. This seems to be an architecture of control with the potential to endanger life, although the actual stated intention behind it probably includes ’saving lives’.”

UPDATE 27 Mar 09 – Dan Lockton pointed out another flawed scheme yesterday: pink lighting to deter teenagers by highlighting their acne…

Rule 2: Your design will probably affect behaviours you didn’t want to change at all (!)

In economics there’s a great concept called an externality, which is when other people bear a cost (or receive a benefit) from things you did but didn’t pay (or get compensated) for. For example, when you drive your car you pollute, but don’t really take into account the full cost of the damage your exhaust fumes are causing. That cost to the environment which you don’t have to cover is the negative externality, or side effect.

Almost every design will have side effects where they affect areas which have nothing to do with the purpose of the design – a kind of design externality. The blue light is a good example of this too, spotted from an article about the town of Rugby which installed UV lighting in 2000, only to find that there were uninteded consequences:

Public toilets in Church Street, in Rugby town centre, were closed in February after a shocked cleaner discovered two people having sex inside. In a report to officers, Rugby borough council head of engineering and works David Johnson said the toilets were still suffering anti-social behaviour.

He said: “The lighting scheme has not achieved its aim. Drug users can mark their veins before entering the building.

“The subdued lighting encourages an atmosphere conducive to sexual activity, while it is off-putting to the public wishing to use the facilities.

“Another problem is that graffiti written in certain pens looks spectacular under UV lighting.”

Now council officers have suggested many of the toilet blocks in the town centre be knocked down and rebuilt from scratch to combat the problem.

Every non-trivial design will have unintended consequences – by being aware of this you can capture them and turn them to your advantage. This is particularly important when dealing with complex social issues.

The larger the gap between the simplicity of the solution and the complexity of the problem, the larger the potential for side effects.

This makes it extra important to put yourself in the shoes of your users (no pun intended) to work out what they need and iterate until you can provide it.

  • Jack Alexander

    Why don’t these idiots just give up? They lost the ‘war’ and their credibility a long time ago.

  • raphaeldamico

    Couldn’t agree more! You might want to check out this great article from the Economist about “How to stop the drug wars”.

  • Daniel O’Connor

    The other thing is that a user could just take a white LED bike light with them to the toilet.
    Very small and easy to conceal!
    (Or in fact whatever sort of light would make finding veins easier..)

  • http://shakeoutblog.com/2009/03/29/more-unintended-uses-cable-car-bar/ More unintended uses: cable car bar « Shakeout’s Blog

    [...] last week’s post on designs with unintended uses one of my readers mailed in a couple of pictures of a rather extreme example: this cable car in the [...]

  • the green bastard

    Surely junkies can just use a lighter if they want to see a vein? And when they spray wd40 on toilet cisterns to stop folk snorting crack off them, cant people just put the coke on their wallet or something?

  • raphaeldamico

    Absolutely – and the amazing thing is that the money spent installing this lighting could have been spent trying to address the root causes. The other problem is that this kind of design runs the risk of sounding insincere because not everyone can tell what it’s there for – sometimes you have to call the problem out. Like Tom Siebel is doing with crystal meth: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/135/what-meth-made-this-billionaire-do.html

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