Control by Design – Examples

In an earlier post, “Control by Design,” it is said that, in order to influence or change human behavior, we usually take on rules and laws. The issue with this approach is that it is not effective, simply because laws and regulations are currently so big that even those who study law do not know them by heart. Regarding the rest of us, there is a high probability that we will never read any law book during our lifetimes, even if there were a significantly smaller number of these laws. A good example is the Bible: although many people will claim that they are Christians, there is a high percent among them that does not know what the 10 commandments are, and an even higher percent of those who never read the Bible.

Additionally, the issue is that even when we know what laws are and what are the punitive measures are for not obeying the law, a certain percent of people will still disobey. The reason can be a simple as believing you can get away with breaking the law, or maybe the circumstances of their lives are such that, despite being aware of the consequences, they are simply forced to commit a crime.

The reason why laws and rules do not work to the desired extent is because the relation between human being, law, and punishment is not organic enough. Humans have to spend time reading, learning, remembering, and recalling laws in any instance — it all requires mental effort. For most people, major rules are interwoven in their thoughts from an early age through their upbringing, when the sense of right and wrong is imprinted in the core of a person’s being, and feelings of justice, fairness, love, and fear of punishment can push those rules into a higher level of mind we call “conscience,” which lingers above all our thoughts, weighing all of our actions, and determining what is right or wrong.

The issue is that there is a huge number of people on the planet, and we do not have the same upbringing, and, even if we had, there is no possible way we can all know or remember the content of those huge law books.

In order to impact or change human behavior in a positive way, there is a better approach: by shaping our world in such a way that the surroundings will impact our behavior and we will learn organically, without noticing or investing any significant effort. By repeating something multiple times, a habit will form and stay for a very long time.

The best way to show behavioral control by design is to show a few examples:


Imagine that someone has an issue of eating soup with large gulps, and that we, out of safety and health reasons, need to teach person to take smaller “bites.” If someone tries to ask/tell/order the person to take smaller bites, depending on personality, that approach will probably fail, even when the “command” has been repeated several times. Furthermore, this process will risk frustration and annoyance on both sides equally.

A more effective solution would be just to give the person a smaller spoon, and the spoon size will regulate the maximum amount of liquid one can take with one sweep.

Some time ago I read a Chinese proverb about the best method to lose weight: “If you want someone to lose weight, instead of a fork, give him chopsticks. If you want him to lose weight quickly, give him just one chopstick.”

Although, there is one issue, using smaller spoon can cause person to start grabbing food faster!

If that happens, a more advanced approach can be used; it would be possible to create an electronic spoon that will do the opposite of the “Smart Parkinson Spoon” *0 shaking and spill the contents if a person tries to eat too fast. In time, the person will learn to eat slower.


In the office where I worked once, there was a particular door where people went in and out, often forgetting to close the door behind them. The outside noise was affecting work performance and annoying those near the door. During winter days, this was additionally uncomfortable for those sitting at the desks near the door, as the cold breeze flowed over their legs.

People near the door started complaining, and, not long after, everything was raised to the manager’s level. The manager, in his wisdom, sent an email to all of the employees, requesting everyone to be mindful about closing the doors. For the first few days, everything was working ok, except for the office guests, who did not know about the rule. After a few weeks, people started forgetting again, returning to old habits.

So, without the desired success, people next to the door decided to put a paper on both sides of the door: “PLEASE CLOSE THE DOOR.” They tried experimenting with different red and yellow combinations of text and paper, but, at the end of the day, people were distracted, didn’t notice, or didn’t care. At one point, the entire thing got so heated that people started arguing and shouting at each other. The janitor overheard, calmly went outside, and, within half an hour, came back with his toolbox and a door-closer-spring. After a few minutes, everything was installed, and the problem was gone forever, leaving the now somewhat confusing message “PLEASE CLOSE THE DOOR” where it was. On the other hand, the office people, in their surprise, were left thinking about how they spent so much time arguing over nothing.


The goal of every park is to provide green surfaces we can enjoy, but, at the same time, allow us to move by paths that will be secure, dry, and clean (mud free) for our shoes during rainy or winter days.

Almost every park has lawns with paved paths crossing it, and yet there are usually footpaths across the grass, trying to shorten distances, avoid obstacles, or simply create paths that are more comfortable or safer than the one offered by existing pavement.

Usually, these cow paths (footpaths) are a sign of poor design or ignorance about user needs.

Some advise that the best way to lay the pavements would be to first wait for pedestrians to create footpaths and then just pave over those in exactly the same place. But, builders often do not follow this advice.

Sometimes, following that approach works, but it often does not. A few weeks after one pavement is laid down over the footpath, a new footpath will appear, creating a shortcut between two pavements. (B)

So, when design fails, people will try with laws, rules, commands, and polite messages, but that rarely works.

One of the ideas to prevent pedestrians walking over green surfaces would be to create a fence. A fence, high enough to create additional effort that feels like a jumping over, is a larger effort than staying on the track. At the same time, the fence must discourage attempts to sit on it, but a fence in a park must not have any type of spikes or open bars that could cause accidental injuries. Its only reason for existence is to prevent a majority of “users” jumping over and making footpaths by constantly walking over the same path.

The fence must be adjusted for the type of user; what may pose an extra effort for the walker may not represent any significant obstacle for the runner. Runners, because they experience an additional stress on joints, usually prefer grass/dirt over concrete surfaces. So, a fence height above the knees may suffice for walkers, but, for runners, the fence needs to be raised to chest level or above. Keeping that in mind, at some point, there will be a gate/passage in the fence, and runners will use that passage, over time creating a footpath and destroying the grass in the process, as can be seen in the following image. Therefore, a fence is not a good solution either.

Similar to runners, cyclists have specific needs that can impact green surfaces. In the first image below, you can see the pavement with the gate installed on it. In order to avoid accidents on a potentially dangerous intersection with the main road, the designer built a gate, in order to slow down cyclists while making them more aware of traffic. But, a few months after, annoyed by the excessively difficult approach, cyclists created an alternative road, avoiding the obstacle completely.

In the third image, while building pavement for pedestrians, the road designers forgot to create slopes and gradients for cyclists. In the below example, the natural land fall was not too steep, so, an organic “footpath” was created, in order to avoid stairs, which would otherwise compel a cyclist to get off the bike and carry it, wherever stairs are erected.

By now, you have got the picture: a task that seemed very simple at the beginning now looks like a fairly complex piece of work.

    In order to layout the pavement, the designer must take into account the following:
  • What are the main goals?
  • How much money is secured for the project?
  • Who are the users? Pedestrians, runners, cyclist, who else? We need to think about different age groups and how they behave. Children will not behave in the park in the same way as old people, for instance.
  • What is the configuration of the terrain? Is it dirt or rock? Is the terrain flat or with hills and gradients? If the terrain is bumpy and hilly, how steep are those surfaces?
  • What does the surrounding area look like? Are there any major roads? Is the park in the middle of the town or at the edge?
  • What about weather conditions? What can appear to someone as a beautiful, marble surface on summer days can become, a slippery “death trap” on winter days.
  • Are there any other conditions that can impact structure? Earthquakes, land acidity, land slides...

    • At this point, you probably are thinking, “Wait a minute. Isn’t that a bit too much? We are not building pyramids here; we are building simple pavement.”

      That is the point; if you want to create a good solution, even when what you are designing (in its appearance) looks like a very simple thing, it may possess a challenge equal to some proportionally much larger project. This is similar to AI (Artificial intelligence) problem wehre for AI the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard to do.

      Over time, we have built technology that, generally speaking, does not cooperate very well with nature, and, as we simplify the problems too much, we usually end up with solutions that do not work or are not fit for many user groups.

      If we go back to the original requirements, we can see that the end goal is to allow nature (grass) to coexist with people during the entire year. Nature requires land, water, sun, and a stress-free environment. Humans enjoy being in nature, but they also require commodity.

      In the above photos, you can see that it is possible to make concrete pavement in such a way that it would have patches of grass inside. In that way, the total amount of grass would be increased by almost half over surfaces, where, otherwise, there would be a single sheet of concrete, tiles, bricks, or bitumen.

      As we need to take into account cyclist and runners next to this road, a porous, rubber-coated concrete should be put in place. The rubber coating would have a positive impact on runners’ joints, and the porosity of material and material inertia would allow for a dry road and pleasant usage. At the same time, the water collected could be used for irrigation of plants, trees, and grass in the park.

      When a solution is designed in a way that fits most of the users’ needs, everyone will conform to the desired behavior without any additional external input, rules, or laws, in order to protect the green surfaces.

      Designing an appropriate solution like this comes with a price, in the form of mental effort necessary to find the solution, and it can come with bit higher price tag, but that is not a rule; sometimes, “behavioral control by design” solutions can come in very simple and yet effective forms.

      After a cost analysis study of building and maintaining park pavements, a nearby council decided that the best option for the time being would be to actually remove existing, worn out pavements and put a layer of sand and new grass above. Over time, people will create new footpaths, and then they will just pave the gravel over it in places where mud usually forms. They concluded that, sometimes, the optimal solution is just to leave things as they are, and act upon “problems” as they arise.

      I personally may not agree with their decision, but, in some way, this resembles a traffic experiment conducted in the German town of Bohmte *1 and Portishead *2, a coastal town in England. The highway code has been abolished, in order to create a common code for car drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. This type of urban design is called “Shared space” *3 and aims to minimize the segregation of pedestrians and vehicles by removing features such as curbs, road surface markings, traffic signs, and traffic lights. As the follow-up study showed, although it looks chaotic, this schema actually significantly improved safety on the roads.


      The last example is thought experiment; you will need to think about the questions below and what impact each of question has on you or on the society around you:

      • Is credit borrowing a good or bad thing and what are the pros/cons?
      • What would happen, if there was no interest on borrowed money?
      • Bank charges almost double the amount of money you borrow, but the bank does not pay you anywhere near this amount interest for the money you keep in the bank; would it be possible to do this differently?
      • Is it possible to regulate this to be better for common people and how?
      • What would happen if there was no requirement to pay equal mortgage installments each month?
      • What would happen if houses were not taken away when people miss a few installments?
      • Can you imagine a different mortgage system that is fairer?
      • What would happen if there were no inflation?
      • Is there any way for the economy to work without inflation?
      • What would happen with middle class income if the supply of jobs was always higher than the number of workers?
      • Can you imagine a world without poverty?
      • What would happen if companies were obligated to share profits with their workers, on top of wages?
      • What would happen if it weren’t necessary to work in order to live?
      • If the last would come true, would that increase lower-class and middle-class wages and create a fairer distribution of wealth?

      Notes & References:

      0. ‘Smart’ Spoon Allows Parkinson's Sufferers to Feed Themselves

      1. No code on German roads

      2. “Naked Streets” Without Traffic Lights Improve Flow and Safety

      3. Shared space