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Prof Talk | How can you help people stick to the corona rules?

We are in the middle of a second lockdown, which experts say would not have been necessary if everyone had followed the basic rules. How can technical designs and resources play a role in ensuring that as many people as possible start behaving in a more responsible manner?

photo Kzenon / Shutterstock

Panos Markopoulos is Full Professor of Design for Behavior Change at Industrial Design. He makes the observation that it certainly isn't always unwillingness that causes people to behave unwisely. “Recently I was in my home country of Greece visiting family. One day I got talking to a waiter, and he was constantly touching his face mask with his hand. Perhaps he didn't realize that he shouldn't have done so, or perhaps he forgot in the heat of our debate about the strict lockdown now back in force in Greece. Either way, we could prevent this type of behavior by designing face coverings that give a signal when you touch them. Though, to be honest, it would help if we just had better fitting coverings.”

In stores, you could also do something with the lighting, Markopoulos imagines. “It is not that difficult to keep an eye on the distance between people in indoor spaces. The question for designers then becomes how do you work with that. You don't want alarm bells going off, but a subtle change in the color of the light could be a good warning, provided those present know how to interpret it.”

Online interaction

It is also easier not to become lax about observing the rules if thanks to technical resources you can carry on with your hobbies, says Markopoulos. “If you can't do sport together, you can at least do gym exercises or yoga 'in parallel' from home with one another, via a digital connection, just like you can do online gaming together. This allows us to maintain our essential social interaction.”

For the coming winter we will have to make do with existing solutions, the professor thinks. “It takes time to disseminate new inventions widely. But this doesn't diminish the value of working on technical designs that can be useful in combating a pandemic. It is still unknown how effective a vaccine will be and this is not, I fear, the last pandemic. Our students are also being asked to give this some thought and to come up with designs.”

Good example

Jaap Ham is an associate professor at Human-Technology Interaction, and technology for behavioral change is his academic passion. He believes we already have plenty of ‘persuasive technology’ that can be useful during the pandemic. “I recently came across a button, for example, that measures the distance to other people and beeps when someone comes too close.” In addition, countless technologies can be invented to encourage people to do a better job of washing their hands, he tells us. “You could show a short film in public bathrooms in which a person demonstrates the best method. Showing by example in this way, which in our specialist field we call 'modeling', is a very strong mechanism.”

In general, according to Ham, we can say that any attempt to exert influence is best made in the here and now. “Thus at the time and in the place when a certain behavior is desirable. The annual energy bill does little to encourage energy saving, but if you see other people wear face coverings in the supermarket, you soon feel pressured to put on mask yourself; in a situation like this the social norm is very visible. And the more uncertain people feel, the more pressure they perceive.”

Not that it has to be real people who provide the example, says Ham. “A poster at the entrance to a station showing someone putting on a face mask can work just as well. And you can also use technology to detect whether someone coming through the barrier is wearing a face mask and to give a certain signal when that is not the case.”


Peter Ruijten-Dodoiu is an assistant professor at Human-Technology Interaction, where his work includes research on persuasive technology - such as the use of robots or virtual characters to demonstrate to people the behavior desired of them. He believes that an extremely tough approach, with strict rules and rigorous enforcement would create too much opposition. “I think you need to carry out well-focused campaigns in order to encourage people to keep each other on track,” he says. “Something like #doeslief by SIRE; with certain groups in the population this can be pretty effective.”

Nor should sight be lost of the bigger picture when communicating with the public, Ruijten-Dodoiu believes. “The rules are open to interpretation, so when enforcement is rigorous, discussion is sparked. We saw situations during the spring lockdown in which, say, three people who were keeping their distance were fined on the spot by an officer maintaining public order, while larger groups sitting on their picnic blankets got off with a warning. As a government, you can send a message that it simply isn't possible to follow all the rules all the time. But if everyone does their best, it will be enough.”

Student debt

In addition, it does not help that the younger generation is used to being able to satisfy their needs almost immediately, Ruijten-Dodoiu points out. “If you are feeling peckish, you order a pizza and ten minutes later it is delivered. On Facebook it takes only an instant to arrange to meet up with friends in a bar. So it is a shock to the system to be told that you can no longer do things like that for maybe a year or more. And it doesn't help to warn them that their grandma will be at risk if they infect her. Their answer would be, No problem I just won't visit her for a while. You have to appeal more to the worries and concerns of this young target group. For example, that if they behave irresponsibly, they will do such damage to the economy that when the time comes they won't be able to find any work and will be unable to pay off their student debt.”

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