Crime + Design
By Jeff Muller | Monday, March 17, 2014
Have you ever walked into a bank and wondered "what might be the best way rob this place?" Do you walk up inconspicuously to the teller and hand them a note that says, “If you don’t give me all the money in the drawer, I’m going to blow up my underwear and take all of you with me?” On the other hand, if you go in guns blazing, which guard should you take out first?
Perhaps you might have just walked into a convenience store and thought, “hmm how can I get away with stealing these gummy bears?” Do you hide it in your pocket or purse? Maybe you just simply walk out the door in plain sight hoping no one suspects of you anything. In other words, when you walk into a room do you automatically start thinking how best to take advantage of a situation from a larger perspective?
Of course not, you’re not a criminal and you’re probably more concerned with getting out of there in time to feed the dog or busy worrying about where you parked. Besides there is no need to concern yourself with being caught in order to save $1.99 on dumb gummy bears.
However, what if I told you that this form of strategic thinking is actually a valuable tool? In order to do that let's examine how a criminal operates. Let’s use a bank robbery as an example. In order to be completed successfully it requires a set of tools used for planning and strategy.
The thief’s objective is to rob a bank and their goal is to do it as safely and as easily as possible without being caught. Some important things a thief might want to think about are: (1)
1. Array of tools used in helping to catch thieves: cameras, guards, visual cues for eyewitnesses and metal detectors
2. Location, size of the bank, knowledge of the neighborhood
4. Robbery characteristics: Note job vs. armed robbery and accomplices
5. Time and escape plan
Here is a good list of criteria for choosing the right bank: (2)
1. Two opposite entrances
2. Located on a main thoroughfare near a neighborhood
3. Federally insured
4. Unrestricted parking area
5. Full access from at least two sides, preferably three
In general, the way criminals work is to find a weakness and exploit it. Here is another good example of this pattern:
Paul Ekblom interviewed thieves on the London Underground (subway system) who told him that they would stand near signs warning that “pickpockets” were operating. On noticing the signs, passengers would reassuringly pat whichever pocket contained their wallets, which was a considerable help to the thieves.(3)
Here the thieves are noticing a pattern and taking advantage of our need to affirm that our belongings are still with us.
Whether it is a physical disadvantage such as the layout of a bank, or human vulnerability such as memory recall and the need for reassurance, criminals possess a set of tools they can rely on in order to complete their objective. This ability requires keen observational skill noticing opportunities or patterns, being able to work within a set of constraints and creating a solution for those constraints or problems.
Skills as these are invaluable to a designer. The issue designers often face is clients don’t always know what problem a user may face while using a product, they then will need to solve. In a similar way, a thief can’t contact a bank manager and ask about the bank’s security flaws. That is why observing users and analyzing their behaviors within a system is extremely important. That observed behavior allows the designer to spot trends and patterns in order to start thinking about solutions to problems.
For instance, a thief will want to conceal his/her identity and elude security cameras. Prior to a bank robbery, it would be beneficial for a thief to scope out the bank and look for cameras and security guards. In this example, the thief is thinking ahead to limit exposure so the police have little to no information about the suspect to investigate. Common sense dictates that physical descriptions including height, weight, age, skin complexion and distinct features such as markings or facial hair should be concealed. We also have a general idea of how security cameras work in that they are typically located on ceilings or perched high up on walls. This then becomes the set of criteria used to design.
Now that we have a set of criteria to design with, what are some creative ways we can elude detection?
Obviously wearing a mask will hide your face, but it surely draws attention to you and possibly alerts others around you. It would be best to wear a hat with a wide enough brim to conceal your face from downward angle cameras. It may also be a good idea to have some sort of temporary disguise that you later remove in order to confuse an eyewitness, such as facial hair, fake scar or tattoo. Perhaps the use of shoe lifts, that can be easily purchased at a drug store, in order to conceal your true height, or wearing bulky clothing (stuffing your shirt or coat) in order to come off as heavier than normal.
Some banks also have tick marks on their walls so that eyewitness' could approximate the height of the suspect. Perhaps a thief might use a typical winter hat with a stripe pattern that could throw off an eyewitness’s memory. The use of a stolen car can be helpful when police start looking for the suspects after the robbery has taken place.
Another possibility would be to use the idea of misdirection. Magicians are well versed at this. The idea is that you distract the viewer with something in order to disguise what is really happening. One way a thief could do this is by using a partner as a distraction while he walks up to the teller. This could be something as benign as wearing a funny costume or outrageous clothing before the real thief walks in, in order to divert everyone else’s attention. The tactic can also be used against the police where a thief could call 911 and report a fake bank robbery taking place in another part of town.
Using these examples, a designer may take advantage of misdirection as well. General Electric (GE) needed to redesign the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experience at a children’s hospital. They didn't have the time and certainly could not afford to redesign the MRI itself, but they could misdirect the attention of little children in order to ease their anxiety about a cold and sterile environment. They decided to turn the experience into an adventure and created several rooms with different storybook themes such as a deep-sea adventure, a space exploration or a prehistoric dinosaur design. The artists painted the walls with large turtles, turned shelves and counters into Flintstones type stone furniture and even added decals to the MRI itself to make it look like a spaceship. The designer, using the art of misdirection, transformed the child’s experience from fearful to fun.
Getting back to the art of planning a bank heist, our security camera problem is an obvious physical hurdle that a thief must workaround in order to minimize its effect. Relating back to design, physical constraints designers must workaround can include form factors, the environment in which it will be used, cognitive ability and human deficiencies such as color blindness. A designer wouldn't want to create a mobile application that required precise touch targets because human fingers and limited screen real estate don’t lend themselves to precise operations. They also would want to design software with good contrast meant to be used out in the field where issues such as sunlight and weather are a factor.
A designer can also take advantage of cognitive abilities such as memory. Grouping data into familiar patterns could help a user better remember information such as long strings of numbers or signify that groups of actions are related to one another. In practice, this could result in a designer arranging a set of buttons particular to one action, set closely together.
In summary, a thief is going to observe everything they can about their target in order to exploit its flaws to their advantage. In designer speak, they are studying a system and designing a solution to solve a problem.
What all of this boils down to is that, while a thief’s goal is wildly different from a designer’s, the skill set and tools required for success share many similarities. Essentially, what makes both successful is that there is a plan and methodology in how the problem is going to be solved. Notice how none of the requirements in robbing a bank successfully talk about the size of the gun or the amount of horsepower your getaway car has? That is because you can effectively rob a bank without needing James Bond type gadgets. The same thing applies to designing a user experience. It is not features or gimmicks that make good experiences, it is understanding the problem users are having and designing a good plan to solve it.