How design can solve real world problems?

I have often seen examples of where a very good system gets undone by bad design. You can create a good concept but if people fail to use it properly, your design has failed the system. I saw one such example recently/

The story begins with me waiting in the cafeteria of an MNC. While I was sitting there, diagonally opposite to where the coffee machine and water cooler was placed, I made a couple of observations.

I noticed people would drink coffee or water in paper cups and disposed them off in the three bins which were placed below the coffee table.

The three bins had 3 labels as below:

  1. Paper
  2. Plastic
  3. Organic

All there had three examples below them, in a smaller font. The labels were at thigh height.

The thing that really stuck me was that people were randomly throwing the paper cups in the bins. More than 50% of the paper cups, didn’t not go in the paper bin. They were lots which went to the plastic bin as well.

I was stunned. Such a good system for garbage disposal. The segregation is perfectly laid out, neat and clean, yet it has failed it purpose.

I started thinking and could think of three reason.

  1. The first one could have been that people just didn’t care. I refuse to believe that such a high sample just won’t care. These were people who were educated, aware and used to living in such a system where you dispose garbage properly. More on this later.

2. This brought me to the second problem I noticed. People respond better to visual cues, than to plain text. The labelling was done in plain text, and the fonts for examples were so small, they weren’t even visible. There were no icons just plain text.

3. The third problem which I thought was the level at which the text was placed. It was at thigh height. Again people usually respond better when the text is at eye height or somewhere closer. You will not get many people hunching over, making an effort of looking at the label and using the system.

Hence a perfect system undone by design. Since I was in a hurry, I wasn’t able to meet the facility manager and share my observations, but in the next meeting I do plan to share them.

Now coming back to the first point. If you say your users are not educated or aware enough, then your design and not users have failed. I have seen people in villages pick up Facebook and Whatsapp like anything. Kids picking up how to use iPad without any instructions.

Probably you need to force the user into a habit. You can keep the biscuits away on the other end of the table. And keep the plastic bin below it, leaving only paper bin below the coffee table. There is a lot we can do if we think through it.

In the meantime, keep on observing and lets make this world a better place through design.