Sustainable Design

Researching and designing ways to promote informed waste management habits through a product design lens



Derrick Ho
Can Zhao


Research Lead
Interaction Design


10 weeks


Field Observations
User Testing
Competitive Analysis



The challenge for this project was to design a product to foster positive behavior change in ways that would contribute to the efficient development of modern cities. We were to first research what makes cities "smart" and then identify areas for improvement as targets for design intervention. My team focused on waste management because we considered it a critical problem for municipal governments to resolve, both for its environmental and fiscal impact. We were especially motivated by the lack of successful tech and design solutions in the space, including a project from a previous cohort.  What set this project apart from the rest of my work is that the research methods I developed eventually led us to question our entire approach, and we ended up pivoting our design solution from an adult audience to children.


Problem Setting

secondary Research

In order to better understand exactly what problems existed in the domain of waste management, we began by conducting secondary research, investigating academic research and news stories on waste management and behavior change. A few major findings helped us narrow down our problem area and informed my plan for subsequent research activities... 


In the US, composting, recycling, and education on waste management are scarce


The recycling industry is stagnating due in part to the decreased worth of recycled material, but also largely because…


Contaminated recyclables are costly for waste management facilities, which often are forced to transport this material to landfills


Landfills are problematic in that they occupy valuable real estate in cities that could better use that land, and they pollute groundwater and the air because of bacteria decomposing compostable material


main takeaway

<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- Generator: Sketch 49.3 (51167) - http://www.bohemiancoding.com/sketch --> Shape Created with Sketch.

Environmental and economic impacts of waste could be reduced by promoting composting policy and/or addressing the problem of improper recycling.


in the field

Goal: to observe and identify common disposal practices to potentially target and to perform preliminary tests on changing behavior

We first engaged in observational research in order to check our assumptions about waste management behavior and generate insights about how to go about changing common habits. Though we were looking at residential spaces, it would’ve been difficult to learn about people’s waste management habits at home in a non-invasive way, so I designed a few methods for collecting qualitative data in the field.

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 10.36.10 PM.png

Location: Pike Place Market

Why? One of the most high-traffic areas in Seattle maximizes observations


  1. Categorize all possible disposal behaviors, e.g., “recycled contaminated recyclable,” “proper disposal,” etc.

  2. Observe from afar, inconspicuously

  3. Count observations in each category

  4. Note down behavioral observations



Condition 1: Observation only
Duration: 1 hour

Motivation: To better understand the behaviors we're trying to change

Goal: Identify common behaviors, generate insights about typical disposal habits

Group 15.png



Condition 2: Pretense of Surveillance
Duration: 1 hour

Motivation: Research demonstrating that people tend to act more prosocially under awareness of surveillance

Goal: To get people to think twice about where their trash should go

Group 14.png



Condition 3: Loud Feedback Noise
Duration: 1 hour

Motivation: Try something more abrasive in case the sign was unsuccessful

Goal: To interrupt people's disposal habits, give them time to think about where their trash should go


Findings & Insights


People generally don’t put thought into where their waste goes

An intervention that attempts to change this behavior needs to be more disruptive than a static sign or label


Audio feedback did not incentivize people to rethink their waste habits

If the method chosen is to interrupt people’s habits, the interruptor must be more salient than a single feedback sound


main takeaway

<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- Generator: Sketch 49.3 (51167) - http://www.bohemiancoding.com/sketch --> Shape Created with Sketch.

It can be extremely difficult to break deeply-ingrained habits. People need a reason both to evaluate their habits and to want to make the effort to change them.



We clearly needed to be creative now that we knew just how deeply ingrained and automatic waste management behavior can be, so we launched ourselves into an initial round of ideation in order to generate concepts we could test with potential users. I did some additional secondary research on various methods of promoting behavior change. Re-evaluating all of our research findings so far, we identified three main directions we could aim for and generated 30+ related concepts...



Improved public education of proper waste management practices and the ramifications of improper waste management

  • Strength: a big part of the problem is ignorance. With effective educative methods, people can reshape their waste management habits so that proper disposal becomes automatic.

  • Weakness: Seattle already does a better job than many other US cities with clear labeling of waste receptacles and informing new residents of proper practice. Moreover, we cannot guarantee education changes behavior without something like a longitudinal study.



Give people a reason to want to make an effort to change their habits, through monetary or social incentives, or negative reinforcement

  • Strength: wealth of research on using incentives to promote prosocial behavior, especially in private, and to break habits.

  • Weakness: incentives are a form of extrinsic reward, which can undermine intrinsic motivation; therefore, if incentives can’t motivate long enough to reshape habits, behavior might revert to old habits.



Design some technology to take the burden of responsibility off the citizen

  • Strength: effort doesn’t need to be spent on reshaping habits.

  • Weakness: technology could require different kinds of effort on the part of the user, and many solutions could be too expensive or too speculative.


User Testing

The three concepts we chose to test along with the research questions we were trying to answer with each.


Testing Summary

  • Participants: 3-5 per prototype; neighbors from team members' buildings

  • Prototypes: All 3 were paper prototypes with functionality for at least 3 tasks

  • Structure: Have participants complete tasks, encourage think-aloud throughout, inquire towards the research goals established before testing




Findings & Insights

A brief description of each concept, a summary of findings, and insights...


Social incentives: motivating people to think about their disposal habits by working with trash collectors to assign grades to apartment buildings

"Why am I supposed to pay for others’ mistakes?”


Social incentives not a viable option.


Reverse vending machine: rewarding people over time with cash or other rewards like coupons

“I don’t know if this amount of money is going to make a difference for me. I feel like I’m just more inclined to do it without the reward maybe”


Feasible monetary incentives are not large enough to motivate extra effort.


Informational scanner: informational interface with a universal barcode scanner that tells users where to put their waste

“I think if I know where something goes already, I probably wouldn’t scan it.”


Desirability and viability deteriorate over time.



So far we had failed to find a desirable, feasible, and viable way to change disposal habits so we did a hard reset and re-evaluated all of our concepts. We determined that many of our solutions were centered on the actual act of disposal instead of trying to promote positive behavior change in other ways. People wanted to learn better waste management practice but they didn’t want a cumbersome disposal process. Incentives were problematic and education wasn't going to break ingrained habits. So we decided to reframe our problem, asking instead:

In what ways can we educate about and promote better waste management practices without involving complex incentive schemes?

The answer was kind of an "a-ha" moment for us. We had started to ideate again and in the process asked,

What if we tried this with children?

All of a sudden it became obvious that targeting children would change everything because the problem was inherently different. Instead of trying to break deeply ingrained habits, why not try to build healthy ones? If we design for an age group young enough to not have formed habits surrounding waste disposal, we can help shape their disposal habits in the future.


One of the storyboards generated from a second round of ideation aimed at children.


Final Concept

Many of our new ideas featured fun personas inspired by our own favorite kids’ games and TV shows. We figured that in order to get a child motivated to learn they have to be engaged, and entertaining or “cute” characters are one of the best ways to do that. Our final concept centered on a virtual pet that eats recyclables.


The concept is a tablet-based game that integrates real-world objects with a virtual environment to teach children aged 5-8 how to recycle. In order to make this an effective solution, it needed to be, first and foremost, as educative as possible and ensure that it would be used by children. These were our two overarching goals that guided all future design decisions.

Competitive Assessment

We know from looking at kids' toys/games like Tamagotchi that virtual pets lose their novelty relatively quickly, even with children, so we needed to flesh out the design even more to make it more fun and engaging. To this end, we took a look at popular kids apps and games on the App Store to see what made them successful.


main takeaway

<! data-preserve-html-node="true"-- Generator: Sketch 49.3 (51167) - http://www.bohemiancoding.com/sketch --> Shape Created with Sketch.

Fun, friendly, and anthropomorphized characters are attractive to users and an effective form of feedback, while mini-games and user control, often in the form of customization, maximize engagement.


Maximizing Education

Real-world Integration

Virtual pet only eats recyclables

Virtual pet only eats recyclables

The pet's mood declines if fed non-recyclable material

The pet's mood declines if fed non-recyclable material


To interact with the virtual pet, the child uses either camera on the tablet to scan waste items from the real world. Then the app renders a virtual version of that waste. If it is recyclable, the virtual pet will tell the child it wants to eat it, if not, the child should drag it to the trash. The pet's health is determined by how well the child learns to sort waste in the virtual environment.


Maximizing Engagement

Expanding Features



Increase XP by learning

Increase XP by learning

Customize in store

Customize in store


The most common features we identified from competitive analysis - mini-games and customization - we incorporated into the final design. We introduced a point system to integrate all the features and promote the importance of the educational aspect. "Feeding" or the virtual act of disposal is required to "level up." Levels unlock games, which give you points to use in a store, where the child can customize their virtual environment.



Though we would have liked to, we didn't get the chance to test the final design. We did do brief interviews with a couple of parents of young children. Those helped us shape the final UI a little. For example, what language was used and what symbols were appropriate for conveying health. Overall, the parents found the concept entertaining and could imagine their child using the app.

Towards the end I was doing more research on incentives and motivation for children and I discovered things that made me question the integrity of our design. I found evidence to support our use of mini-games and points to engage children and encourage their involvement in the educational aspects of the game. However, I also came across a whole body of research on the use of extrinsic rewards and how they eventually undermine intrinsic motivation. This would probably only have a significant effect on the viability of the app itself and not necessarily affect learning. However, the question is whether the app would remain viable and engaging for long enough for learning to occur.