Sustainable Product Design – Nudging for Change

What is the best design? How do you create the perfect product? How do you engage your audience and generate user uptake?

These are questions that all entrepreneurs, companies, and organizations ask themselves when conceptualizing new products or services. It is the ability to tap into the fundamental motivation of consumers that dictates whether or not a product “works”, and for some it remains a mystery. A wide range of approaches and design principles exist, many of which have been harnessed by some of the world’s top companies.

Broadly speaking, when developing a product, there are three areas considered vital to user design, and a combination of all goes a long way towards generating the right product. These are: functional, aesthetic, and experience.

Nudge Design - Collective Responsibility

Functional design sets the product’s foundation; without the basic functions, there is little use in the others. Aesthetic design is the “look” of the product, if it appeals to the user’s eyes. Experience design, however, is a bit less tangible: How does the product “feel” to use? What is the overarching impression of the product, and how can that experience be altered to produce the best possible outcome?

When it comes to behavioral change, the functionality of a product is often secondary to this user experience. How a user interacts with that function will determine whether or not they will return.

The development of user experience can come in many forms, big to small, and the smallest differences often encourage, or “nudge”, individuals to make the change, drive usage, or alter an attitude.


Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics, which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions (to try to achieve non-forced compliance) can influence the motives, incentives and decision-making of groups and individuals alike (Wikipedia).


In this first case of the image below, the change in user experience can be more fundamental, and less of a nudge, to allow a specific demographic to use it more comfortably.

Nudge Design - Collective Responsibility

Here, the functional and aesthetic designs of all three toilets are the same, but by lowering the third toilet, the user experience allows a child to use it.

In contrast, the next example highlights the nudge. This case is personal to me, in that when I moved into my house, the previous tenant had “redesigned” the toilet to remind a large part of the population (i.e. Men) to perform a specific action, encouraging the lifting of the seat…

Many of us know why.

Nudge Design - Collective Responsibility

Has it changed the fundamental function? No.

Could it look better? Yes, absolutely (in my opinion).

But has it achieved the desired behavioral change? Yes, certainly in this case.

So while these types of additions may appear insignificant and annoying, they can alter the user’s interaction or experience in such a way that drives behavioral change or new adoption. These elements of design are all around us, whether we are aware of them or not, but their importance is often overlooked.

Our upcoming Hackathon – Sanitation in China

The relevance of this aspect of (user) design is very acute when trying to develop change in communities that have been stuck in their ways, quite understandably, for perhaps hundreds of years. You might wonder why this article has focused so heavily on toilets. Well, that is because in our upcoming Hackathon, we aim to increase toilet usage and drive better sanitation in areas of China where populations are still underserved.

As a result, we see the user experience design as key to developing adoption among previously targeted groups where uptake has failed. It is about driving the “why”, not just the “what”. “Why should I use (and continue to use) this toilet”, over “what function does this toilet serve?”

For many communities, both rural and urban, this lack of targeted design has resulted in them simply using the natural facilities, ignoring the toilets supplied and heading outside like they always have. After all, the “what” is pretty much the same when comparing the woods and a disconnected toilet.

So yes, functional design is absolutely vital to products – and in many ways can impact on the user’s experience of a product, service, or toilet – but taking a holistic approach incorporating all aspects of design is key. Particularly when aiming to create behavioral change, how can we “nudge” our users towards the right choice that helps serve them both as individuals and the community as a whole?


Are you interested in this area of design? Wondering how you can design for change? On November 18-19, Kohler will host a 24-hour hackathon to design a toilet for those who are underserved, if you think you can be part of an innovative solution to this growing issue, please scan the QR code below or contact Chuli Duan at [email protected].

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