Question: How can we use rewards or information to promote better recycling habits?

The question stated above was our starting point for the following research endeavor. Only 60% of reusable packaging is properly recycled, is there a way we as designers can increase that amount? In order to design a working solution we needed to learn more about the problem. The following is stage 1 of 2 in my current human-centered design studio project.

Framing the Design Challenge

After reviewing the IDEO Field Guide, My team and I discussed how we would define the challenge at hand. We defined it as follows:

Our Challenge: Waste systems are in place, but the population has no motivation to follow; systematic errors are present in current recycling bins.

The Timeline


Secondary Research


Design Opportunities



Stakeholder Mapping

Cognitive walkthrough

Affinity mapping


Initial Ideas: Using Habit Models

At this point we realized that we were essentially looking at how to make good habits through good products and services. With that in mind, we looked at some habit models and principles to gain a better understanding of what had already been discovered.

The Hook Model

The hook model is a method of encouraging repeat usage of a product. An external trigger causes the user to perform a simple action which rewards them and allows them to invest it back into the service in anticipation for a greater reward next trigger.

The MOA Model

The MOA model is a behavior model suggesting that in order for a behavior to occur, the user must have the motivation, the ability and the opportunity to perform the behavior. If one of these 3 elements is lacking then the behavior will not occur.

Nudge Theory

The nudge theory suggests that the most effective way to make a certain behavior a habit is to provide subtle hints and queues for the behavior to occur, thus nudging the user in the right direction.


Although we determined we wanted to create good habits, we didn't know what those good habits were exactly. In order to get honest and unbiased information about user behavior and the current system, we conducted several observation sessions. Below are some of our prominent findings.

Hole Sizing

What we observed from this was hesitation to use the right bins and a constant default of using the trash bin, presumably because it was easier to throw everything in it. Although this shape and size limitation deterred people from using the recycling, it theoretically also stopped contamination of recycled items.

Sizing restricts recycling

Users default to trash bins


We found that colour-coding was a very common practice when labelling bins. Strangely enough, the colour-coding on the bins that users interacted with didn't always match up to the colours used on the carts used by trash collectors, leaving potential for misplacement due to error.

Colour-coding is common

Colour-coding is inconsistent

Angles of Access

Similar to the hole shape/size issue, we hypothesized that the angles that users could access the trash would have a direct effect on where trash went. Typically, there were less angles of access on recycling bins than on trash bins.

Angles affect use

Angles can be restrictive

Bottle Scavengers

Bottle scavengers were an interesting phenomenon birthed from the financial incentive on bottle returns. They would dig through bins collecting bottles (rarely from the recycling), and return bottles to depots. This ensured misplaced bottles would end up where they were supposed to be while rewarding the scavengers with money.

Caused by incentives

Mutually beneficial

Stakeholders Map

During our observation period we also constructed a stakeholder map of the key players in the waste lifecycle. This helped us brainstorm all the different users involved, as well as the different places in the map where problems with the system may have been.

Secondary Research

Some of our key insights came from secondary research. We found several sources that provided us some insights about how people view trash and the act of throwing things out.

Build It and They Will Recycle

This study conducted by Patrick Gilmour,, Judith Alcorn, and Graham Moore focused on waste disposal behavior around the University of Melbourne. We gathered a great deal of information from this document, a lot of which we would not have been able to collect within our time constraints.

Inconvenience Cost of Disposal in Korea

This article by Misuk Lee, Hyunhong Choi, Yoonmo Koo, focused on the quantification of negative qualitative traits related to waste disposal behavior. This study gave us insights on what people truly viewed as inconvenience when disposing of waste.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

This book by Nir Ayal discussed different techniques and frameworks utilized in making addicting products. This book discussed several theories by BJ Fogg, which we used in our later research.

The Design of Everyday Things

This classic design text by Don Norman was used in our research to collect information about basic principles of design, namely conceptual models and system images. These two concepts came up a lot during our discussions, as it helped us verbalize how users perceive how systems work.

Emotional Design

Another text by Don Norman, Emotional design  helped us understand the idea of user attachment and using emotional investment. Similar to many texts by Stewart Walker, Emotional Design promoted emotional investment as an important aspect of sustainable products.

The Design of Future Things

This text contained many interesting ideas. One that stood out was the smart product fallacy. a smart product is only as smart as the designers and programmers make it. It has only the amount of sense that can be programmed into it, and will always lack common sense and empathy, thus proving that it isn’t truly smart

Inconvenience costs and The Elements of Simplicity

One of the primary concepts we discovered in our secondary research was the idea of inconvenience costs, values assigned to factors of inconvenience. This term originally popped up in an article about South Korean waste disposal, suggesting the higher the inconvenience cost the harder it is to get user participation. We combined this idea with Business Guru BJ Fogg's 6 elements of simplicity and used this combination as a lens to view our problem through.

The 6 Elements of Simplicity

Physical Effort

Social Deviance




Brain Cycles

In the book "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products" Author Nir Eyal states that in order to build successful habitual products a designer must focus on the element the user has a deficit in.

A Cognitive Walkthrough

We made a cognitive walkthrough of the waste lifecycle to narrow down our key users and environments from the stakeholders map.


From our cognitive walkthrough we made personas of an individual from each part of the walkthrough to help us try and empathize with each of their unique mindsets.






Affinity Mapping: Finding the Defecits

With our personas in mind we used affinity mapping to identify where the deficits of the 6 elements of simplicity were for our users.

From our affinity map we identified these "hotspots" which we could focus on when finding design solutions.

Next Steps: Design Opportunities

After our affinity mapping we concluded our primary research stage. From this point we are to explore potential design opportunities with the extensive collection of information we have gathered. Below are some potential design solutions I have proposed for this project.This assignment required a digital interface for each concept.

Concept 1: Bottle Return Incentive

Playing off of our observations with the bottle scavengers, I wanted to explore how one could make that behavior more fun, socially acceptable, and convenient. This first concept proposes a smart bin that users can tap their phone to, deposit their bottles, and collect the return on the bottle in a digital wallet.





1 - Home Screen.png

Users graphically track how many bottles they have recycled responsibly.

4 - Find a Bin.png

Users can locate a smart bin near their location and track their recently visited bins.

2 - Successful Tap.png

Users accumulate money by properly recycling their bottles and cans.

Concept 2: Fast Food Waste

This concept came from another one of our observations. I noticed that fast food packaging is often disposed of improperly simply because people don't separate their trash. This design proposes an auto-sorting waste bin, standardized packaging for fast food, and an app (either on your phone or built into the bin) that lets users explore where their garbage goes.





Concept 2 - 1 - AfterTap.jpg

Users could view the garbage that was part of their order.

Concept 2 - 2 - Item.jpg

There would be exploded views of each element for further viewing.

Concept 2 - 3 - Analysis.jpg

Users could learn specific information about each part of their garbage.

I am in the process of updating the page, but this video is a summary of the project, all the way to its conclusion.

Credit to my Team: Monika Danh, Nathan Siu, Kathrine Barrett, George Patrikis.