"As designers, we must understand that behaviour comes first. Always. The quirky, the obscure, the vain, the annoying, the wonderful. We need to observe human behaviour if we are to support it in design." ~ Joshua Porter

Movement toward sustainability has begun in many parts of the world. Endeavours such as increasing energy efficiency, reducing emissions and waste, and altering our consumption and commuting patterns are first footholds towards sustainable future. Governments and businesses around the world are spending millions of dollars in information campaigns, programs, policies, regulations and  incentives to align public towards sustainability goals.

Numerous studies have found, however, that most of these initiatives fail to achieve desired outcome. For instance, we all know that walking, cycling, car pooling and taking public transport can reduce emissions, but only if people choose to commute that way. Installing insulation, programmable thermostats and weather-stripping can considerably enhance energy efficiency, but only if households choose to take those actions. Reducing consumption, reusing and composting can substantially reduce waste stream, but only if people choose to pursue that path. Carrying reusable shopping bags, water bottles and coffee mugs can redirect plastic from our landfill, ocean and environment, but only if people choose to carry them. Eating less meat and sourcing organic, locally grown and processed food can significantly lower our carbon footprint and enhance our health and well-being, but once again, only if people choose to do so.

Clearly there is a misalignment between sustainability endeavours and resulting outcomes.

One of the key reasons behind the ineffectiveness of sustainability initiatives is that most of them are focused on getting sustainable outcomes rather than understanding human behaviour, which underpins people’s response towards sustainability endeavours and eventual outcome.

So how do we understand human behaviour and factors influencing it? A great deal of research in the fields of  social science, psychology, marketing, behaviour economics and decision theory provides useful insights in this area.

According to these research findings, our choices and behaviour are shaped by various factors such as our values, beliefs, attitudes, routines, media and socio-technical systems that surround us. It’s an enormous task to analyse each of these factors for an individual, let alone across a community. However, the most pragmatic approach toward understanding their collective influence on human behaviour and humanity’s subsequent response to a particular sustainability endeavour is to first identify barriers that inhibit individuals to adopt sustainable behaviour.

Barriers can be identified through conventional research methods such as in-person interviews, focus groups and surveys. These methods are useful for incremental improvement, but they rarely yield important insights that can surprise or challenge us and lead to real breakthroughs.

Often, people can’t articulate their needs, though their actual behaviour can provide invaluable clues about their unmet needs. A better way to discover barriers is to get out in the world to observe people and their interactions with the offered solution. Critical information gathered through this process can greatly inform the design of appropriate strategies to nudge people in the desired direction.

Lets understand this through an example where the recycling behaviour of individuals in a public area was studied. A famous tourist destination called The Mall in Washington, DC had four dedicated sites for recyclable and garbage collection. Three of these sites had containers with recycling symbols, elaborate signage and visual depiction of recyclable items. Trash containers of different shapes and sizes labelled ‘trash only’ were also placed along side the recycling containers with a sign informing visitors about the amount of garbage produced at The Mall each week.

The purpose behind clearly marked containers and elaborate signs was to increase recycling and decrease contamination at three sites. Trained people were deployed to observe people’s trash and recyclable disposal behaviour at all four sites. Astonishingly, the three sites with marked containers and elaborate signs weren’t effective in instigating proper disposal of recyclables and garbage. In fact, waste disposal habits were similar to those at the site without any information.

Gathered data from the observations found that majority of visitors preferred to spend their time enjoying the attractions at The Mall. With so much to do and experience, visitors had little time to pay attention to elaborate signs, symbols and marked containers. This exercise prompted reconsideration of the local collection and promotion strategy. It led to the design of clearly distinguishable trash and recycling containers and less elaborate signage. In addition, the program also liaised with local concession stand staff to prompt customers to use the recycling containers in the area whenever they sold recyclable containers.

Discovering barriers is the most essential step in designing a successful solution. The above example emphasizes the importance of observing human behaviour to identify barriers that defer individuals from engaging in a sustainable activity. Insight gathered from this empathetic human centred approach is invaluable in designing and delivering programs that can effectively attain the desired outcome.