Why is there a Fly in My Urinal?

Wall-mounted urinals in men’s public restrooms have a glaring design defect. Or perhaps the flaw is with male attention span. Whatever the case, the problem, simply put, is spillage. That is, when men use these urinals they often miss. What should be going into the ceramic bowl ends up in a puddle on the floor. Which creates an unpleasant experience for the next person forced to stand in it. He does the same thing, and on it goes. Yes, it’s disgusting 🤢 And it’s a problem that’s been around as long as there have been men’s public restrooms since ancient Rome.

Is there a way to improve upon the much-maligned receptacle? It turn out, there is. In the early 1990s the cleaning manager at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport came up with an ingenious design solution. His idea was to etch an image of a black house fly just to the left of the drain in every wall mounted urinal. Why do this? “Men evidently like to aim at targets,” say Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, Nudge. And aim they did. The result: spillage was reduced an astonishing 80% near the urinals with the fly. Cleaning costs were reduced 8%. All because of a house fly. If you give men a target, it turns out, they can’t help but aim at it.

Thaler and Sunstein call the urinal fly their favorite illustration of a NUDGE. What’s a nudge? It’s a small tweak to a design that produces an out-sized improvement. A “small but effective push” that encourages users to behave in a preferred way. Such as not urinating on the floor. A nudge is a method of promoting good behavior and correct decision making without restricting options or taking away choice. Nudges don’t make it impossible to do the wrong thing; rather, they make it easier to do the right thing. Think of it as a gentle, persuasive recommendation, not a prohibition. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Nudge theory has gained wide traction, including Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. We have used nudge theory in own lives to get a child to do her homework or a spouse to clean the gutters 😊

Here at KW Works, the nudge idea informs many of our design decisions, allowing us to create user-friendly software systems and intuitive user interfaces for web and mobile applications. Small tweaks to a design, as in the fly example, can have an out-sized impact on the way people interact with technology. Nudge theory shows us the importance of aligning incentives with desired behaviors, of providing clear and immediate feedback to reinforce desired actions. When decision-making parameters are complex, it’s vital that design provide a clear and simple road map for the user. A fly in the bowl, as it were. If you haven’t read Nudge, we recommend it enthusiastically! 

May 18, 2020 | Technology and Society, | No Comments

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Computer Geek, Entrepreneur, Committed to the Creation of Calm Technology for a Hectic World.


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