Improved labels on recycling bins

A rubbish blog post about content design

The benefits of content design can often go unnoticed. Until content designers turn vigilante…

I’m one of the content designers working at the Education and Skills Funding Agency. As content designers, it’s our job to get to the essence of what people need and then strip everything else away.

And in the name of content design, we occasionally go rogue.

In a recent lunchtime guerrilla mission I buddied up with our content lead, Mark Avery, to tackle an issue affecting everyone in the office: overcomplicated recycling bin signs.

We had noticed how much time people were wasting, standing in the kitchen with soggy tea bags dripping into the palm of their hand, trying to decode which bin to put the damn thing in!

Worse still, people were getting frustrated and ended up putting rubbish in random bins because it was just too difficult to figure out which one to use.

Make it simple

In agile development, content designers don’t just write the words for a pre-defined problem. We interrogate the specifics of the situation to find the real-world issues that people are having. Then we try to fix them.

It was obvious with the signs that we needed to distil the meaning of the original content into clear, precise language. We removed all the graphics and reduced the word count from about 40 words per sign to around 5 or 10.

We now needed to see how effective these changes were.

Release early and often

One way of measuring success when developing service content is to measure how long it takes someone to complete a task. Anything that slows people down needs to be removed.

We put up prototype signs for the 3 different categories of rubbish. We used white text on a blue background. We could see instantly that people were no longer struggling to work out where to put their leftovers. And the world of recycling was transformed forever!

Well, not quite.

One of Mark’s mantras is “less writing, more testing”, so we canvassed colleagues for feedback. Although we were told the signs were clearer and easy to understand, a recurring theme was that they looked too similar to each other.

Collaborate

We knew we needed to make improvements. But how?

We spoke to our behavioural insights experts. They recommended using colour to make the distinction between the signs as obvious as possible. This would increase the likelihood of people using them.

We consulted the user experience clan. They encouraged the use of colour since people can learn to associate the different colours with different bins, meaning less time reading signs and less cognitive burden.

We then ambushed a front end developer and asked him to mock up the new improved designs. He found a clearer font and advised us to increase the size of the text.

What next?

As well as a simpler experience for users, we hope the new signs will lead to an increase in recycling.

We’ve also started seeing photocopied versions of our signs popping up all over the building, in different departments!

The wacky world of bin signage might seem trivial, but it’s just one small example of how content design can make life easier for people.