Good-Design Fails When It Ignores Some Target Users

In my recent trip to Nevada and Arizona, at the Las Vegas airport, I stumbled upon this very interesting design failure.

Obviously, the round shaped opening is counter-intuitive for a paper-recycling bin.

As I walked further through the airport, I saw a properly designed paper-recycling bin:

Later I saw the whole set of trash and recycling bins, properly designed to fit intuitions and be practical – the opening of the trash bin is larger than the one for cans and bottles because it needs to accommodate items that are larger than bottles and cans.

A few meters (yards) away I figured out the problem behind the paper-recycling bin with a round opening (first picture) when I saw this full set of bins.

Quite interestingly, someone put in some effort (squeezed the can) to do the right thing and respect the writing on the cans and bottles bin, despite it having the top (lid) of the paper bin.

This is a case of design failure despite the correctness of the design in terms of fitting the public’s intuition. The lids have properly designed openings to intuitively indicate what goes where.

But this design failed to address the people who use the bins the most – the waste-collecting personnel (cleaning crew).

Most likely, a member of the cleaning crew who’s paid minimum wage, who empties the bins several times a day and is under time pressure is prone to make natural mistakes.

This design is not friendly with the product’s main (most frequent) users because it makes it very easy for them to make mistakes.

A radical approach would be to design the bins in such a way that the paper lid fits only the paper bin. This could be done by varying container sizes – e.g. make the paper bin a bit larger/ wider than the cans and bottles bin. It could also be done by making each bin and subsequent lid of various shapes, so that it is obvious that you can’t put a square on top of a circle.

However, this would involve large costs since it would necessitate major changes in the production line.

The problem can be solved a lot easier by color coding bins and lids. For example, the paper bin and lid could both have a brown strip, while the bottles and cans bin and lid could both have a green strip.

This would reduce error at a very low additional cost.

The main learning from this encounter with bad good-design is that when designing we not only need to consider the end-user of our product or service, but we need to take into account the other-people who will implement / maintain our products and services.

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