Design Nudges Done Right

A beige cartoon graphic with arrows pointing different directions and users tyring to follow them.
Nudging User Experiences

product and experience designers, we have a lot of power over people’s daily lives. One such power? The ability to nudge end-users in the direction we want or need them to go, presumably for their own benefit. It can be subtle or overt, but choice architecture is at the heart of it all. In this article, we at Speck Design highlight and celebrate some of the best modern design nudges and the companies doing them right.

Making the “Right” Thing Easier

People will be more apt to comply if something is easier to do. This concept is not a revelation but what is surprising is how powerful simplification and/or designing prioritization can be. Not surprisingly, the Nudge Unit at Penn Medicine is an excellent example of an organization doing it right. As evident by their work with the IT team at the university. By working together to change prescription dropdown menus to show generic drugs first, generic prescribing rates skyrocketed from an average of 40–70 percent to an impressive 99 percent.

Making the “Wrong” Thing Harder

A stack of toliet paper rolls with a square interior roll.
(Square Core Tube Image: Shigeru Ban)

Positively incentivizing actions or behaviors is always the aim but adding a bit of friction (in this case, literally) is also an excellent way to nudge people into making better decisions. Need an example? The toilet paper roll designed by Shigeru Ban is a perfect illustration of doing this subtly. By creating a roll of toilet paper with a center tube that was square instead of round, Ban effectually added resistance. This proved to be the ever so slight nudge users need to take less paper.

Employing Your User’s Senses

Our senses not only influence our subconscious but reinforce actions by tying them to memory. Volkswagen’s ‘Fun Theory’ campaign took a whimsical and sensory-driven approach to influence commuters in rail stations to get more exercise by taking the stairs instead of the escalator. They did so by creating musical steps that looked like piano keys and played music when stepped on. Not only did this approach nudge commuters to choose decidedly healthier behavior, but it also created potentially long-lasting, pleasant memories around them. These memories have the potential to pay dividends by continuing to spawn positive behavior choices in participants in the future.

Engaging Users

A “do not walk” light with a red dancing man.
Dancing Light Image: The Smart Company

Encouraging users to interact or even have fun with your physical or digital object keeps them engaged, happy, and more likely to comply with directives, like pedestrian walk signals. Not-a-one of us likes to wait at city crosswalks. Still, crossing on a red walk light is when pedestrians are most likely to be hit. This is why The Dancing Red Light, created by The Smart Company, is such a brilliant example of an engaging nudge. This clever design projects a dancing silhouette of actual people dancing in a booth nearby in real time. Not only entertaining but incredibly effective, this project reduced red-light traffic crossing by 81%, highlighting a more profound truth: Thoughtfully designed products can, in fact, save lives.

Breaking Your Users Out of Auto-Pilot

Every day we do many of our actions on auto-pilot. It’s part of being human. It’s protected our species for millennia. By making mental shortcuts of repetitive actions, we have and still do preserve more of our attention where it’s needed — to survive. For a product designer vying for some of that tightly guarded attention, that means displacing that routine. A fantastic illustration of this is the men’s restrooms at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where “spillage” around the urinals was problematic (and sticky). By simply etching a fly into the urinal right by the drain, the airport reduced spillage by 80 percent and, consequently, the need for cleanup by 20 percent. As it were, breaking men ever so slightly of their bathroom routine was the fly-sized nudge needed to focus them on the task at hand: Simple, brilliant, and effective like most nudges tend to be.

Why Nudges, Why Now?

In truth, most of these examples and the nudge psychologies behind them are reasonably well-known in the design world — most of them are taken from the ideas outlined in the book Nudge, written in 2008 (Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein). But revisiting them now seems timely now as the pandemic hits the rearview mirror. As we head into a different type of future than what most of us might have imagined back in early 2020, product designers, industrial engineers, and experience architects face and will continue to face unique challenges presented to them by a world turned upside down. Whether that be designing for virtual workplaces or including more safety protocols for products in the real world, the goalposts have indubitably and forever changed.

In times like these, it is easy to forget but critical to recall our “design roots,” those of designing not only for the world of today but for a better tomorrow. And to do this, we also must be nudged from time to time to remember the humanity behind our human-centered designs.



We improve human connections and experiences through innovative product design.

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Speck Design

We improve human connections and experiences through innovative product design.