Using human-centred design to solve a waste challenge

Tackling waste with human centered design. 


Waste collection and processing is a significant challenge facing communities all around the world.

In 2019, Nomat employed our human-centred design expertise to work through the problem within our own community, develop a solution to address the issues identified with waste collection, and propose a methodology to implement a solution.

Applying our design thinking skills was crucial to understanding what proved to be a complex system.

What we did

By applying our design thinking skills we were able to map out existing processes holistically, understand where the issues were and query existing solutions.

A human centered design approach

To tackle the design problem, we used the ‘double-diamond’ human-centred design approach, which proved to be crucial in understanding such a multifaceted and complex system.

The double diamond (first diamond) emphasises the importance of understanding the problem space before defining multiple possible solutions, and then validating the best one with real users (second diamond).

Research participant in a room using a prototype of the Shout App with a moderator observing

Bringing design thinking skills to the process allowed us to map out the situation, then test and validate ideas.

Thorough research and investigation provided important insight and allowed us to fully understand the problem space.

Field visits helped to uncover issues that might not otherwise have been visible.

Understanding the problem space

Undertaking a range of research activities and looking at the issue from different angles helped us to uncover important aspects of the problem.

Research activities included:

  • a review of existing evidence-based research, such as reports on waste and waste management produced by Governments and non-profits (such as Planet Ark).
  • interviewing some of the major waste recycling firms and local council waste department representatives about the challenges and barriers they face with waste management.
  • field visits to a materials recovery facility and a council waste transfer station to see the process in person.
Volunteers from the Cancer Council collecting donations in the Melbourne CBD

Processes employed by Nomat:

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Contextual enquiry
  • Design activities (journey map, idea generation, and prioritisation exercises).

Design activities

Developing a high level journey map gave us an overview of the waste process and helped us focus on which part of the process to target.

From there we used ‘how might we’ questions to frame different parts of the problem and ‘crazy 8’s’ to generate a large amount of ideas quickly.

Ideas were narrowed down and prioritised for further refinement focusing on an agreed to success criteria.

    Speaking with community members supported us to understand the problem “I’ve just spent 90 seconds trying to work out if I can recycle that, that’s too long” – Albert Park resident

    Waste is an important issue and people want to do the right thing. But they’re also confused and won’t spend exhaustive effort to work out what to do. This suggests solutions need to reduce the onus on the individual to seek information.

    Key findings that influenced the proposed solution

    Some of the key challenges and findings uncovered through the research process were:

    • the presence of non-recyclable contaminants in kerbside recycling was a major challenge for recycling firms 
    • a lack of coordinated education initiatives around recycling
    • huge variation in bins and their signage in terms of visual style
    • community engagement and education is a critical factor, but the information provided is often inconsistent and the available ‘education apps’ are often complex and overwhelming

    Solution: the design concept

    Following research activities, a range of solutions were explored. With the objective to equip and empower the greatest possible number of local councils in Victoria to make effective and consistent communication materials and education initiatives with as little duplication of effort as possible, a design system was proposed. The intention of the design system was to act as a library which contained reusable resources, elements and templates that have been user tested and proven to be recognisable and understandable by the public. Guidance on how best to apply and use each element within the design system would also be provided. The project is ongoing.