Case study

Making an Empact

From assumptions to insights

The goal of team at Empact is to promote litter picking, especially in urban spaces. After our initial talk they realized that much of their work was based on the teams own experiences and assumptions about litter-picking. They had not yet worked with actual users - this is where I came in.

For the first part of our project I conducted an ethnographic study together with both litter-pickers and non-pickers to learn more about their motivations, barriers and the important contextual factors of this activity. Findings from this work can be found here (only in Norwegian).

For the second part, I conducted usability testing and analysed Empact's app. The app lets you register the litter you pick in exchange for points. These points can be exchanged for the chance of winning prizes or other products offered in the app. 

The process

  1. I conducted a thorough analysis of each screen in the app using myself as study object as I had not used the app before. Taking notes while going through the app as a first time user, I structured my experience, the pain points and the positive aspects.

  2. Secondly, I conducted usability tests with other new users where we dove into the registration-of-litter-process - the main use-case for this app. I then transcribed and analysed these usability tests.

  3. Thirdly, I observed use of the app in real-life settings as I was doing ethnography with the litter-picking group. Several of these were long-time users of the app which provided a contrasting perspective.


This is a summary of the main take-aways from this research.

  • Too close, or not quite close enough?
    I observed a mismatch between users' expectations and how the app actually functioned. Many functions and features were similar to familiar apps, such as the call to «post» which most users will know from Facebook or Instagram. However, the features also diverted from these familiar apps, and thus users' expectations did not match with the results, creating uncertainty. This issue can be solved by EITHER adjusting said features so they resemble the users expectations more closely, that way their actions will result in what they expect to happen and cause less frustration for new users, OR by leaning into the unique way these features are supposed to work and make sure the phrasing and labels used do not overlap with familiar apps so the users' associations about them do not clash - the latter is however the harder route to take.

  • Lack of communication
    Users experienced uncertainty as to what certain features in the app did. Without being able to find information about it they had to go through trial and error to figure it out, and often experienced unexpected results. This pain point most likely derives from the fact that until now the design was developed by the team themselves and, as they know exactly what they want each feature to do, forgot to communicate this clearly. It can be easy to forget how something looks from the perspective of a new user when you are intimately familiar with a design. The curse of knowledge, after all, is that you can never again know what it is like not to have that knowledge. This is why testing with users is so important. The communication aspects can easily be fixed with clearer labels or explanation boxes that can be opened as pop-ups only when needed or only on the first use.

  • Smoothing out the user flow
    Furthermore, simple changes could be made to improve the overall flow and make the app more user-friendly. For instance, an estimated 95 % of uses follow the specific flow of registering litter while picking it, by uploading a picture of the litter and providing some information about it. It would be helpful for users if the app opened on the page that lets you do this, instead of on a homescreen from which they need to do several clicks to get to the registration page. This might be especially helpful for this particular app as their users will be outdoors, perhaps carrying something or on their way somewhere, and want to use the app quickly, and quite possibly one-handed.
    Simple restructuring of the pages, and a critical assesment of how much information is actually required and which steps might be removed from the registration form, are quick and feasible solutions that would make a big difference to the user experience.

  • Motivators of sustainable actions
    A main finding of the ethnographic part of this study regarded what motivates people to choose sustainable actions (such a picking litter), and how this varies on contextual factors. As a climate anthropologist much of my work relates to this and much can be said on the topic. What is useful input for this app however, is that certain motivators work particularly well for short-term behavioural change or for testing out something new, while others are better for sustaining long-term behavioural change. One of the main functions of the app is to reward people for picking litter by letting them exchange points for prizes. As my research shows, this is an efficient way to make people curious about a behaviour and have them try it out. It is however not so good, and in some cases actually harmful, for sustaining long-term behavioural change. The strongest motivators for the latter are more closely tied to intrinsic values and identity. When we experience that our actions are in line with those two elements, we are more likely to continue doing it. The most popular «reward» option for long-term users of the app was the option to donate their points to sponsor clean-ups other places in the world, reinforcing their identity and values as people who care more about helping the environment than material goods.

    This is just a small part of the findings that relate to motivators. It was important, however, for the Empact team be aware and learn more about this, as the way they reward people has different impacts on short and long-term behaviour. Rewarding people for positive behaviour can be a useful tool, but it has to be used consciously and in the right context in order not to backfire. These findings were deemed extremely important by the team and will make their work better founded and more nuanced moving forward. 

I loved working with Empact's team, as well as their users. They are passionate about sustainability and about creating ripple effects. This research, though brief, will have major consequences for how they think about their work and approach, as reported by the team themselves, showing how powerful these research methods are. 

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