A small nudge can make a big difference in the fight against COVID

A small nudge can make a big difference in the fight against COVID

The first principle of behavioral design is to make it easy to do the thing you want people to do. This is often much more important than arguments and information.

Let me give you an example using the worlds biggest problem right now.

We walk around and tell each other that there are basically two ways we as citizens can do something about corona-infection.


  • good hand hygiene.
  • social distancing.

But that's not the whole story.

There is a really simple way to significantly improve hand hygiene and thus do something about corona-virus (and the many other viruses that cause sickness and death each year).

And by the way: The solution I will show you is not completely new, difficult or expensive.  Yet, unfortunately, it is not implemented as a basic rule in shops, schools, DIY stores and other places where many people meet.

A Trip to IKEA

You have arrived at IKEA two miles from where I live. Here you see a picture from the entrance where I just stepped through the revolving doors. To get into the store, I have to use the escalator, which is in front of me.

And now for a quiz: What's wrong with the hand sanitizer in this picture?

[object Promise]

(You spend a few seconds looking for it to be able to answer…)

Congratulations, you passed the quiz!

Because that’s the problem: You had to look for it.

The problem is the location.

Take a look again, its over here:

[object Promise]

Just look at how many visual impressions it is up against: Three luminous screens, an inviting escalator that leads us into the store, and the alluring sign ‘Entrance’.

The elements are designed to guide you naturally into the store. IKEA is insanely good at that. They have been practicing to get you to buy Swedish firewood for decades.

In the meantime the poor little hand sanitizer blends in with the wall. There are two problems with this dispenser:

  1. It is poorly located.
  2. It is almost invisible.

You can take a guess, do you think people use it?  This hand sanitazion at the entrance is the absolute most important one, because if we can get everyone to use the hand sanitizer here, everyone enters IKEA with clean hands. If, on the other hand, people do not use it, they may potentially bring in the virus, and then we can start playing Russian roulette in the Swedish labyrinth.

I walked around at the entrance for a quarter of an hour counting how many people used the dispenser.

[object Promise]

22 out of 100. Thats bad. Really bad.

We are still in my local IKEA. We have found our goods and we are ready to pay in the self-service.

The screens could be regarded as a high-risk zone because we all have to tap the same screens that hundreds of others having tapped before us. In addition, we all have to pass through the same area. Here it would be really good to get people to use the dispenser.

So I ask again: What is the problem with the dispenser here on this picture?

[object Promise]

Perhaps you are wondering: Is there one at all? Yes, right in front of you.

Here it is:

[object Promise]

It is even more invisible because it is completely transparent.

[object Promise]

2 out of 22. Almost no one.

What is the solution?

I want you to relocate the dispenser. That is it. Nothing else.

For experts in this field it is a well-known fact that the biggest effect on hand hygiene is often the location of the dispenser. Partly because good placement makes it easier to wash your hands.

Partly because the good location acts as a visual reminder when passing the sanitizer. Partly because it creates a mild peer pressure when the people in front of you use it.

Three Simple Rules

There is a saying that behavioral experts whisper to each other in the hallways of conferences and down under the booths of the toilets when they are sure that no one is listening.

“If it works with children, it works with adults.”

For that reason we can just take a trip to my children's school to see how it should be done.

Here you have the entrance to the school:

[object Promise]

The sign says: Remember to use the sanitizer!

The school shows us the three key element, that creates the perfect location and a visual reminder.

  1. Move the hand sanitizer to the entrance

Many (not all) have figured this out. The problem is that, like in IKEA, it is often invisible on the side.

  1. Get it in the way

It means quite litterally that if I walk right through the door and into the store, then I have to bump into it. Or like in the school, it has to stick out so I almost bruise my head when I try to get through the door.

  1. Make it stand out

It does NOT have to blend in with the surroundings as in IKEA. It should preferably have an ugly contrast color so that it clearly lights up.

By the way, I counted again at the entrance to the school.

[object Promise]

As you can see, the percentage of people using the hand sanitiser dramatically increased.

[object Promise]

You can make a big difference

You may not own a store. Or a business. Or be responsible for a department store. Or employed by the Health authorities. Therefore, you have an even simpler responsibility:

Say it out loud when you see a foolishly placed dispenser.

Ask people in the canteen to pass it on to facility management. Write to the school principal. Go to the information in IKEA (I did).

If you succeed in moving an sanitizer to a better place, your influence on the distribution of hand sanitazion in the municipality will increase with the same exponential force as the epidemic itself.

Because when you remember to splash your own hands, you affect one data point.  If you succeed in moving the sanitizer, you will quickly affect 1,000 data points. Everybody else.



Morten Münster is an adviser in behavioural design and the author of I'm Afraid Debbie From Marketing Has Left For the Day.

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