Sprout: Public interactive display, Website
How might we transform community-run composting from an invisible service into a highly visible, publicly celebrated movement?
New York City has the largest residential organics collection program in the country. Yet in 2017, the program only picked up 5% of the city’s total food waste due to lack of awareness and education. Over 100 community-run compost drop-offs across the city can help fill the gap — but they operate like weekly pop-up shops, lacking proper signage and online information.
Sprout unifies all of those disparate elements into a cohesive community composting system. Sprout is an interactive display for food scrap drop-off sites that celebrates community efforts by measuring participation and visualizing its positive environmental impact. Every drop-off can be easily found at sproutnyc.com, where you can learn how to set up composting at home, find recommended products and tips, and even receive text reminders and fridge posters that reinforce your new routine.
Scope: 8 months
Categories: User Research, Product Design, Service Design
Role: Solo designer and researcher
Mayo Nissen, frog
Eric Forman, SVA
Graham Letorney, SVA, Shutterstock
Tools: Sketch, Principle, Figma, Physical Prototyping
Watch Sprout encapsulated in 7 minutes
Sprout is a community composting system that makes it easier for New Yorkers to discover and participate in their local food scrap drop-off service.
THERE ARE TWO PARTS:
An interactive display that lives at food scrap drop-off sites
A website that teaches you how to compost in an approachable way
Part 1: An interactive display that lives at food scrap drop-off sites.
Part 2: A website that teaches you how to compost in a friendly, approachable way.
How Sprout Works
Visualizes Environmental Impact
Sprout helps people understand the positive outcomes of their composting efforts by translating the number of drop-offs and pounds of food scraps into their real-life contributions.
Provides Collective Proof
Seeing the collective number of drop-offs of your local community demonstrates that people in your neighborhood are composting—and you should too.
Celebrates Each Drop-Off
Each individual drop-off is acknowledged and celebrated, so participants can look forward to a sense of accomplishment at every visit.
Plus, a joyful jingle that endears you to Sprout.
Makes it easy to find your drop-off
The dynamic map makes it easier to browse your nearest drop-off options, and filter them by open dates, walking distance and more.
shares a Step-by-step Process
Rather than wasting time searching for the right list of accepted items, bins to use at home or how to create a reasonable set up at home—Sprout lays out all the options in a single location.
Provides Habit-Building Tools
It’s easy to start a bag of food scraps and forget to drop them off week-over-week. With Sprout, you can sign up for text reminders and download calendar events that make it easy to remember which days your drop-off is open.
City research shows that there are clear segments of New Yorkers who are eager to be greener, especially consuming more sustainable food. But as I talked to more and more people in this demographic, I noticed a gap between their intentions and actions. Why are so many young New Yorkers eager to compost, yet completely unaware of how to start?
Service Audit Insights
A service audit and observational research revealed that people are confused by the inconsistency or lack of information provided by NYC composting services. Here’s a deeper dive:
The Drop-Offs Hide in Plain Sight
There are over 100 food scrap drop-offs across NYC, meaning plenty of New Yorkers live 5-10 minutes away from free composting services. But when you arrive at a drop-off, you might find garbage bins with a spray painted label and no signage.
During observation sessions, most people didn’t even notice the bins. A barista from the café behind this setup confirmed that people ask for directions weekly.
Inconsistent Schedules & Setups
The drop-offs operate like a pop-up shop, owned by different host sites. Each location looks different and opens on different days and times. They show up during open hours and leave without a trace. You’d never know that a drop-off spot is a drop-off spot.
No Clear Online resource
First off, the Department of Sanitation does not clearly explain the difference between Organics Collection and Food Scrap Drop-Offs — each service has its own website and they are unlinked. Because food scrap drop-offs in New York are run by numerous partners of NYC Compost Project, their individual websites have inconsistent information about drop-off locations, hours of operations and materials accepted. These websites are wordy and outdated, making it easy for people to give up researching how to compost as well.
Increase street visibility of compost
Increase motivation to participate
Help more people reach first time drop-off experience
Create consistency across service
Because the composting system doesn’t have an infrastructure for frequent data collection, I relied heavily on qualitative research with experts, stakeholders, composters and non-composters. I knew that NYC Compost Project and DSNY prioritized pure operations. What I really wanted to understand was the consumer perspective on composting and what system would effectively motivate them to participate. During my prototyping phase, I went through weekly user testing sessions to understand how effective my design solutions were.
User Journey Pain Points
It became clear to me that there were issues with lack of awareness and clarity across the user journey. From the moment of discovery to drop-off, people were missing key information on where composting happens, how it happens and why it’s important. I knew I wanted to focus on creating a cohesive experience that successfully communicated the value of composting during critical touch points.
Defining Core User Needs
After extensive user and expert interviews, I distilled the elements that necessary for a successful composting service and experience.
One Cohesive Experience
The lack of consistency across food scrap drop-offs make it challenging for users to trust and understand the service. Users want to know which sources are correct and what exactly they should be looking for when they arrive at their drop-off.
Tools to Build a Habit
Even if users begin to collect food scraps at home, they would often forget to drop them off at the appropriate days. It’s important to help users fulfill their first few drop-offs until the habit has solidified.
Acknowledge My Efforts
One user compared composting to a charity you sign up to support on the streets. It’s an activity that goes unrewarded socially. Participants deserve to feel like their efforts mean something to the city.
Right now, it is the user’s responsibility to research how to set up composting at home. This leads to Google search rabbitholes for the right methods, containers and countless unanswered questions. People wanted a simple manual.
Proof of Impact
Even people who drop off their food scraps each week have no idea where their food scraps were going, or the impact they had on the city and planet. This lack of transparency prevents non-composters from buying into the cause.
Looking at other players in the composting space, I looked at home solutions, other cities, and private and public services. While my proposal didn’t address convenience or the operations layer of the service, it made the service more noticeable, marketable, understandable and meaningful to users.
I proposed a network of bin housings for food scrap drop-offs that tells you how many pounds of food scraps are dropped off in real time, over the week and year. In this concept, you can find your nearest drop-off and learn how to compost on the corresponding website.
Early Concept Display Prototype
Using corrugated plastic, felt and velcro, I built a low-fi display that housed an iPad mini. On site, I weighed the total pounds of compost collected, and displayed the total weight as well as the individual weight added by each person.
We went from less than 10 people noticing to almost 80 people looking at the bins, taking pictures and stopping and reading the signs.
Stop, Start, Continue
✘ Physical housings for bins would not scale well across different drop-offs, because they range from 1-6 bins on site and change quantity by demand.
✘ Real-time weighing of compost would be impossible without the housings, but I learned that all drop-off managers report their collection weights. I could propose a back-end system that communicates this data to the displays.
✔ I should pursue the idea of a physical display.
✔ I need to explore what kinds of content make composting feel most meaningful to people.
✔ Maximize the drop-off moment to feel celebratory and memorable.
✔ Design more realistic screen content/sizes.
Early Concept Website Wireframes
I created a mini-prototype for the website’s homepage and a few versions of the learning how to compost flow. I referenced sites like Care/Of, Everlane’s ReNew campaign, Wealthsimple that sell consumer goods with long-term value and personalized onboarding. To stay organized, I began by defining the website’s target user, their challenges (awareness, perception and operations), and successful triggers for action. The goal was to gauge people’s reactions to the content and flow structure in 3-4 user test sessions. I asked users to walk through the wireframes while voicing their reactions and questions out loud.
I learned that the cabbage/lettuce fact was the most effective message because it was rooted in real life. They wanted a learning experience that was quick and to the point, like eHow rather than a long, personalized onboarding experience.
Stop, Start, Continue
✘ A “save the environment” message felt floofy and pretentious.
✘ The benefits need to be more specific, clearer.
✘ The slider calculator was “cool” but didn’t have much impact.
✘ Step-by-step onboarding (a la Care/Of) felt slow.
✔ Create an easy eHow-like learning experience.
✔ Get straight to the “how” (to compost) instead of the “why.”
✔ A faster flow from beginning to end.
✔ Providing more context around directions and why certain things were true/not true.
Design Principles for Behavior Change
After my first prototype, I needed to take a step back. Based on insights from BJ Fogg’s Behavioral Model, user testing and expert interviews with people like Roya Kazemi (former Director of GreeNYC), I developed five principles for creating behavior change specifically for composting. These principles guided what kind of content I included and which data streams would be meaningful to track and display to users.
Use One Clear CTA
The most important factor in getting people to take action is to give them one, and only one. Anything additional will unravel a person’s ambition to try something new.
Positivity + Hope
It’s more convincing to start with benefits (less smelly trash), or education rather than trying to scare someone into action.
Simple, Direct Answers
Take the complexity of the scene and break it up into ways that are easy to understand. Appeal to where people are stuck and what their values are. What are the most common questions and concerns that people would have?
Pride in Sustainability
Some actions don’t have obvious benefits. One way to connect with people (going after people who self-identify as responsible, green thinkers) is to focus on social norming, and evoking pride in collective achievement. We’re doing this as a community.
People want to be part of the crowd. Playing up social proof that others are participating in composting will open individuals to the idea of joining too.