Design Uncategorized

How a Small Fly Became a Big Deal in Bathroom Hygiene

Have you noticed the fly that lives in the urinal? In many urinals, a fly has been etched or printed near the drain as a target. This clever addition is a simple image of a fly that serves an important purpose. The idea is to provide a target to aim at, reducing spillage and keeping restrooms cleaner.

It’s actually called a urinal fly. It was placed in a urinal because studies have shown that men tend to aim at targets. By providing a clear point of focus, spillage is significantly reduced. The presence of the fly subtly guides behavior without imposing any rules or regulations.

The modern history of the fly is from Schiphol Airport which introduced the etched fly in the early 1990s to reduce bathroom cleaning costs. Schiphol Airport’s implementation of the urinal fly proved highly effective, resulting in an 80% reduction in spillage. This innovation saved on cleaning expenses and inspired many other institutions worldwide to adopt similar measures.

But I like the earlier of this target, a bee, used in 19th-century Britain as a mark in urinals. One joke also plays on the pronunciation of the honeybee’s genus, Apis (say it out loud slowly), as a humorous touch. The bee served the same purpose as the modern fly, providing a place for a man to focus his aim.

I thought I’d be the only person to write about the fly in a urinal. I didn’t realize that Nobel Prize Winner Richard Thaler uses this in his book Nudge as a key example of the principle. A Nudge is a subtle intervention designed to influence behavior in a predictable way without restricting freedom of choice or significantly changing economic incentives. Thaler’s use of the urinal fly as an example illustrates how small changes in the environment can lead to significant improvements in behavior.

This is similar to how people react to default settings. For instance, in retirement savings plans, automatic enrollment with a default contribution rate significantly increases participation and savings rates among employees. Without automatic enrollment, many employees might delay or avoid signing up, even if they recognize the importance of saving for retirement. By making enrollment the default option, employees are nudged into saving, which benefits their long-term financial health.

Similarly, default settings in technology, such as privacy settings on social media platforms or energy-saving modes on devices, can promote better habits and reduce negative outcomes. When the default setting is designed to protect privacy or conserve energy, users are more likely to maintain those settings, leading to improved security and environmental benefits.

The urinal fly shows how simple nudges can significantly influence behavior for the better. By providing a target, it reduces mess and cleaning costs, demonstrating the power of subtle design changes. This principle applies beyond restrooms: automatic enrollment in retirement plans boosts savings rates, and preset privacy settings on social media enhance security. Thoughtful default settings and small nudges make it easier for people to make better choices, improving outcomes without restricting freedom.