Emerging best practices on physical distancing

Emerging best practices on physical distancing

Anne van Lieren
  • Anne van Lieren
  • Lead Service Designer

In this blogpost, we outline some ideas, emerging best practices, and considerations on how to support people in physical distancing - based on examples, our experiences and behavioural science.

After a period of lockdown, more and more countries are slowly opening up. People will be allowed again to (under specific circumstances) visit public spaces, shops, restaurants and even amusement parks. As a result, public spaces will become more crowded, making it more difficult to keep physical distance. Most organisations have been (or are still) figuring out how to deliver their services in a safe manner and ensure that visitors will keep distance.

Nudging a safe distance

You may have noticed the many, usually brightly coloured, markings on the floor at your grocery store or take-out restaurant. They are (in most cases) very effective to encourage people to distance themselves from one another. These floor markings are a good example of nudging; a small change in the environment that subconsciously stimulates people to perform desired behaviour – in this case keeping distance. These nudges are effective in changing behaviours as the floor markings stand out (salience!) and unconsciously attract people’s attention.

In the past weeks, we have seen floors that are covered with tape, chalk marks, stickers and signs. Some are more effective than others. Below, we share some tips that could help to improve the effectiveness of floor markers by using insights from behavioural science.

Make it simple and 'stupid'

If you want people to keep distance, it is crucial to provide a clear and unambiguous message that leaves little, to no room, for interpretation. Preferably combine simple graphics and colour cues with a crystal-clear message. Use no-nonsense language and provide a single call to action – focus on “what people need to do”.

Use simple graphics, colour cues and a single call to action to help people keep a safe distance.

It might seem a bit excessive as we expect people to think for themselves and pay attention. Reality is that most of our day-to-day actions are done on “auto-pilot”. People do not read, think, or are even aware of what they are doing as the subconscious is in charge of 95% of our actions. Nudges can trigger specific elements of this subconscious mindset and direct people to a desired action. You can optimise physical distancing nudges by…

Using circles – instead of lines or boxes: Preferably use dots, as they clearly indicate one place to stand and wait in a cue. Lines or boxes leave room for interpretations. Are we supposed to stand in the middle of the box or on the line?

Lines and boxes can confuse as they can be interpreted differently by people.

Promoting the desired behaviour: Try to focus on the desired behaviour. Provide a single instruction on what to do – e.g “please wait here”. Do not mix your message with instructions, ‘warnings’ or indications on where NOT to stand. This is confusing for people and requires them to think and evaluate what the different things mean. Moreover, when places become crowded it will be even more difficult to get an overview and understanding of what the signs are trying to tell you.

Try not to use mixed messages. Generally, it works best to focus on the desired behaviour.

Staying on-topic: Try to limit your message to relevant and on-topic instructions. Do not use floor markings as a marketing channel. There is already so much (visual) noise that is distracting people. Messages can be branded, human, friendly and even humorous – but make sure you stay on topic.

Instructions can be branded, friendly or humorous to get people's attention, but they should be on-topic to not distract people.

Assuming people do not read: People have limited attention and cognitive capacity to process all these messages. And as every organisation, store and municipality uses different signs and messages it results in a cognitive overload. The effectiveness of messages can be increased by inserting supporting cues and by making the desired action as easy as possible.

Make the desired behaviour as easy as possible by providing clear cues on what to do.

Design for longer-term distance

In the longer-term, we will get less perceptive of the brightly coloured dots and as time passes people will ignore or process the messages without much thought. The long term effect of ‘distancing nudges’ is thus limited. To increase and prolong the effectiveness we should design interventions across multiple touchpoints and support people to consciously adapt their habits and routine behaviours. Floor markings should be part of a larger communication system in which multiple interventions over time support people to make better decisions and act responsibly. Can we more consciously design for shop layouts, service flows, public spaces and objects to include space for physical distancing? Like the examples below. In the next few weeks I will look into examples like these and share them in a follow-up blog post.

Can we redesign public spaces and services to include space for physical distancing like the examples above?
Or can we create personal gadgets that remind us to keep distance no matter where we go?

Do you have examples of best (or worst!) practices? Please share them, so we can collectively improve our understanding and experience with physical distancing nudges!

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