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In A Post-COVID World, Design Can Change Behavior

by Nick Dormon on 07/02/2020 | 6 Minute Read

Hand sanitizers have become one of the most sought after products in the COVID-19 crisis. 

The unprecedented demand for it and its ensuing scarcity has seen everything from breweries to luxury perfumeries pivot to become critical producers of the commodity. 

Yet, so precious has it become that people are ripping hand sanitizing dispensers off walls in public areas. Meanwhile, many hospitals worldwide go without decent provisions for the personal hand hygiene required by all of their essential workforces. Where the government is failing to address the deficit, businesses and communities have stepped in to create temporary solutions to the longer-term problem.  

Such is the market demand for hand sanitizer—principally energized by COVID-19—that the global value of the category could be worth $17.2 billion by 2026. Indeed, the coronavirus has piqued a very primal fear within us.

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But even with anxiety and concern as a primary motivator, hand sanitizer’s current drab and clinical image—often associated with doctors, hospitals, and compulsive cleaning disorders—may do little to invoke lasting behavioral change in terms of personal hygiene post-pandemic. This is because some view hand washing as a begrudged chore borne out of obligation, not pleasure.

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According to a 2009 study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (which only got the due publicity it deserved in the wake of this COVID-19 outbreak nearly 11 years later), 69% of men confessed that they do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. A phenomenon known as “optimism bias” or “delusional optimism” plays a huge part in the psychology of washing hands—this is a system that involves believing that bad things are more likely to happen to other people than ourselves.  

In a post-COVID world, can design make new and necessary habits stick? Can it incentivize a reckless majority, those who are cavalier and lackadaisical with hand washing, to reform basic hygiene? 

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The Future of Our Bathrooms

Design can have a transformational effect on behavior. 

You need only look at the urinals at Schiphol Airport, crafted with a realistic picture of a fly in the basin, to see how a stylistic tweak can alter actions, minimize spillages and reduce cleaning costs. According to Klaus Reichardt, designer of the waterless urinal, “Guys are simple-minded and love to play with their urine stream, so you put something in the toilet bowl, and they’ll aim at that.”

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Here, primal, animal function to urinate has, in a sense, been gamified to become more engaging and, ultimately, more hygienic. And the same technique can be employed for hand sanitization too. 

By repositioning hand sanitizer in the context of the aspirational wellness movement, the ritual can become an act of self-care and a positive lifestyle choice one can adopt effortlessly. Innovation will see the hand sanitizing category evolve from being almost exclusively a personal on-the-go product to public installations that foster shared rituals, radically shifting perceptions on hand cleansing from personal choice to habitual norm. 

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THE ARMUS: Inspired by oversized statement sleeves, these detachable cuffs keep hands clean. 3D-printed to achieve zero-waste material, the cuffs, like a modern take on the lace filigree, provides a flexible and sustainable barrier to germs that lie on the surfaces we interact with daily. The hand armor is a bold fashion move that allows wearers to continue using smartphones or handrails more hygienically. The Armus was also shortlisted for the Bompas & Parr competition and was the inspiration of designer and Echo associate Ela Kemp. 

It has to transform into a moment of instant gratification. But through building in sensorial innovation and gamification techniques while acknowledging the tensions between aesthetics, function, and experiential possibilities, how we cleanse our hands can get overhauled to set new habits that eventually become second-nature.

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On-shelf, hand sanitizers are already making an evolution in packaging design to reinforce a sensorial, luxurious experience that underplays its more sober and perfunctory role. ESPA’s sleek and minimalist proposition is in keeping with its more indulgent SKUs. Neal’s Yard premium apothecary-like identity lends its ‘organic defense hand spray’ the same sense of natural nourishment that all of its products seems to espouse, packed full of plant-based goodness of essential oils. Even Haoma’s natural eco-friendly hand sanitizer echoes the design cues of boutique spa stalwarts.

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Rethinking Public Spaces

The most interesting evolution, however, is not in the FMCG space but how architecture will change to ensure that public spaces, buildings, and personal abodes can incorporate facilities that enforce a positive attitudinal and behavioral shift in hand hygiene.

Take the communal sinks in public restrooms. Basins themselves can be aesthetically carved to be more intriguing to the eye. We envision a sleek, cocoon-shaped sanitation system that emits soft lighting and soothing sounds to strike an atmosphere of calm that encourages a more enveloping sensory engagement. We can rethink how hand sanitizer gets dispensed too, and we predict embedded sensors within the system to dispense the sanitizing liquid in a fragrant mist that gets evenly distributed around the hands. Where public health advice once recommended us to sing the Happy Birthday song in our heads twice over to ensure we’ve sufficiently cleansed, you could install a timer of sorts into the mechanism. But, in keeping with the gamification technique, this wouldn’t take the form of a clock but perhaps a pulsating ring of light that gets activated for 20 seconds, the optimal time required for effective hand washing.  

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THE BELL PULL: A modernist-style doorbell that sprays hand sanitizer when pulled. The contemporary design brings traditional formal rituals around the front door into the 21st century. Reinforcing the home as a safe and sanitary sanctum, the guest rings the doorbell by entering their hand into the device, which sprays the open hand with fine antibacterial mist; the ritual is to ring the bell twice, so that both hands get sanitized. Materials employed within the three designs include copper nanotechnology, known for its antibacterial and antiviral powers that inhibit the surface growth of germs. The collection is further unified by a complementary neutral palette and range of organic textures, including brushed copper, matt ceramic, and 3D-printed lace. 

Then there’s the home environment, our haven from the exposing and often formidable world outside. Could antiviral mist-dispensing doorbells become the next generation of gadgets that essentially become our home’s first line of defense against pathogens? Much like the communal sanitization system, we envisage that house guests could ring a doorbell by depressing the ‘shell’ part of the device, and the open palm gets sprayed with a fine decontaminating mist. Just as "the postman always rings twice," so the guest may depress the shell again so that both hands get thoroughly sanitized before entering the abode. 

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Perhaps in any other time, concepts like this might be deemed out-there. But in a post-COVID world of which we are tentatively entering, where businesses are slowly reopening, and people are starting to explore a new, slightly restricted normal, designers and innovators must think outside of the generic hand sanitizing box. We must develop solutions that are engaging enough to invoke lasting behavioral change. 

For a utilitarian, clinical category that previously gave no inkling of sensorial pleasure, the sanitizer market is already going through a renaissance. We predict exciting things to happen within the space, and that change is likely to happen sooner rather than later.

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