DD3: Redesign of CC Café Trash Cans —Team Trash

In IDP 316 - Portfolio by Tiejin Zhang


When our clients approached us, asking for a redesign of the trash cans in the Campus Center Café, we were really excited! All of us had used the units before and knew how badly they needed a remodel. We immediately tackled the structural problems of the current system – hole size, illogical compartments, poor flow – and used the insights that we gained in fixing these problems in our future prototypes. Once these foundational elements were understood, we put on our Design Thinking caps and started to think big! We toyed with lots of crazy ideas, and ultimately designed a system that would incorporate elements of fun while still working toward the larger missions of sustainability put forth by our clients. We wanted to remove the anxiety that is caused by the current system by designing a unit whose flow was intuitive to the users, while still asking them to be mindful about where their trash goes once it leaves their hands. We tackled this challenge by bringing sustainability to the forefront of our prototype by designing the unit in the shape of a tree and incorporating a system that incentivizes good behavior through tree planting. Our users responded well to this element and we plan to move forward with this idea in the next iteration of our prototype, which will be built this summer and hopefully will be implemented in the café by next semester.


Since the final goal of our project was to create a new trash system for the Campus Center Café, we had to keep in mind the needs of many different parties during our design process. During our initial meeting with our clients, Dano and Alexandra, they suggested that we conduct a trash audit of the trash produced in the CC Café. For the trash audit, we donned white Tyvek suits and spent a couple hours digging through numerous bags of café trash.

Team Trash in trash audit

Team Trash during trash audit

Once we got over the initial gross-out factor, the audit was fun and really interesting! We sorted the trash into various categories, compost, recycle, and of course, trash.

Categorized trash

While developing empathy by conducting the trash audit, our biggest learning was that the vast of what is currently being sent to a landfill, could actually be composted. While our clients told us that the lack of a composting option in the café is a problem, we saw firsthand how necessary it was to add it.

In order to empathize with our most common users, CC café patrons who wished to get rid of their waste, our first prototype was an interactive model in which we tracked the actions of our classmates (~12 college students and 2 adults – a good test sample). With this low-res prototype, our aim was better understand the order in which users get rid of their waste so we could create a logical flow for our waste receptacle. We gave our testers some props (post-it notes with words like, napkin, apple core, bottle, liquid, plastic fork, etc.) and asked them to place their post-its on a board labeled with the different disposal categories (trash, liquids, and bottles/cans) in the order in which they would place them in real life. We recorded the order that the users got rid of their waste and found the most common flow to be: liquids, bottles/cans, compost, trash. The findings from our users behavior informed the design of our final prototype.

The second step of empathizing with our users was to figure out the most effective method of signage. We sought to learn through this prototype in order to understand what signs users would respond the best to. We knew that having several categories could be confusing to our users, so we tried to use the signage to teach our users the proper sustainable methods. To empathize with our users, we created three different styles of signage for each category (compost, bottles/cans, and trash) – ones with just text, ones with just images, and 3D shadow boxes with items indicating what goes in each category.

Prototype to learn

Prototype to learn

We tested the different signage types at the CC Café by asking passersby which type of sign they thought was the most clear.  Overwhelmingly, our users chose the signs with just images as their preferred type and again, the responses from our users informed the final design. We were really excited about the possibility of using the shadow boxes, but had to embrace this failure in order to best accommodate best to our users’ needs.

By spending the time to empathize with our users, we ended up creating a final prototype that explicitly took into consideration their preferences and logic in order to best meet their needs and, ultimately, to create something that would be more useful for them.


Coming up with an “exciting and new” Point of View for users of a trashcan proved somewhat of a challenge for us. Trash isn’t sexy, we thought, trash is, well… trash. Before delving into our design, we knew that we would need to bear many users in mind. Of course, there’s the obvious: students, but because the Café is open to the public, we also needed to think about the community members and faculty and staff that have a presence in the café. Indeed, these users make up a substantial percentage of the patrons of the café. Additionally, we wanted to design an experience that would be friendly and easy for the people who are in charge of the maintenance of the trashcans: the café workers and facilities management. While we wanted to create an experience for our users that encouraged mindfulness, we also wanted them to be able to seamlessly get rid of their trash without distracting them from the ultimate goal: getting rid of their waste. Ultimately, we came up with a POV that tried to incorporate all of these elements: A CC café customer who wants a fun and more streamlined system to dispose of their waste in a way that is not messy and convoluted.

While this POV specifically addresses the patrons, the lack of “messiness” points to our awareness of the roles that café workers and facilities play.

We toyed with the idea of having our extreme user be someone who did not care about sustainability at all and sought to design a waste disposal system that would make it difficult for them to mess up the larger efforts of sustainability incorporated in the system that we designed. By including clear signage that outlines what trash goes in what slots, we make it easy for this user to easily practice sustainable actions without much thought. However, there is still the possibility that they will not care to compost or recycle their bottles, and we have a solution for that as well. After some user testing, we gathered data about the natural flow that people follow when getting rid of an array of items: liquids first, then bottles, then compost, and the rest is trash. Because trash is the last in this flow, its compartment sits at the furthest right corner of the unit, meaning that those who don’t care about sustainability can easily throw all of their items in the trash section without a lot of thought. Had it been in the middle, for example, the needs of this extreme user would have been met less because they would have had to take a split second longer to find where their waste went, increasing the likelihood that they could have thrown it in the wrong compartment, like in the compost. Designing for this extreme user is important because sustainability efforts are only as strong as their weakest link: everything and anything can be put in the trash, but once trash is placed in compost, the compost becomes contaminated and potentially unusable.


We started our ideation process with an Empathy Map: what clients say, what clients think, what users do, how users feel. We spent a couple of minutes writing and drawing on post-its individually and regrouped to discuss our thoughts. We placed our sticky notes in the proper categories and explained to each other why we placed it where we did and why we wrote it down to begin with. After everyone in the group had gone, we noticed that there were a lot of similarities across what we had said and decided to lump together stickies that had a common thread. After categorizing them, we drew circles around each group and labeled it with a word that we felt encompassed the common problem underlying the stickies within. These informed our next phase of ideation.

By clearly outline the problems implicated in the current system, we were able to undergo more directed ideation. We understood the problems to be as such: poor signage, lack of education, the placement of the trash cans, maintenance, negative user experiences (anxiety provoking), and general poor design of the cans (no place for compost or liquids, inconsistent with other waste disposal systems on campus). While we altered these problems as we continued to build our knowledge of the project, they generally remained the same.

For ideation, we followed the same procedure; we each spent a couple of minutes rapidly ideating individually and then came together to discuss the ideas that we came up with. Again, we found many common themes across our ideations and grouped them together to understand the larger ideas that we were trying to express. We then sorted these into categories of sounds, placement, bright and clear signage, layout (mouths and flow), incentives, adding liquids/removing paper sections, visibility, tutorials. We then marked each of our favorite ideas according to the following labels: easy and/or essential (red), fun (yellow), and complex (blue). Many of the ideas – like the incorporation of sound and updates about trash divestment – that we marked in this round of ideation found their way into our final prototype in some form or another.

We ideated several other times throughout the course of this project, even using the constraints of a $20 and an earthquake resistant design, trying to get as many wild ideas on paper as possible. In one round of ideation, we tried simply drawing designs that we imagined. This proved an interesting exercise for the development of our project because it forced us to think outside of the literal box that typically represent trash cans. In this round of ideation, you see the beginning stages of our idea to toy with symbols of sustainability, which would eventually be represented by a tree in our final prototype, and the idea to “feed” the system, which can be found much later in our sunflower design, but also in our prototype of “Yumbo,” the compost eating, soda drinking elephant; ultimately, our final prototype was a blend of these elements that initially sprung out of our ideation phase.


Yumbo the compost-eating, soda-drinking elephant


Team in the can

Team Trash in the trash unit

class final presentations

Team Trash presents their final prototype

The final prototype incorporates two parts: a tree-shaped case and a flower-shaped liquid container. The “tree” spans 86 inches high and consists of a large unit at its base that contains three separate compartments. We redesigned the openings to be wider so that trash could more easily pass through them (a major flaw in the current system). We made the container compartment have a circular hole, indicating that it would be used primarily for bottles, and made it narrow enough so that the clam-shell container used in the CC, which is not recyclable, could not fit inside of the wrong compartment. We also moved the openings from top to the side of the unit so that it would be universally accessible to all potential users.

We incorporated a TV into our design in order to lend a visual aid to understanding the composting process. The TV would also track the progress of Smith’s trash divestment by displaying the number of pounds of compost collected through an animated tree that grows as more compost is collected.

Incorporating ideas from our ideation phase in an attempt to gamify the experience, we added the element of sound to represent the different categories of trash. We wanted to make sustainable trash practices more fun by adding these elements, but ultimately, we received negative feedback about these sounds and they will not make it into the next iteration of our product. The “flower” (aka liquid collection container) followed the nature theme found in the larger trash unit, but sits to the side of the unit, not needing to take up as much space as the rest of the compartments, but intended to limit trash contamination. Our goal was to use these interesting design elements to improve the interaction between people and trash cans by removing the feelings of anxiety provoked by the current system and to make the mission of sustainability fun and approachable through an intuitive system of waste disposal.

In order to build this durable life-size prototype, we first had to build a scaled down version of our vision out of foam board. We brought this prototype to our consultation with Eric Jensen at the Smith Center for Design and Fabrication. Familiar with woodworking, Eric helped us to incorporate additional design elements that would make our unit more user-friendly. Although the kickboard at the base of the unit and the rounded edges on the top of the unit may go unnoticed, they add additional friendliness and usability of our design.

mini prototype

Scaled down foam prototype


Since our final prototype had so many moving parts, the testing phase really helped us understand the interplay between the users and the sensory elements in our design.

Apprehensive about how our users would respond to our structure, we gave them a quick breakdown of the problem and how we thought we were addressing the larger issues. Without giving away too many details about the various parts of our design, we left the users to explore the structure. Users were amused by the playful sound effects, animated shapes and towering size of the prototype. Many of them even narrated their experience as they physically interacted with different elements.

We received some really valuable feedback about our product that helped us reimagine the problem and how we might further improve the CC cafe user experience. From a strong dislike of the sound effects to worries that the tree head would take away from natural light — our feedback varied across the board. One Smith student said, “I would never let my children touch the sound button, it is too close to the trash and I think that can get a little bit unhygienic.” Another user asked if we could move the signage to the top of the tree, helping with visibility for users who cannot see over the counter. Our testers were also worried about the large size of the holes, unsure if it would release an odor into the cafe. The testers also gave us some artistic directions for how we might improve the shape of the tree, however, they were very responsive to the symbol and how it represented all that is natural and green. Many of them were excited about Smith’s initiative to plant a tree for every 500 pounds of compost. They found it incredibly engaging and said that it felt like “a reward for good habits.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 16.38.46

Final user testing

Our clients were intrigued by the design as well and wondered if they could change a few minor elements to get it ready for a test run in the café. One idea was to include shelves for plates and utensils. Another idea was to add a plexiglass material to the counter to make cleaning easier and more efficient.

Overall, both our testers and clients were happy with the general idea of the prototype and gave us several fantastic ideas on how we might improve the small elements to fit into our bigger design more seamlessly.