environmental label design and research (2009)


At the University of Washington I researched and developed a point-of-purchase environmental impact label for consumer goods.  Meant to be displayed on durable and semi-durable consumer goods such as washing machines and televisions, this label presents the relative environmental impact of a product across several dimensions and as compared to peer products. The purpose of the label is to help consumers decide between products.my role.

I served every role on this project: theorist, champion, researcher and designer.


This project went through a user-centered design process: initial research, early design ideation, user feedback, design refinement, and final evaluation. Initial research for this project included academic research on existing labels, economic theory related to the environment, and theories related to consumer decision-making. 

Consumer feedback helped evolve the label in several ways. Research into how consumers interpreted various phrases helped me choose a phrase to include on the label itself, such as this research into what connotation people assign to the phrase "Environmental Impact," whereby each phrase is a study participant's description of what "environmental impact" means to them:

A visualization of 200+ people's definitions of "Environmental Impact."  


Informed by this research, I began the design of the label. One crucial question was how I should convey the environmental impact data (e.g., via stars? via boxes?) and what phrases to use (e.g., "environmental impact?" "environmental friendliness?"). To answer these questions I conducted a 200-plus participant, within-subjects experiment that compared people's understanding of various phrase/symbol/value combinations:

Participant responses for two treatments of words/stars. 

Star ratings.png

That research helped me solidify the label's design. From there, qualitative and quantitative feedback about the final label's design and efficacy helped me know when my design was mature and successful. This included questions that ascertained whether the label helped expand people's conception of "environmental impact" (41% of respondents reported it did; a number I was proud of as these were university engineering students):

The proportion of participants who reported the label expanded their definition of "environmental impact"


The research cited above helped me design the visual treatment for the label. The label design went through several different design iterations:

Design iterations from the project's beginnings (top) to the end (bottom).



The label evolved in a number of ways via the research described above. Most substantially I discovered using the phrase "Environmental Impact" at the top of the label was problematic, as consumers could not understand how a product could have "5 star" environmental impact. The phrase "Environmental Friendliness" did not have this issue, and worked equally well for 1-star products as it did for 5 star products; hence, I changed the label accordingly. 

The final label design.

Finally, I conducted summative research to understand the basic usability of the label as well as consumer reaction, which was overwhelmingly positive. Feedback from study participants included highlights such as the following:

"I feel like the use of a label like this could really inform the masses about what they are buying and how that purchase will affect the world. I think the world is starting to learn about the fact that we need to save our planet, and this could really help out."  - anonymous study participant

Read more about my research in the dissertation I wrote on the subject!