Reducing Sludge at Six

img_0013.jpgCass R. Sunstein, Harvard Law School, and Lucia Reisch, Copenhagen Business School


In countless domains, human life is unnecessarily challenging to navigate. When people apply for benefits from the state – for building permits, for employment benefits, for occupational licenses, for health care subsidies – the relevant forms may or may not be adapted to how human beings actually think. In Washington, DC, the local government is embarking on an ambitious project to simplify forms. Its goal is not merely to reduce unnecessarily wasted hours, but more fundamentally to produce long-term improvements in people’s lives (for example, by making it easier for them to start businesses).

A significant challenge for navigability has a name (coined by Richard Thaler): sludge. When people have to wade through confusing materials, and spend excessive time figuring out how to get where they want to go, sludge is a standard reason.

In a recent blog post on this site, Maya Bar-Hillel and one of the present authors (Sunstein) explored the question of navigability in an admittedly exotic setting: the design of showers and bathrooms in the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. The goal was to illuminate a broader point about the occasionally awkward relationship between human intuition and human design (and also to lodge a mild complaint). Forms, websites, streets, airports, government offices, telephone operators, cell phones, hospitals, and much more – all of this can be simple or complex to navigate, and sludge can not only frustrate people but also make them give up. In the worst cases, sludge costs lives.

By serendipity, the two of us were back in Stockholm this month, to participate in several events on behavioral economics. Both of us stayed at the sensational Hotel At Six, which is relatively new. Both of our rooms and their showers featured identical designs, and they are a model of simplicity and navigability.

There are just two sources of water. The first, which can be moved, is popular in European hotels; the second, which is near the ceiling, is popular in the United States.

There are also just two controls. The first, which is clearly marked, allows visitors to turn on one or another of the two spouts.  The second, which is also clearly marked, allows visitors to adjust the temperature.

 That’s it. No sludge.

 We are keenly aware that the design of showers, and even bathrooms, is not the largest public policy problem faced by nations today. But in countless contexts, small changes in design, increasing navigability and eliminating sludge, can have major effects not only on convenience but also on both health and well-being.  Some public officials seem to be aware that Don Norman’s extraordinary book, The Design of Everyday Things, is not merely a book about objects; it can be taken as a kind of guidebook for policymakers in multiple sectors.  The simplicity and intuitiveness of the design of Hotel At Six – with respect to showers and in general – offers a case study in sludge reduction, and a general lesson for choice architects of all kinds.