Design Interventions to Promote Stair Use

At my very empirically and behaviorally oriented psychology college department, psychology was most often defined as a social science aiming to describe, explain, predict and control behaviour. I’ve always had a problem with this control part, or manipulate, as it was sometimes put. Do we really aim to manipulate all the “non-psychologists”, as we sometimes call them? If so, who decides what people should or shouldn’t do, what’s desirable and what’s unacceptable behavior?

Stairs at Vatican Museum; photo by Giorgos~ (moving to Google+)

For me, manipulation means leading someone to do something you want them to do (but they don’t). On the contrary, I see my role as helping people do things they want, but for different reasons don’t succeed. In other words, I don’t look forward to making a career out of convincing you to buy things you don’t need, even though I find it a relatively mild misuse of psychological knowledge and power that comes with it. So, my following article on stair use doesn’t contain a hidden message that people can’t take care of themselves and that “WE” (psychologists, designers, architects, doctors, whoever..) should make them more physically active. Quite the opposite, I belive that most of us like the idea of being more active, but for different reasons don’t bring that idea into action, and that most of us would appreciate design interventions facilitating some changes in our behavior.

Escadaria Selarón in Rio; photo by Mike Slichenmyer

Here is what some researchers did in order to increase stair use (and succeeded!):

1. Posters

Studies conducted in shopping centres show that signs linking stair use and health and stair use and weight-control were effective, more so in older people (Andresen et al.,1998) and  less active people (Kerr et al., 2000). Weight-control sign was more effective for overweight persons than normal-weight person (Andresen et al.,1998). The important thing is to place posters at the decision point for the stair and elevator. Most studies report that the poster continues to have an effect up to 3 months after it is withdrawn.

Banners on stair risers in a shopping centre; photo by xcode

2. Banners

Banners are messages,  such as “Keep fit,” “Be active,” and “Free exercise”, displayed on the stair risers. There are reports linking them with increased stair climbing, twice as effective as posters in shopping centres (Kerr et al., 2001), due to their greater visibility (Webb and Eves, 2005, according to Olander et al 2008). However, in places where pedestrian traffic volume is high and banner visibility is lower, such as train stations, banner interventions didn’t make any significant difference, while posters increased stair climbing (Olander et al., 2008).

Arnhem railway station; photo by Jeroen Bosman

3. Making stairs more appealing
In the The University of Minnesota School of Public Health building, Boutelle and colleges (2001) used signs as in previously mentioned studies, as well as music and artwork in the stairwell. The artwork that hung on the stairwell walls was changed every week. A compact disc player placed between the second and third floors of the stairwell repeated music throughout the day. The music was changed daily and could be heard on all floors of the stairwell. Their results showed that beyond the effect of signs alone, improving the aesthetic qualities of a stairwell can significantly increase stair use. Another interesting intervention can be seen in this video, which illustrates how The fun theory, an initiative by a famous car manufacturer applies to stair use. In short, it says that  fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.
The fun theory applied to stair use; photo by The Fun Theory – Rolighetsteorin
4. Making the elevators less appealing

In a building with four elevators, Olander and Eves (2011) put one of them out-of-order which, expectedly, significantly increased stair use (people chose climbing over waiting). The fewer elevators in a building, they conclude, the more likely that individuals will make physically active choices to move within that building. Also, reconfiguring the elevators in existing buildings such that they travel more slowly is likely to increase stair use just as slowing door closing increased stair use in an earlier study (Van Houten et al.,1981, according to Olander abd Eves, 2011).

Stairs in San Francisco; photo by rachaelwrites

5. Multiple interventions including enhanced visibility and accessibility

Van Nieuw-Amerongen and colleagues (2001) did an intervention  including prompts and enhanced aesthetics (walls were repainted, carpeting changed), visibility, and accessibility (wooden doors were replaced by glass doors that could remain open) of the stairwell at the Maastricht University, the Netherlands. Total stair use increased significantly, by 8.2% and that effect remained stable over the 4-week post intervention period.

Le Louvre – stairs under the pyramid; photo by Gregory Bastien

6. Innovative building

Nicoll and Zimring (2009) monitored behavior of employees in a specially built office building – one side of the building was serviced by a traditional elevator bank and enclosed fire stair, while the other featured an open, appealing stairway and five special elevators: one that stopped on every floor, reserved for those with a special access card due to a disability, and four elevators programmed to stop only on every third floor (“skip-stop”), requiring nondisabled workers to take the open stairs to walk up or down one flight to reach the floors where the elevator did not stop.

Stairs at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History; photo by ALM Portraits

The skip-stop stair was used 33 times more than the enclosed stair of the traditional elevator core, with 72% of survey participants reporting daily stair use. Although this is a dramatic change of behavior, it illustrates the shortcomings of pushing people to do something (even if it’s for their own good): there was an increase in people claiming to have disabilities and requesting an access card to the elevator that stopped on every floor. Even though people showed less resistance to mandated stair use over time, at the time of the survey, 22 months after occupying the building 25% of participants expressed dissatisfied with the skip-stop arrangement.

“Umschreibung”, KPMG Building in Munich; photo by Alaskan Dude

7. Spatial arrangement within a building

While the “push” strategies  I mentioned so far (less elevators, skip-stop arrangements) usually leave many people complaining, even though they’re quite effective, the “pull” interventions have relatively small effect – the increase in stair use is up to 10% when multiple interventions are done (banners, posters, artwork, music, visibility). Yet, there’s another “pull” strategy that’s quite obvious for practitioners, and quite effective as well.

Glass stairs in the Apple store, New York; photo by bu.

Nicol (2007) identified location of the stairs within the spatial organization of the building to be the most important factor determining stair use. Three variables describing it explained 53% of stair use in the 10 buildings. Those were effective area (the floor area that is closest in walking distance to each stair on the floor plan), area of stair isovist (the number of seating stations within each effective area), and number of turns one must make on their way.

Stairs in front of the Sidney Opera House; photo by deltaMike

Their conclusion is clear: stairs should be located in an optimal place within a building so that they are the most convenient choice.  There is also room for design interventions to remediate spatial deficiencies such as the lack of stair visibility or intelligibility. Posters, banners and aesthetics may help (not in their study, though), but those are all just the finishing touches.

Instead of a my conclusion, a question: are stairs (too) often designed to be a second choice?

Stairs on Santorini – would you be reluctant to use those?; photo by Trent Strohm


Andersen, R.E., Franckowiak, S.C., Snyder, J., Bartlett, S.J., Fontaine, K.R. (1998) Can inexpensive signs encourage the use of stairs? Results from a community intervention. Ann Intern Med. 1998 Sep 1;129(5):363-9. (link)

Boutelle, K. N., Jeffery, R. W., . Murray, D. M &  Schmitz, M. K. H. (2001) Using Signs, Artwork, and Music to Promote Stair Use in a Public Building. Am J Public Health,91(12), 2004–2006. (link)

Kerr, J.,  Eves,F.,  Carroll, D. (2000)Posters can prompt less active people to use the stairs. J Epidemiol Community Health 54, 942–943.

Kerr, J.,  Eves, F. &  Carroll, D. (2001)Encouraging Stair Use: Stair-Riser Banners Are Better Than Posters, American Journal of Public Health, 91(8), 1192–1193.

Nicoll, G. (2007). Spatial Measures Associated with Stair Use. American Journal of Health Promotion, 21(4 Suppl), 346-352. (link)

Nicoll, G. &  Zimring, C. (2009) Effect of Innovative Building Design on Physical Activity, Journal of Public Health Policy 30, 111–123. (link)

Olander, E. K.,  Eves,  F. F. & Puig-Ribera, A. (2008) Promoting stair climbing: Stair-riser banners are better than posters… sometimes. Preventive Medicine, 46,  308–310.

Webb, O. J. &  Eves, F. F. (2005) Promoting Stair Use: Single Versus Multiple Stair-Riser Messages. American Journal of Public Health,  95(9), 1543–1544.

Olander,E. K. &  Eves,F. F. (2011) Elevator availability and its impact on stair use in a workplace. Journal of Environmental Psychology 31  200e206

Van Nieuw-Amerongen, M. E.,  Kremers, S. P. J, De Vries,N. K.  &  Kok, G. (2001) The Use of Prompts, Increased Accessibility, Visibility, and Aesthetics of the Stairwell to Promote Stair Use in a University Building. Environment and Behavior , 43, 1 131-139

3 Comments to “Design Interventions to Promote Stair Use”

  1. Thanks, interesting! You probably find the blog about nudging interesting (see below), they use ‘manipulating’ in a positive way.

  2. Hi there to every body, it’s my first go to see of this weblog; this website includes awesome and genuinely good information in support of visitors.

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