The Whys and Why Nots of Toilet Adoption

We, the DirtiLab crew, recently returned from our field visit to villages in three blocks within the Patna district in Bihar. The DirtiLab approaches the challenges open defecation, toilet adoption and sustained use, through user-centered design of toilets. Out work looks to enhance perceived value of toilets among users through material exploration and iterative solutioneering, driven by field insights. 


We visited service providers, sales agents and households to get a complete picture of the toilet construction, adoption,  delivery, and use. Here’s a few images from our field work, and some early design ideas that have emerged in response to them.


We interviewed six different households from varied income groups – some that had toilets, some that didn’t, and some whose toilets were incomplete.  Our conversations covered many bases including challenges of cost and maintenance, perceived value proposition of a toilet, and other notions that drive toilet adoption. Usage patterns, especially in contrast to open defecation(OD) behaviours were a part of our inquiry. It was interesting to see how OD activities fit in to an individual’s day, how they impact day to day activities such as eating, sleeping etc, as well as how OD behaviours differed across genders.


Convenience and privacy were the most commonly given reasons for toilet uptake. Having to defecate in broad daylight, venture out into fields at odd hours of the night, or to walk to open space in heavy rains, were concerns that, according to research participants, a toilet would address. When examining our field data in-depth, identifying the gendered nature of these concerns is imperative to include both perspectives in product design.

We could see a clear association of a toilet with social stature among households. Notions around how a household should have a toilet just as they have a kitchen, as well as the idea that a guest to a household would, as they walk in, request for two things – to drink water, and to use the toilet. However, it is important to bring criticality to these notions and try and identify their origins, as ideas of social stature and respect may be part of the agenda pushed by various toilet sales agents.


We also noted that health hazards of open defecation were less known among households, and in most cases they were perceived to be limited to the spreading of germs carried by flies. Interestingly, in some cases, OD went hand-in-hand with getting fresh air and going for walks in the morning. It is pertinent to note the nuances in the notions of OD, and how inter-dependent these behaviours are.

Each household we visited had the same basic design of the toilet, but features varied across users. Some household’s didn’t ask for shelves, some chose to install their own doors, some felt the need to put in handles to help them squat and get up, whereas some chose to do their own plastering.


We found that many households were having toilets built in installments that went along with their payment schedules. This flexibility ultimately lead to partially finished toilets being common among users, which further delayed actual practices of using toilets. In some cases when toilets were almost finished, and only a small part such as plastering was remaining, toilets stayed unused.


Currently we are reviewing field data to understand and prioritize the most important factors contributing to the uptake and continued use of toilets, to determine a set of values that our designs should accomodate. We have seen some interesting ideas come from the TSP centers. These are shown below.

IMG_5000 IMG_5010


Meanwhile, we have been drawing out emerging ideas, and preliminary thoughts around design interventions. Some of them are below.





We are toying with a variety of different materials including bamboo, cement, brick, PVC, and aluminum. Construction material and method are being considered to reduce cost. Much more to come later!

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