Sink or swim: Can computer eye-tracking help us design more effective beach water quality signs?

Rainwater flushes all sorts of pollutants into Port Phillip Bay making it unsuitable for swimming. During the warmer months, this is monitored by Environment Protection Authority (EPA) Victoria, which provides daily water quality forecasts for beach users on its website and social media.

The aim is to help beachgoers make the right decisions about water-based activities when the weather is right, but the water isn’t. EPA collaborated with Life Saving Victoria (LSV) and BehaviourWorks to enhance its water safety communications by integrating behavioural sciences.

The challenge:
How to alert swimmers that water quality is low
Environment Protection Authority (Vic)

What did we do?

Signage study

We sought to understand which water quality signs at the beach were most effective. In a laboratory setting, participants viewed a variety of signs. Using eye-tracking equipment, we assessed where they looked and for how long.


We examined how the time of day influences beachgoers' decisions and behaviours, aiming to optimise the timing of our interventions.

SMS Alert trial

We introduced an SMS alert system about water conditions. The result? 86% of recipients reconsidered engaging in risky beach activities, and the majority expressed interest in a future subscription to this alert service.

What did we find?

Signage study

Symbols, like smiley faces on signs, garnered more attention than mere colours and arrows.

The most effective signs are now placed across all Lifesaver-patrolled beaches around Port Phillip Bay. Lifeguards have also bolstered their safety messaging efforts.


A critical insight was that most beachgoers decide to head to the beach spontaneously in the morning. However, once they observe others swimming, they often ignore safety warnings. In fact, over one summer, more than 7,600 individuals swam in water deemed ‘poor’.

With the assistance of on-ground lifesavers and various media channels, we've worked to raise awareness of health risks. The timing of these messages is crucial for maximum impact and awareness.

Next steps

Getting the timing right when delivering these messages was (and is) critical.

A range of communication methods in electronic, social and print media are continuing to be refined to ensure the public is being looked after at Victorian beaches, even if a day out at the beach means heads out of the water.

“We really value the guidance and input into the type of social research we can do to evaluate and improve our work on the ground. BehaviourWorks has been great at working with us and our partners – making coordinated research with a range of organisations easy.” – Darren Cottam, Program Coordinator, Recreational Water Quality, EPA

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