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. 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.

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

What did we do?

EPA wanted to make its water safety communications more influential by drawing on the behavioural sciences, so it enlisted the help of Life Saving Victoria (LSV) and BehaviourWorks.


The first step involved understanding which water quality signs at the beach got the most attention (and the features within the sign receiving the most interest).

Participants in laboratory-based studies were shown a range of signs in different environments. Eye-tracking equipment was used to measure where they looked – and for how long.

The green and red areas on the image (right) are an example of the results. We discovered that signs with symbols (like smiley faces) got more notice than colours and arrows alone.


The signs that generated the most attention and recall got the nod and are now being used at all Lifesaver-patrolled beaches around Port Phillip Bay.

Lifeguards are also reinforcing the stay safe message.

“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


Most people make the decision to go to the beach in the morning on the spur of the moment.

Once there, many see others swimming and ignore the warnings (over 7,600 people were observed over one summer swimming when the water was ‘poor’).

With the help of lifesavers on the ground (or the sand) raising awareness about health risks, plus a range of media channels, more beachgoers were made to understand the risks involved.

SMS trial

We also ran an SMS text alert trial and found that 86 per cent of respondents planning to go to the beach changed their minds about undertaking risky activities and nearly all said they’d subscribe to a similar service in the future.


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 are being looked after at Victorian beaches, even if a day out at the beach means heads out of the water.

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