So as to set your expectations appropriately, this post is on the subjects of design, usability and expectations.
Golden Gun by Duncan (Flickr)
Russian Roulette and usability aren’t usually two concepts that you might put together, so let me tell you a little story. It involves toilets. In order to protect the innocent I’m not going to say where these toilets are. Sorry.
Long story short
It is possible to design a toilet where all the necessary parts of a toilet are present but arranged in such a way as to leave me unable to find the toilet paper, lead me to spread toilet seat sanitizer all over my face and then be unable to dry it off. Don’t worry, it all worked out fine in the end for both me and my dignity, so let’s set that worry aside.
This is a real story that happened to me a few weeks ago. A set of toilets I regularly use was recently refurbished, and they look very nice indeed. At the same time the disabled toilet was refurbished, but unfortunately this wasn’t done so well. And this is where I enter the story.
How can a toilet be so badly designed as to make it unusable?
Let’s look at the basics of what we need when we use a toilet. We need:
Yet just putting these together does not make for good user design. There are expectations and affordances, some of these cultural, that dictate the form and placement of these elements. For instance, it’s reasonable to expect that the toilet paper be in a dispenser or roll close to where you are sitting on the toilet; that the soap dispenser be obvious and above the sink, and so on.
The toilet paper issue
Lacking a dispenser for toilet paper
The builders forgot to install any kind of toilet paper dispenser. Yeah, that had me confused for a good while. Of the basic things to have in a toilet this would be number 2 after the toilet itself.
Where was the paper? It was hiding in sealed packets on a shelf just out of reach of the toilet itself. Remember, this is a disabled toilet.
The soap dispenser issue
Soap dispenser Russian Roulette
Take a look at the image of the sink just to the left and you’ll see there are two silver dispensers above the sink. The one on the right looks like you press it and something comes out. The one on the left looks like, well, I have no idea, it says ‘Torx’, the name of the manufacturer, and nothing else. The one on the right has some pictograms that, due to the reflective surface and me having taken my glasses off to wash my face, I didn’t see at the time.
I had no idea what the left one did but the one on the right bore a resemblance to soap dispensers I’d used in the past, and due to it being placed above the sink I intuitively thought it must have some connection to washing. This being a hot day I wanted to wash my face. I dispensed the liquid out of the right dispenser onto my hands and rubbed it into my wet face. I quickly realised my mistake when my face started tingling then stinging.
It was in fact toilet seat sanitizer spray. I’d lost at Soap Dispenser Russian Roulette, a game I hope to never have to play again. So why was the sanitizer spray over the sink and not near the object it is intended to be used with?
‘Mr Torx’ is an automatic soap dispenser. You hold your hand under and it dispenses a dollop of foam on your hand. This probably wouldn’t have been an issue had the sanitizer dispenser been situated somewhere away from the sink. With only one dispenser over the sink its purpose could be inferred.
The hand drier issue
Spot the button?
Third-time lucky? No chance. I’d washed the sanitizer off my face with a huge amount of water and now needed to dry my face. The plus point for the disabled toilet is that it at least has normal hand driers. Had I been in the gents I might have had fun trying to dry my face with the Dyson AirBlade. Except, no, they’re not ‘normal’ hand driers – they just look like them.
Attempt number one: I swivelled the nozzle up to my face and put my face to it. It didn’t do anything. ‘No sensor’ I though, must be button activated.
Attempt number two: I saw a bevelled part of the drier, in the position I would expect to see a button. Convention told me this must be a button. I pressed it. Nothing happened.
Secret sensor revealed
Attempt number three: I looked around the drier to find a way to turn it on. It turns out in order to dry my face I had to swivel the nozzle up and cup my hands underneath as if I was drying my hands.
If there’s any conclusion to draw from this it is that good design of ‘anything’ requires effort, understanding and care. You can’t just throw all the elements together and expect it to magically work out. In this instance my story was the result of poor industrial design coupled with poor architectural design. Some of the elements in the toilet looked like they had standard affordances – the ‘button’ on the drier for example – that turned out to just be industrial design artefacts. Other problems arose from the poor design of the space, such as the lack of toilet paper dispenser or the crazy placement of the toilet sanitizer.
The experience has certainly made me more aware of good design interactions in everyday life and how even basic actions need good design to allow them to become seamless and something we can take for granted.