5 UX lessons you can learn in the toilet

Want to understand UX design? Then go to the toilet. A place that provides insights into how to design goal-oriented, task-based, time-critical user interactions and interfaces.

Many public toilets are a catalogue of catastrophic design failings. No wonder the internet has usability issues when we still struggle to create elegant solutions for the everyday activities we have been doing for millennia. But we can learn from the good and bad of toilet design. Here’s some tips to take into your next digital project.

01. Don't create problems

Good design is meant to solve problems, yet sometimes the design inadvertently creates the problem. In the gents’ toilet at Brighton’s Dome Theatre a notice reads ‘This is a sink’. Unfortunately, in the hurry before a show you often see men mistaking the long, metal trough-shaped fitting for a urinal.

I’m sure when it was displayed in the designer’s studio it looked fantastic, but in situ, the height, colour, material, position and shape disguise its purpose. Avoid that sinking feeling. Always design for the people who will use your products and consider the context in which they will encounter them.

02. Put humans first

Mobile-first and content-first have their place, but I’d suggest the best designs are created human-first. Observing human behaviour helps you create surprising and innovative solutions.

An example of this is an experiment set up by the cleaning staff at Schiphol airport over 25 years ago. By simply adding an image of a fly into the porcelain to aim at, they managed overnight to reduce ‘spillage rates’ in the men’s toilets by 80 per cent, which translates into major savings in cleaning costs. 

This fly printed on the urinals at Schiphol airport helped seriously reduce cleaning costs

The experiment has been replicated across the world. It turns out men are rather predictable; make the task a competition and you’ll get their concentration.

03. Make simple interactions

Train toilets are a big source of design crime. In many cases, to simply lock the door requires you to read reams of instructions and select the correct combination of flashing buttons. I’ve been on trains where a sign is needed to point to the flush, as it becomes hidden when the seat is lifted up. This poor design is made worse when the only visible button is a non-labelled and easy to reach emergency stop.

Clues on how to use a product should be baked into the interface. The need for instructions is a strong indication your design is not instinctive to use.

04. Communicate, don't confuse

We’ve all been there: bursting for the loo (often after a few drinks) with rising anxiety as we try to decipher the sign on the door. Is it a merman or mermaid? Are berets gender-specific? Remind me, is the XY chromosome an indication of male or female sex-determination?

I don’t want to solve a puzzle, I just want to go through the correct door. What can seem like a playful extension of your brand personality can quickly end up in user frustration. However pretty your wayfinding symbols or icons are, if they don’t communicate what you intend at a glance, they are an example of bad design.

05. Tame the technology

Just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should. Japanese toilets provide a sanitary lesson in the perils of over-engineering and feature creep. On top-end toilets, flushing, raising and lowering the lid, and even keeping a personal ‘performance’ record is all done via a smartphone app. This means that at night, before you can go to the toilet, you need to find your phone (and hope the battery is charged).

This Japanese toilet is a lesson in the perils of over-engineering

Sometimes the minimum viable product should be the extent of the product. In design less is more; and even less is even more.

06. Find space to think

The toilet provides the perfect perch for contemplation and encouraging curiosity. So if you want to understand human behaviour, get inspiration for interaction patterns, or just need the room to think, you know where to go. Become a better designer today by going to the toilet.

This article was originally published in net magazine issue 289. Buy it here.

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