Posts tagged “bathroom”

Alicia’s War Story: Don’t hate on a tinkler

Alicia Dornadic is a design researcher in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Going to someone’s home for the first time to interview them, especially in an unfamiliar culture and language, can be awkward. Showing up with two researchers, a cameraman and a couple clients in tow – all of whom are over-caffeinated and in need of a bathroom break – can make for a circus act. These were three-hour long interviews, too. So, despite our best efforts to arrange feeding and peeing times before getting to the person’s home, we usually all had to pee at some point during the interview. But our translator was the absolute queen of tinkling. The first day I was understanding. “Maybe she’s sick or nervous,” I thought. She would take two to four breaks during each interview, which left the rest of us smiling and pointing at things dumbly, trying to make conversation in her absence. By the end of the week, my patience was shot. I was ready to strap some adult diapers on her. I would glower at her every time she asked for water, tea, or a soda. “Really?” I thought, my eyes on fire, “Should you really be having that?” I’m not proud of this. But I couldn’t help being annoyed.

Finally, karma came to bite me on the ass. It was at the end of a long interview at the end of a long day, and I broke down and asked if I could use the restroom. Our host pointed to it, and I stumbled inside, missing the 2-inch step down into it. There wasn’t a lot of light in the bathroom, and it was cluttered. I couldn’t find a switch. But no matter. I go. I reach for the toilet paper, and BOOM! CRASH! I take down the entire metal toilet paper rack off the wall, and it crashes onto the tiled floor. It was too dark to see how to fix it, so I had to come out and explain what I had done and apologize. Not only that, but my explanation and apology had to be translated! Translated and explained to two researchers, a cameraman, a couple of clients and our participant. It ended up not being a big deal, but I was embarrassed. And I felt guilty for all my negative thoughts towards our translator. As much as I was annoyed at our tinkler friend, at least she didn’t break anything.

Curating Consumption

More observations and stuff that Beth and Steve have assembled over the past few weeks.

Can’t get there from here
This is such a fundamental usability issue I have to think there’s something wrong with my iPad or the Kindle app. Which operation is not supported? Buying this book. That’s right…click on that inviting little link down there that says “Buy Now” and get this error. Okay, this is Amazon taking a swipe at Apple (“Mo way you’re getting 30% of our revenue for something on the Kindle!”) But I’m not sure the average user will get that. They’ve helpfully provided another link for me: “What? That Buy Now link that should take you to iTunes to purchase this book doesn’t work? Goodness! Well, how about you See details for this book in the Kindle Store!” Nope – no mas. That operation isn’t currently supported either. So two lovely, juicy links tempting me to buy this book with no way to act [Conceptual sidenote: This would be an ideal design for many vices if they could tempt you but never give you the ability to follow through…the beer that can’t be opened, or the hermetically sealed chocolate bar]. I imagine there’s a product team somewhere at Amazon scratching their heads wondering why sales aren’t tracking but see an astronomical number of clicks on their buy links.Hint: we users will keep clicking thinking we must be doing something wrong, thinking “surely both buy options aren’t dead ends”. When we realize that they are, we get frustrated and take our own stand, in this case simply not buying. /BT

Two is better than one?
In nearly every bathroom I’ve been in (in the US at least) there are at least two soap dispensers – one in use and the other over to the side like yesterday’s newspaper. They’re in all shapes and sizes, usually one (like this one) is discreetly attached to the sink while the other is mounted proudly on the wall. I’m guessing it was aesthetics that sold the sleek little bar peeking from the counter top, I just wonder how long it took for the folks who had to crawl under the sink and refill it to put up a silent revolt – leaving people to pump furiously at one sink, then another then another, to no avail – before management broke down and put the one on the wall. /BT

Too soon or too late?
Gangnam Style is the global sensation that ever your parents know about. I imagine the restaurant owners protest-too-much denial of cashing in on a (no doubt fleeting) trend by pointing to the district in Seoul over the song. But then why is the clucky poultry mascot doing such a distinctive little dance?

Update (June 2013) – Church’s Chicken in Canada is doing something similar (thanks, Mom!)!

The remote control that gives you a lecture in virtue
In a hotel in Melbourne, the staff have clearly become tired of people complaining. Sure it’s partly about delayed gratification but it’s also a well-understood usability problem when feedback is slower than we expect. If the elevator call light doesn’t go on, you’re going to hit it again. But the warm-up for hotel televisions is its own flavor of usability hell. Will the set turn on? Will an LED change color? And how quickly? Apparently this particular TV set is so far off of expectations than the solution was a lovely sticker appealing to your sense of decency. Whatever, that’s a multiple of 8 seconds I’ll never get back again. /SP

Jon’s War Story: Beware of Trap Doors

Jon Innes, founder of UX Innovation has a story about getting – and maintaining – access to a secure location. Very secure.

Early in my career I helped a number of companies outside of the consumer space adopt methods from consumer design research for devevloping products sold to businesses. This is always a challenge because you have to explain to various people at the companies you visit what you want to do and they typically think you are crazy.

In this case, my project involved trekking to companies around the US to talk to telecom and networking geeks. My assignment was to study adoption barriers to Cisco’s Voice Over IP products, which meant physical phones, special servers to make them work like old fashioned phones, and some software to set them up to do stuff like retrieving voice-mail, and dialing extensions or outside lines.

On this particular day, I was onsite at an Ivy League university. I had just spent several hours talking to telecom guys who clearly didn’t like the idea of having to use some fancy networking gear or for that matter anything that was designed after Jim Morrison had died. I had just parked my stuff in the corner of a network operations center (NOC) that resembled NASA’s Mission Control Center in preparation for a series of interviews with the staff there. Getting in the NOC was a major coup. Most organizations do not like outsiders in the NOC, especially outsiders with cameras taking notes.

About 5 minutes before my first interview with a NOC employee, I decided to make a run for the restroom. My time-zone-adjusting caffeine intake was taking its toll, and the person I was supposed to speak to had yet to arrive. I asked someone in the NOC for directions to the nearest restroom and walked down the hall, not thinking about much but the call of nature. I passed through several doors and got flashbacks of an old TV show called “Get Smart” I watched in reruns as a kid.

I located my destination, but as I attempted to return to the NOC, I quickly realized I had a problem. In my haste, I’ve left the secured zone of the NOC. The doors I passed through require a special badge to get back through. Worse yet, I’ve left my bag with my ID and my notes of who I’m supposed to visit, and I can’t remember the name of who I’m supposed to be meeting with next.

While most companies make you sign in, I had not needed to that day. I had an escort from the IT group show me around, leaving me at each place for the time we agreed so I could do the interviews. So I’m now in an unknown part of the building, with no idea how to get back to where I was, or even how to get out of the building I’m in. I don’t have my cell phone with me, and there’s no one in the hallway to ask for help. Even if I do find someone, like a security guard or an employee, I realize it’s going to be really hard to explain this. After what seemed like an eternity, I talk a passerby into helping me contact my escort from IT, who kindly helps me return to the NOC. I manage to gather some good insights there during the time I have left.

To this day every time I’m doing a study in a corporate setting, I always hear the theme from Get Smart playing in my head as I walk down those hallways-and my trusty laptop case is always on my shoulder.

Tamara’s War Story: What the Hell? Don’t you knock?

My first trip to New Jersey for fieldwork involved two memorable events: a blizzard and a bathroom blitz.

Two days before we departed for New Jersey I received an email request from my client to rent the biggest SUV available. A huge snowstorm was pounding the Northeast and he wanted to feel safe as we ventured into the streets and highways of various townships for a week of in-home interviews. I obliged and was glad I did. The evening we arrived we found the streets covered with snow and the plows were evidently having trouble keeping up.

I kept getting rescheduling calls from the recruiter. Participants were cancelling because of the weather. This seemed strange given the fact that WE were the ones travelling to their homes and they didn’t have to go anywhere! It felt like a game of musical chairs as we continually shifted and rescheduled. It was impossible to predict if we would be able to complete the targeted number of interviews during our weeklong visit. In fact, it was even difficult to predict if we would be able to leave town at the end of the week because the airport was cancelling flights every day.

There were three of us in the field: myself, a videographer, and the client. We all met for breakfast the first morning while the car warmed up. It took 30 minutes to melt the layers of ice that had accumulated overnight on the windshield. Fortunately the heater had kicked in by the time we all piled into the SUV and headed out for our first interview of the week, giving ourselves ample time to arrive at our destination.

Instead of the 30 minutes suggested by Google Maps, we arrived an hour later at our destination, a narrow residential street of two-story beige brick duplexes still decorated for the Christmas holiday. Plows had left six foot tall snowbanks on either side of the street and cars were parked in tight spaces carved out by the residents. Sadly it appeared that most of those residents didn’t have an SUV as big as our rental. We circled the area for fifteen minutes before we found a gap large enough to park in.

We were there to interview a young woman in her 20s, a nurse. She welcomed us into the living room where we set up our cameras and found places to sit among the teddy bear collection and floor-to-ceiling cabinet containing an homage to Michael Jackson. Her mother appeared in a short fuzzy black robe. “I’ve been doing focus groups for years. No one ever asked to come to this house before. Why do you want to go to people’s houses?” We explained the nature of our visit and commenced with the interview.

For the first half hour of the interview the mother came in and out of the room, answering and asking questions and reiterating her concerns about our presence and intentions. Each time, the daughter would suspend her responses to address the interruption, urging her mother out of the room. “We always meet at Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s the place to go…MA! They’re here to talk to me. Let me do this!”, “I always stop on my way to work to pick up an iced tea…MA! Go get dressed already!”, “I love those little facts on the lid. They are so cute…MA! Enough! Quit interrupting us!” No matter what the daughter said, the mother would return every few minutes to listen and contribute.

I realized shortly into the interview that, in our flurry of inclement travel, I had neglected to honor one of the cardinal rules of interviewing: “Go before you arrive.” I ignored my biological needs as long as I could but the morning’s coffee didn’t help. I finally had to excuse myself for a restroom break.

“It’s just there in the hall, on the right” said the nurse, pointing down the mirrored hallway.

I excused myself and walked up to bathroom door. It was open a few inches so I pushed it. There in the bright pink and black tiled bathroom stood the mother, facing the toilet with her little black robe hiked up above the waist, her backside completely exposed. She turned before I could retreat. “What the Hell? Don’t you knock?” I felt blood rush warmly to my face.

“I’m so sorry” I said, backing out and closing the door behind (or rather, in front of) me. “I’m so sorry” I continued, “the door was open. I didn’t realize anyone was in there. I’m so sorry.”

I swiftly returned to the living room.

“I’m so sorry,” I told the nurse. “The door was open a crack so I just went in and I walked in on your mother. I am sure I’ve upset her.”

“Ha! Don’t worry. She’ll be fine” she consoled me. “Maybe she’ll leave us alone now.”

I wasn’t sure I would be fine. I tried to concentrate on the interview, the purpose of our visit, the friendly nurse who gave us a detailed tour of the kitchen drawers. But images of her mother’s bare behind kept flashing in my mind. She was right, sort of, about her mother leaving us alone. For the remaining hour we didn’t hear a word from the woman, though she kept appearing (now fully clothed) wherever we were. She said nothing. She just looked at me with a glare that felt as icy as the windshield that awaited us outside.

Our first stop was a Dunkin’ Donuts where I was finally able to relieve myself.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Toepener — Hands Free Solution – [While this smacks slightly of "gadget" I like the idea of simple improvements to everyday activities based on a) shifting social norms and b) observed behaviors. Text from related news article] The Toepener is a pedal designed to open a public washroom’s door with one’s foot rather than having to touch the door handle. It is the brainchild of Max Arndt, a student at the Carson School of Management. Arndt and his classmates were asked in the Entrepreneurship in Action class to come up with ideas for a new business product or service. Arndt, 22, came up with the Toepener. He hated the idea of opening a public restroom door after he’d washed his hands. It was such a simple idea but he figured it would have tremendous draw. He was right. His class was equally enthusiastic and it was chosen as the product the entrepreneurship class would attempt to market. The product was launched in mid-January. Arndt said the company has sold close to 100 toepeners, which go for $50 each.

New symbols for new times

Medical marijuana dispensary, Sausalito, CA, November 2010

I was unable to find out about this symbol’s history or affiliation. Green Cross is a common term/symbol for medical pot, but seems tied to various local organizations (including a delivery service in San Francisco), while this specific graphic didn’t show up anywhere in my searches. Meanwhile, as new symbols and meanings emerge they can sometimes conflict: Green Cross is also an international organization, based in Switzerland whose mission “is to respond to the combined challenges of security, poverty and environmental degradation to ensure a sustainable and secure future.” When multiple groups appropriate and recontextualize an existing symbol (in this case the Red Cross) that collision is ever more likely.

Unisex bathroom sign, San Francisco, CA, August 2010

While this sign, seen in the Commonwealth restaurant, may actually be a branding icon for the restaurant (since it appears on their menu) and not a new symbol for men-plus-women, given its visual insinuation, and application (appearing on two adjacent doors, just where you’d expect to find the bathrooms), it begins to suggest a broader meaning. Unisex bathroom signs are typically denoted by the icons for men and women, together but the idea (intentional or not) that this usage has a gestalt not fully addressed by combining existing symbols is a powerful one.

What new symbols and new meanings are you seeing?

The package is the brand. Now what?

Method soap in here, Virgin America, June, 2010

On a recent Virgin America flight, I saw they were featuring Method hand soap in the bathroom. But (as they have obviously realized) Method’s brand is more recognizable via the uniquely designed dispenser than the name, so the identifying sticker shows a picture of that shape. You don’t have the opportunity to use that container, but by interacting with the generic goo dispenser in the bathroom, perhaps you are supposed to associate somehow with the visual and tactile interaction with the iconic dispenser.

The Virgin America experience seems to be partly about aggregating a hip, design-y, youthful set of other brands for travelers to experience (e.g. BoingBoingTV), but I’m not sure this is a win for Method, or Virgin America. VA seems to have rethought so many traditional aspects of air travel (such as their fantastic safety video) but this compromise evokes the overcompensating-unhelpful-infographic-signage common in commercial aircraft interiors, where you can’t help but feel trapped in a world of call-outs (like the Ikea Catalog scene in Fight Club). And Method takes a straddle position, suggesting that their goo is just goo, if they are forced to offer a visual reminder of the container to help us connect with what is different – and better – about their product.

Putting the brand into the details

We had a fun strategy session yesterday with a local small business owner, uncovering their unrealized business goals and exploring how they can grow. One area that we kept coming back to (and one that honestly I think we could always do a better job at in our own practice) was to consider all the ways that people interact with your brand and to approach each of those creatively, considering how that interaction could be differentiated, improved, and made more relevant to your brand. Here’s a couple of examples.

In Amsterdam, Albert Heijn is the leading grocery chain. As tourists, we needed a cheap SIM card to drop into our unlocked mobile phone. The different options were commodities, all priced identically. But this packaging swayed us. It’s a grocery store’s branded mobile phone service and it is packaged like something you’d find at a grocery store! How charming! Sadly, the printed instructions and the voice prompts were all in Dutch. Worse, even our Dutch-speaking friends weren’t able to get us up and running; we had an account with a zero balance. So while the packaging was persuasive at purchase time, the idea of getting mobile service from a grocery chain now seems rather stupid and I’m only reminded of how we wasted 15.00€.

The bathroom signage at the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels use the same vernacular that the organization celebrates. This is a very simple detail, inexpensively realized, that added a small moment of delight to a necessary errand.

See more pictures from Amsterdam here and from Belgium here.

From Pain Points to Opportunity Areas

The subtle difference between a knob and a lever.

An unexpected interaction with a familiar object.

At a restaurant in San Mateo, the knob from a stove replaces the toilet flush lever. Each of us who use the toilet that evening come back to the table struck by what an unexpectedly pleasant experience it is to turn the knob.

As a researcher or designer, you are not going get to this surprisingly delightful interaction if you constrain your thinking around the idea of pain points – i.e. what is not working for people. Of course no one is going to buy your company’s toilet if it leaks or doesn’t flush – products need to perform their primary functions reasonably well – and as part of an exploration of user experience it’s necessary to find out whether this is indeed the case. But if you are laser-focused on the question “What’s not working for you?” you’ll miss all sorts of opportunities.

In our research engagements we like to include discussion with people about the things in their lives that are working really well for them – inside and outside the focus areas of the project. By figuring out what’s at the heart of these interactions, we might learn, for example, something about the way a service works that we can apply to the development of a product. Or a person might say “I just love the way the big chunky knobs on my Viking stove feel.” And it might be the transposition of this small finding in an ideation session that helps our client go on and create innovative toilets.

We encourage our clients to move from focusing on pain points to thinking about Opportunity Areas. We use what we learn out in the field to point them in promising directions, with a focus on asking “How can we __________ ?”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Streisand effect – The Streisand effect is an Internet phenomenon where an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information backfires, causing the information to be publicized widely and to a greater extent than would have occurred if no censorship had been attempted.. Origin is in reference to a 2003 incident in which Barbra Streisand unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and for US$50 million in an attempt to have the aerial photograph of her house removed from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs, citing privacy concerns
  • NYC replaces automated toilets with staffed restrooms, a signifier of trust – But where the floors of the old restrooms had a tank-tread-like surface that automatically rotated across a scrubbing system after each use, and the toilets themselves were cleaned by a rim-mounted U-shaped traveling brush, the new ones are inspected, mopped and scrubbed — 15 to 25 times a day — by eagle-eyed, uniformed men and women.

    “It’s an attendant who knows what’s going on and has functions that go from sanitation to exchanging a few words with you to generally having a sense of what should be done,” said Jerome Barth, the partnership’s vice president for operations. “People see them, and they know the bathrooms are clean.”

  • Florida judges shouldn’t friend Florida lawyers on Facebook – A new advisory warns it may create the appearance of a conflict. Being a "fan" is still okay.

Grassroots product development

In our blog’s grand tradition of posts about bathrooms and toilets, here’s a bit of local small-scale innovation, spied at a neighborhood coffee shop.

p knot 3 (Custom)
The explanatory sign in the bathroom

p knot 2 (Custom)
The product in use

p knot 1 (Custom)
Get yours here!

Related posts:
Steve investigates the bathroom for Core77
Fair warning
The toilet flusher that comes with a memo
Semiotics of toilet signs
Explaining your product puts you ahead of the pack

Core77 Show+Tell video: Steve investigates the bathroom

Yes, more bathroom blogging! Core77 has just posted a quick video I made

In this video for Core77, Steve Portigal takes us into his company bathroom, uncovering examples of bad design and its consequences.

From signage to artifact and back, people are forever mistaking their cues for how to behave, how to use products and systems, and how different, often-conflicting indicators cause our expectations and realities to collide. This 2-minute video is a priceless example. What’s in your bathroom?

Fair Warning

We’ve posted previously on this blog about the signs people create to help others navigate unfamiliar situations.

Thus, as soon as I saw this beauty in a highway-side restroom, I started thinking about the picture I was going to take.


I vividly remember washing my hands and snickering to myself about the apparent complexity of the instructions, thinking, “what, are people getting trapped in here?”

A few seconds later, the timed light clicked off, and my attitude changed just as quickly as I found myself in darkness and completely unable to get the door open. Of course I hadn’t actually read the signs–just thought about them as “an example of . . . ”

I tried in vain to undo the door by feel and intuition, and started imagining how much it would suck to spend the night trapped in a highway-side restroom. After a bit of worst-case-scenario fantasizing, I used the light from my cell phone to illuminate the signs, which indeed, contained instructions absolutely essential to getting the door open.

Leaving me with two questions:

  1. Who the hell designs a door that difficult to open?
  2. Should I have added “NO, REALLY-TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY!!!” to the signs?

I found the whole experience amusing, but it really is kind of crazy that a public restroom is trapping people on the side of Highway 84.

Do This Don’t Do That Can’t You Read The Sign?

Earlier this week I spent the day with the design team of a global technology company. I can’t say much more but I can share a couple of photographs from different bathrooms.

The standard soap dispenser has been repurposed for hand lotion. The soap comes from the other kind of standard dispenser, a foot away, next to the sink.

Washing your hands is a fairly unconscious behavior, you assess the space visually and quickly move through the various tasks…so who stops to read the sign that says Hand Lotion? That sign serves more of a “here’s how you messed up, buddy” explanation than as a preventative measure. I had a hard time stopping myself from getting hand lotion when I wanted soap.

We did have a group discussion about observing signs in the environment to identify workarounds and opportunities for improvement and so I was pleased to have an example from their environment to share back. This ended up in the always enjoyable men’s bathroom vs. women’s bathroom comparison…in this office the women’s bathroom includes a dispenser for hand sanitizer (in addition to soap and lotion). Unfortunately I didn’t get in there to take a picture. But, oh, the mode errors!

I was struck by the presumed need for this sign in a different bathroom, explaining what locked and unlocked look like. I had this quick “well that’s dumb” reaction, took the picture, used the facility, and then upon exiting realized that I had failed to lock the door! I’m not sure exactly how I managed to not lock it, since that is another automatic behavior.

In both cases, the signs themselves caught my attention, but I still exhibited the behavior they were trying to prevent (taking lotion instead of soap, leaving the door unlocked).

See also Signs To Override Human Nature, previously.


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