Bathroom antics are probably not an anticipated blog read over lunch, so you’ll be relieved (unintentional pun) to know that it’s not about that kind of behaviour. Instead, I will be drawing parallels between amusing observations here in the office and basic UXD principles. I’ll share 5 key points that are fundamental to our problem solving, illustrated magnificently by an unreachable tissue dispenser and a messy disposal issue – so hopefully some laughs along the way. Donald A Norman, a cognitive scientist and cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group, wrote in his book Emotional Design, “Enhancements to a product come primarily by watching how people use what exists today, discovering difficulties, and then overcoming them.” He highlights the importance of studying patterns in behaviour to discover your users “true needs.” This is prevalent when designing physical and digital experiences. So why bathrooms? Well, it’s the place we all look to in order to complete a basic task; the requirements are simple and our goal is the same.
I should state now that I am female and the following examples have been spotted in the Women’s bathroom and may or may not translate to the Men’s.
1. Design for them, not for you
In the workplace, bathrooms are congested areas. You can expect a constant stream of people flowing in and out and an unavoidable queue for the Women’s at least once a day. When we first moved to the new office one door was signposted ‘Out of order’ and remained off-limits for weeks. As there’s often a wait, an extra cubicle would definitely be welcomed.
The unveiled room was excessively longer than the others available, with no quirky embellishments that are recognisable to the rest of the building. The main attractions are crammed into the corner and located uncomfortably close to each other. At first, I ignorantly dismissed it as terrible design and I don’t believe I was alone; often a growing queue will overlook its availability and remark “Go ahead.” The room just didn’t feel right. It irritated me that the tissue dispenser was barely within arms reach of the toilet and while a forced stretch does the job, it results in an unexpected flush! A basic task becomes a convoluted, jarring experience. However, I was overlooking the obvious.
The accessible bathroom has been tailored to support specific requirements. The diagram below illustrates just how precise:
Typically, function comes first and foremost in behavioural design which would have informed many of the bathroom’s layout decisions. I have to bend my knees to reach the sink and as I began to build frustration against this inanimate object, would wonder why it hadn’t been built a couple of inches higher. I kept mental notes on how I believed this bathroom could be improved only to benefit myself. It’s an easy trap to fall into but our designs should not be opinion led. It isn’t what you think is best, but what we know works for the target audience. If I were to change the height of the sink, it would no longer be usable to a wheelchair user.
2. Know your audience
It’s key to know who your audience is. Even when there’s a common end goal it should not be assumed that people think and behave the same. “No single product can hope to satisfy everyone.” (D.Norman) You get to know your users by conducting interviews, observing behaviour and analysing data (to name but a few methods). The findings can be condensed into reliable and realistic representations of key users, or personas – they’re great to sense check against proposed ideas. When we have an understanding of how they think, then we can tailor solutions.
3. Use data to identify the pain points
I’ll happily say that I was pretty impressed with the bathrooms here when I first saw them. The snazzy wallpaper, cool music (I’ve Shazam-ed songs on more than one occasion) and optional mouthwash, showcased the effort that went into ensuring the brand personality reached every corner. Aesthetics play a huge role in making something appealing but it’s limited if there are usability issues.
The hand towel dispensers are built into the walls of the quirky, closed off cubicles. It’s a 2in1 combo that allows you to dispose of the tissue in a handy compartment below. The issue is that space is limited; it resembles the volume of a cereal box and as you have probably witnessed, it fills up pretty quick. Squashing the content down will work to a degree, but let’s face it, it’s not the most effective method. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve done everything right!
A recurring consequence was that the overspill ended up scattered on the floor. The problem was clearly framed: not enough space for the amount of rubbish generated; now for a solution. It was nothing groundbreaking but one day there was a new addition in each bathroom – a full-size bin.
4. Test solutions and allow enough time for meaningful results
It was almost a multivariate test, which method would perform better? To deter people from filling the “mini-bin” they simply concealed the entrance, silently asking to “Use the bigger bin provided.” My initial theory was that the placement of the full-size bin was not in the optimum position for a fair test: People have the mini-bin in their eye line while using the dispenser. The full-sized bin was placed behind and most would have already discarded their tissue before noticing the alternative.
So what happened? A game of Jenga. People would delicately try to balance their contribution on this newly created ledge, ignoring the simple but unfamiliar equivalent. As more people use the bathroom, layers would be added to an unsteady structure that rarely ended in success.
Now had this been a real test, a total count of tissues in each variant (inc. overspill on the floor) could prove which was performing better. But it wasn’t a real test so I didn’t spend a lunch hour counting (thankfully)! I had been foolish to doubt the placement because as time went on people learned that Tissue Jenga (not coming to a store near you) was a lot of effort and that actually once familiar, the full-size bin was much quicker and easier. The transition was swift and now I rarely see these piles. We know that users want to do what is easiest for them and should not underestimate that often a simple idea can be the most effective.
It’s not just taking user’s feedback and giving them what they ask for. “This requires people to imagine something they have no experience with. Their answers, historically, have been notoriously bad.” (D.Norman) There are business requirements and technical limitations too. It’s the designer’s job to interpret the comments and satisfy all parties where possible. Prototypes are a cost effective method of testing concepts including journeys and interactions, revealing any usability issues early. These can be low or high fidelity and shown to stakeholders / real users as an aid to visualise the final product.
5. Design iteratively
People can identify a bad user experience (maybe not in those words) and still tolerate it out of necessity or habit. Ethnographic research involves observing how people operate in their natural environment. They spot the difficulties and note workarounds that even the observed person doesn’t consciously recognise is happening. These can highlight a strong desire for the feature and can give insight as to how to improve the experience. The learning from testing may be positive or negative but give direction either way. Continual revision based upon testing is an effective method for creating usable products, where the final results suit the needs of the largest number of people.
When something doesn’t work how we expect, we can be left feeling silly for not working it out or take matters into our own hands. More often than not, it can be resolved through its design which is also true of features on a website. These 5 basic principles lay the foundations to delivering a smooth user experience for your users. I have one final observation to illustrate iterative design in action. Remember that tissue dispenser in the accessible bathroom? Someone else had been as irritated with its distance as I had but decided to do something about it. One day I noticed a roll of tissue had appeared on the edge of the sink, which is right in front of the toilet. No more stretching and no more automatic flushing. It made me smile until I went to take some; a wet sink poses its own problems. I didn’t see it there again, instead trialled in a variety of other places including propped up against a fold up handrail. It seems we were all unaware of something, as when the rail is pulled down…
…there was a purpose-built holder attached entire time. Who knew!
I have been amused to see these patterns unfold in the workplace bathroom and would love to hear about your own real life user experience issues in the comments section below.