I draw boxesA blog on user experience & design

July 24, 2008

The user experience of a toilet on South West Trains

Whitney Hess’s recent post about the user experience of a staircase reminded me that user experience design is everywhere and affects us everyday. Don Norman’s seminal work The design of everyday things analyses the design of many objects, such as telephones and doors. I came across this terrible design recently and had to share it here.

There’s not a lot you ask for when using a toilet. A reasonably quiet, clean & private space will usually do – of course with a functioning lavatory.

We’ve all used the loo – or ‘restroom’ a million times, so you’d think it was not a difficult thing for designers to get right. They’ve had enough practice over the years.

Toilet door

Bog standard: a normal toilet door complete with lock, coat hook and roll

The user’s goals are quite simple: relieve myself in private, quickly and cleanly. We need a cubicle with a lockable door, preferably with a coat hook. The lock should ideally be some kind of obvious knob or handle that provides visual and/or tactile feedback to confirm it is successfully locked. The user can always pull or push the door a little to confirm that the door will not open.

There are rarely instructional signs or notices in a restroom – it’s obvious from the design of the elements along with our own experiences how to achieve our goals. The Please wash your hands reminder provides a different, ‘reminder’ function and is not instructional as such.

We’ve all used the restroom a million times, so you’d think it was not a difficult thing for designers to get right

A visual indicator on the outside of the door is a nice touch – it provides reassurance for the user that they will not have others pushing on the door; and it gives anyone sizing up the cubicle considering whether to try the door a clear indicator that the door is locked. A red/green indicator is common.

The key point is that privacy is a massive issue here. There should be no possibility of an embarrassing situation involving a user literally caught with their trousers down. It is unthinkable, particularly in the workplace but everywhere.

Toilet cubicle

Topographic view of a standard toilet cubicle

The standard toilet cubicle, such as the one shown here, has worked for centuries and is intuitive to use.

The toilets on South West Trains

So why, then, have the UK’s South West Trains got it so wrong? Their trains are otherwise great. They seem clean, fast, efficient and comfortable.

The toilets are an attempt to use a ‘high-tech’ system to operate the toilet. There is a large, rounded sliding door which is operated by buttons positioned on the outside and inside of the cubicle, as shown below:

South west trains toilet diagram

The design of a toilet on South West Trains

The buttons to enter the cubicle work ok. You have a set of Open and Close buttons, which are in the same style as the ones used to open the main train doors when boarding.

So you hit open, the door slides open, and you go inside. You have to look around for the close button because it is not immediately obvious where it is – it’s positioned opposite you as you enter, quite low down. The three buttons in a row are shown here.

Once you have located the close button the door slides shut, and the Lock button flashes slowly to indicate it needs to be pressed in order to lock the door. But this is far too subtle, and not intuitve. Consequently, it is very likely that the user will assume the door is locked and proceed with their business. Once the Lock button is pressed, the light stays solidly lit, as shown in the photo.

Buttons on South West Trains toilet

3 buttons for operating the toilet door

The key point is this: the feedback mechanism of the light on the lock button is not sufficient to communicate to the user that the door is locked or unlocked. By trying to emulate the door mechanism for the main train doors on the toilet doors the designers have made the toilets very difficult and unintuitive to use.

The net result is that it is very likely that embarrassing situations will occur. This is not the fault of the user but the designer.

I would question the need for a Lock button at all – as a user, when are you going to want to go in to a toilet cubicle and not lock the door? The designers should just make the door lock automatically – as the user might reasonably assume it has from the flashing light on the Lock button.

This is an example of very unfortunate bad design – not quite the Chernobyl incident cited in Norman’s The design of everyday things, but nonetheless a bad design that I bet has lead to hundreds or thousands of uncomfortable situations for users.

Update: I found Anders Ramsay’s article on New York City public toilet design. There’s also an OK/Cancel article on the usability of urinals.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for the link love. This is hilarious. I’d be afraid to pull down my pants.

    Comment by Whitney Hess — July 24, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

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