User Experience: the Bathroom Edition

Over the summer I’ve had the good fortunte to work as a UX Research + Design Intern at an amazing bio tech company in Redwood Shores, Proteus Digital Health. I’ve been taking Caltrain down most days, so part of the adventure has been my 3-hr daily commute by bike and train (and bike again). I’d only taken Caltrain once or twice before, so it’s been fun getting to know the ins and outs of riding the train. 

One of the things I’ve found fascinating is the unusual methods they employ to allow a user to lock the bathroom doors; no small feat on a moving train. I realized I had a couple of other pictures of bathrooms in my archive of UX-related images, so I put them all together for this bathroom-themed post. 

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I’m opening with a makeshift toilet paper holder I recently came across in a Caltrain bathroom. It’s actually one of the more user friendly dispensers I’ve found in a train; it was right next to the toilet, as opposed to the other side of the (admittedly small) bathrooms that most of them occupy. I imagine it to be fashioned by the conductor with the plastic bag his/her paper came in that morning. 

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Next we have a wonderfully simple and well-illustrated directive: “SLIDE TO CLOSE”. While it is quite difficult to actually close (you have to lean your weight on the metal bar just right to get it slide in), at least you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to do. 

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As opposed to the baffling “LOCK — UNLOCK”. You may wonder, as I initially did, what exactly are you supposed to be locking? The handle at the top suggests the possibility of movement, but that little piece of hardware under it is doesn’t. If not for the arrow pointing directly to it, one might not ever think to play with it. It could go up, down, left, right, or not move at all; there’s an absence of clues about what one could do with it. 

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Then we have the most baffling instruction of all: the open and closed padlock, next to a vertical bar that looks nothing like a padlock. Not only does it not look anything like the icon representing it but it swings in a completely different way from a padlock, in that it pivots from the bottom up. Ironically, the mechanism in question is actually quite beautiful and elegant but the instructions for using it are anything but.

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This image was taken in Golden Gate Park, in the bathrooms near the Children’s Playground and Carousel. I’ve mentioned Don Norman’s seminal book The Design of Everyday Things before (see my very first post), and he talks at length about poorly designed doors that don’t give us clues about how to open them. This is a great illustration of that; not only do you not know if the doors open in or out, but you don’t even know if they open to the left or the right. I knew there was something strange about these doors when I first walked into the bathroom, but it wasn’t until I tried to use one that I realized what the problems were. Nothing makes one feel quite as stupid as trying to open a door the wrong way.

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I’ll close with a great hack from one of Proteus’ stalls. Apparently the gap between the metal dividers and tile wall in this stall are too far apart, because someone takes the trouble EVERY SINGLE DAY to put up these toilet paper curtains to cover it. If there’s any one place where we all deserve to feel like our privacy is ensured it’s the bathroom, so I kind of love that someone (or someones; I could imagine this being a team effort) feels strong enough about it to do it again…and again…and again. 

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