The User Experience of Public Restrooms and Websites

A couple days ago, I accidentally entered the women’s restroom at our local coffee shop.  The signage failure that led to this incident is a topic for another discussion.  But as soon as I walked into the ladies, something felt wrong.  Unconsciously, I noticed the lighting was really bright white.  I noticed it smelled kind of nice…some kind of poppouri.   A few moments later, conscious thought kicked in and I saw 3 stalls with doors, no urinals, and a baby changing table*.  I beat a hasty retreat across the hall into the mens room.  What a stark contrast!  It was smaller, darker, and it smelled…like a men’s room.

In the next few moments, I contemplated this contrast.  This coffee shop has great coffee, reliable wifi, comfortable seating, and an area where my daughter can read books and play.  Yet now I’ve seen clearly that they’ve skimped when it comes to maintaining the men’s room.  Oh, it was clean enough, but it definitely wasn’t as inviting as the ladies.  My estimation of this establishment took a little ding because now I felt like they were skimping in an area that…let’s face it…is pretty important to the coffee drinking experience.

Ok, I’m a UX Designer/Developer…I try to be empathetic.  Maybe it’s harder to keep the gents smelling clean.  Maybe most of their customers are ladies, so they focus maintenance efforts there.  Maybe nice restrooms don’t make men buy more coffee.  I don’t know about that.  But I do know about how my experience with the shop changed, and it made me think about how we, as UX designers, approach our projects.

UX is about more than your product.

I still like the ISO definition of user experience:

…we define [user experience] as all aspects of the user’s experience when interacting with the product, service, environment or facility’ and we point out that ‘it is a consequence of the presentation, functionality, system performance, interactive behaviour, and assistive capabilities of the interactive system.

It includes all aspects of usability and desirability of a product, system or service from the user’s perspective.

By definition, as UX Designers our job is to look holistically at the system of interactions a user might have with our designs.  This is hard to do in a company over a certain size, where organizational politics, mistrust, and agendas may detract from optimizing the user experience.  While you may not ‘own’ the entire user experience, you can be the watchdog of the experience.  As various teams, factions, or tribes within your company make decisions about their part of the product — particularly decisions that may diverge or contradict each other —  you can help to make clear to everyone the consequences those decisions have on the end users.

Is designing for the 80/20 rule really ok?

I did a quick scan around the shop when I returned to the main area.  Sure enough, lots more women than men.  So I understand why, given limited resources, you need to focus on satisfying the majority of your customers.  Still, that sucks when you’re in the 20%.  I mean, would another light bulb in the men’s room broken the bank?  As online and web designers, maybe we can do more to provide consistently provide good experiences throughout our apps.  I think personas are a key tool to help achieve this.  Personas help you 1) identify different types of system users, 2) design to solve specific problems for a specific person, rather than trying to address lots of problems for everybody.

We’ve all been using the nasty bathroom

I’ve been so accustomed to the low standards of male restrooms, I didn’t really realize that bathrooms could be better.  I think something similar is happening in computing today.  For most of my life, computers were expensive, beige boxes that took up 3/4 of my desk.  Programming an application was a slow, methodical process.  How much things have changed!  Companies like Apple are showing us that computers can be sexy, chic, desirable.  Google is showing us that the web can be fast.  Web development frameworks abstract away the details of javascript or HTTP.  Cloud services allow little old me to build internet-scale applications quickly and cheaply.  The world was accustomed to the men’s room, but they’ve been tastes of how good things might be.

The Challenge and Opportunity

That puts huge pressure on us as UX designers.  Everyone uses technology.  Everyone that uses Facebook knows that a website can push notifications down to you in real time, without refreshes, even if they don’t know about long polling.  Why do they have to refresh the page on your website?  Everyone that uses Feedly knows that a webpage can know when you get to the bottom of a page and automatically load the next entries in the list.  Why do they have to press a more button on your website?   Everyone that uses Alice knows that a company can provide free shipping, be cheaper than my local stores, and actively help me manage and budget my spending.  Why is shipping on your website so expensive?  Why doesn’t your site know what I want, rather than just force me down your fulfillment process?

The exciting part is that the constant change means that UX practitioners must be constant, lifelong learners.  We need to know about the current best design practices, information architecture practices.  We need to understand the business and operational constraints.  We need to understand the market.  We need to understand when we can apply an existing UX design pattern, or when to create new ones.  It means that our jobs are not easily automatible, repeatable, transferrable (at least for now).

* Note to coffee shop owners: This is 2010.  Men drink espresso, and care for their infant children.  We’d also appreciate a changing table in the gents.  It’s been 2 years since my daughter was in diapers, yet I can still tell you all the businesses in town with a changing table in the men’s room.  I’ve spend hundreds of dollars at Capanna Coffee after running across downtown to find a business with a changing table.  If you don’t have a changing table in the men’s room, you’re losing money.