The Public Restroom as HCI Laboratory

Well – that serves me right.  If you requested a Gist beta invite, be patient.  I’m grinding through my inbox and you’ll have your invite by tomorrow at the latest.  Thanks everyone who requested one, especially for all the kind feedback on the blog.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.  Last week I read an intro O’Reilly book to HCI called Designing Gestural Interfaces: Touchscreens and Interactive Devices.  It was ok, but one of the insights – that the public restroom has become a test bed for gestural interface technology – really stuck with me.

I found myself in a restrooms at DIA last night before I got in my car for the hour long drive home.  I generally hate public restrooms as my OCD kicks into high gear around everyone’s germs.  I no longer think that bad things are going to happen to me if I don’t touch every street sign on a walk, nor do I get stuck in my house in the morning because I have to do everything in multiple of three’s (and – if I blow it, then nines, and, if I blow it then 27’s, ugh – yuck.)  However, I still dislike the idea of the public restroom.  But sometimes you’ve just gotta go.

It was pretty late at night and I found myself in a recently cleaned and completely empty restroom at one end of Level 6 at DIA.  I decided to perform an experiment – could I go about my business without touching a single thing other than myself or my clothes.  I like to wash my hands before I go to the bathroom (You don’t?  Think about it for five seconds.  You’ve been shaking hands and touching things all day?  C’mon.)  The soap dispenser spit out soap after I put my hands under it.  The sink automatically turned on when I put my hands under it (I had to move them around a little.)  I walked up to the toilet, did my thing, and walked away to the sound of a toilet flushing.  Back to the sink for a redo of the previous drill.  I wandered over to the towel dispenser which automatically dispensed some towels when I waved my hands under it. 

The only think I had to touch was the door.  Even that seems easy to solve – automatic opening and closing doors have been around forever.  None of the gestures I did were particular complex and – as I think about it – all were pretty obvious. 

Life is a laboratory.  Don’t forget to always be exploring and experimenting.

  • Strange. I can't remember the last time there were bathroom doors to navigate at an airport.

    • Actually – I was referring to the door to the stall.  There wasn’t one to the entrance.

  • Jon Van V.

    I agree with the washing hands before using the bathroom. Also, I think that bathroom doors should open out so that once you wash your hands you don't have to touch the handle of a door after everyone else who didn't wash their hands. Stall doors, open in so that works. Otherwise, every bathroom should have a trash can outside of the door so you can use a paper towel to open the door and then dispose of it.

    I'm not OCD… just an engineer. There are inefficiencies everywhere. Well, maybe I'm OCD because I think all that out… damn.

  • Sam

    If you have already have something on the skin of your hands, washing them to prevent transfer to the skin of other areas is wasted activity.

    • Really? When I've been chopping onions or peppers, it seems to make a *big* difference if I wash my hands or not before rubbing my eyes.

    • Really? When I've been chopping onions or peppers, it seems to make a *big* difference if I wash my hands before rubbing my eyes.

  • Benny T

    I just relieve myself in my pants. No need to touch anything

  • It's not just bathrooms, it's people interacting with real life all the time. I don't think you can be a really innovative interface person unless you're able to simply sit and watch people and how the use the rest of the world. Kids are exceptionally awesome because they don't have nearly as many learned behaviors as the rest of us.

    A good example of thinking along these lines is IDEO's book, "Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design", available from Amazon (although not yet for the Kindle) at <a href=”” target=”_blank”> It's mostly images, but all of everyday objects being used in slightly unexpected but obvious ways.

    What's even better in all of this is when you find the right balance, the user doesn't even realize that technology is in play any more — you've been able to remove a layer of abstraction and they more directly get into the experience. Why have extra fussy controls if they make the experience more complex? To use a personal example, if a museum wants to know what people are interested in, don't make them click something on a handheld or do some deliberate action. Instead, notice that they spent a certain amount of time in proximity to something as the point where you notice their attention and then when the visitor leans in to read the label, a very deliberate action, then note their actual interest. Invisible to the user, but their actions tell you an awful lot. (Hm, now that I think about it, I'm sure I've seen a media lab project along these lines, but I can't find it online.)

    Heh, and then the fun begins … how to tease out the accidental actions or the minimal actions as unintended observations vs. deliberate actions. At what point did your bathroom soap dispenser realize that you were being deliberate vs accidentally brushing against it (if it did at all). Time? Variability of motion (waving)? etc. More often that not, it's the *subtle* things you do in the experience that make the biggest difference, not the deliberate things.

    Yeah. I *love* this stuff.

  • Tip of the hat for talking about your OCD – real OCD, not "I'm detail-oriented" OCD.

  • Probably the worst for me is the coffee shop that gives you a key to bathroom with some obnoxious object attached, and I've gone to the extent of washing the object so I have something clean to hold. Yep, I am not afraid to admit that at all as I'm sure others have done the same.

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  • A very good article, thanks for share.

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