A line or urinals

Urinals and user experience: What toilets teach you about UX, UI and bad design

Design isn’t a piece of piss and looking at what goes wrong with toilet facilities is a good way of changing your thinking about UI and UX. Mic Wright, Co-Founder and CEO of The Means, explains how…

The inspiration for this piece was simple:

In the toilets on the ground floor of the Topman/Topshop store in Oxford Street, one of the biggest retail spaces in the UK, there are two urinals. These urinals are so close together that only one can be used at any one time. ‘So what?’, you’ll probably say. But there’s some interesting issues in this one design decision.

The too-closely arranged urinals have clearly been placed to fulfil the minimum possible criteria but that doesn’t work.

Men try to avoid standing directly next to someone when they are at a urinal. Also, men with physically larger frames simple couldn’t use these urinals – its a literal impossibility.

So, the one cubicle in the toilets becomes a de-facto urinal.

This situation is not an issue when the toilets are not busy but when they are, there are larger queues because of the lack of facilities, distorted usage patterns and poor layout – the urinals are also jammed between the cubicle wall and where the door swings inwards.

The design lesson here? Working to what you consider to be the minimum acceptable tolerances will lead to a poor and partial user experience.

The shittest thing about most public toilets isn’t shit

This situation – toilet facilities designed in clumsy and extremely half-hearted ways – is extremely common. It’s partially a product of architects treating toilets as an annoying requirement that must be filled rather than an opportunity to improve the experience for people using their buildings.

Public toilets have become very scarce in the United Kingdom for various reasons, from the decline of public spaces – stolen by corporate interests – to council cuts to government failure to address problem drug and alcohol use. That state of affairs means toilets in commercial premises are more used and more under pressure than they were in the past.

That means the user experience requirements placed upon toilet facilities have changed.

Another issue is that architects and building planners work on the assumption that footprint can be reduced by cutting the number of cubicles in toilet facilities for male-identified people. But that’s a mistake because it ignores the use cases of trans people, disabled people and people with medical conditions that mean they require a cubicle.

That’s the last design lesson in this post: Design to fulfil the actual use cases people have rather than what you assume they will be.

Don’t think I was taking the piss with this post. The Means is a creative agency and we are flush with ideas for improving product design and communicating better with clients. If you’d like to talk to us about a project, tweet us @ReadTheMeans or email hello@themeans.rocks. We’d be delighted to chat to you.