28 September 2010

...washing your hands

Within the walls of Park Guell in Barcelona - if you cross their palms with silver - you can wander around the house where Gaudi took residence whilst the park was created. No flash photography please. Whilst taking in the self-guided tour, you can bear witness to Gaudi's Toilet, and quietly wonder to yourself how much of his work could have been conceived right there atop the less than majestic white porcelain. Toilets and inspiration. They're unconventional yet formidable bedfellows. Like recycling bins and public car parks. Or Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. Both function perfectly on their own merits, but when put together, magic happens. Now where's my shoehorn

It was within the four walls of a car park public toilet that I found my inspiration for a little User Interface discussion on hand washing facilities. Not exactly on par with conceiving the Segrada Familia, I know, but the subject does cover cleanliness. And you know what cleanliness is bedfellows with? Godliness! Enter the magic...

Public toilet hand washing is a funny old experience. It's a moment when there's nothing else one would rather do in the world than eradicate the grim invisible funk of a thousand stranger's germs, but often can't. There's usually no soap, hot running water is a luxury, and good luck if you don't actually want to dry those hands on yourself. But what if the people who owned the convenience really did have your best interests at heart? They wanted to lay on all the hand washing paraphernalia you need to make it quick and pleasant, and what's more, IDIOT PROOF! Who WOULDN'T wash their hands? It sounds amazing!

Welcome to the 'WasH2o-3000' "It WANTS to clean your hands" (I made that name and slogan up, but if you're looking to go into this line of business, be my guest). It's a hole in the wall that does everything you can actually do yourself, except does it for you. Automatically. My first impressions were that i'd rather do it myself, but mustn't grumble, there's someone at the adjacent machine getting involved, so why not?

I step up to the ergonomic moulded plastic hole in the wall and like anyone, I take just a precursory glance at the pictograms whilst simultaneously attempting the task (literally) at hand. Both hands enter the hole in what feels like the natural, assumed correct position, in the centre. I look at the instructions again and a centrally placed arrow pointing down confirms this.

Squirt. The handwash is delivered but misses my hands. Bother.

Now here's some water coming out to mix with the soap which I don't have.

Ah, okay. I think I get it. There appears to be a motion sensor involved. I remove my hands and put them back in the hole again to trigger more soap.

Oh, no no no NO. Wrong move! It's the hot air's turn to impress; do have some hot air sir, to dry those delicate hands.

On my left, there's another happy user up to his wrists in bathroom technology. Except he's really bamboozled. We'll call him Gary. I realise he's the same guy i saw standing there as when I walked in earlier. He's peck peck pecking away at the graphic of the soap with his index finger like there's no tomorrow. My user testing persona watches with interest for a while, and when I think 'you're not getting paid for this experiment' I interject suggesting that it responds by hand movement. Gary's still not 100 percent convinced as he attempts my suggested procedure.

You can totally understand why he was mashing the graphic, though. Touchscreen is so prevalent nowadays that it comes as no stretch of the imagination that the toilet, if not using the most up-to-the-minute technology, would employ a hidden button system under the plastic of this 'futuristic' washing device. And the particular sequencing of the pictograms, 1 2 3, also preys on our instinctive 'I push this here to make that go there to make this thing come out here' understandings. Also, many other objects and interfaces we react with today rely on neat little icons to denote their application or function - think ticket machines or iPhone - and it's something we're all getting quite accustomed to. A couple of times recently I've witnessed someone at a vending machine, pressing inert pictograms to make it function. Are they daft? No. Its just a symptom of our emerging expectations of how the world around us works in 2010. So now when it comes to designing something like an automatic hand washing machine, we need to take a wider view of the schematics rather than focusing on the instructions.

In this case, the design is lead by the assumption the machine will function perfectly for a passive user; we'll follow the instructions, liquid soap will land in our hands, water will flow to wash away the soap, air will dry us, and we will stand there letting it happen. But as user testing has revealed, when something doesn't work in the way we expect - when we're faced with an immediate problem - we'll want to try to immediately solve it. When there's no direction, we experiment, we improvise. We're doers! As soon as we break out of the machines presupposed 'user flow', the whole system can collapse. In this case, a simple yet crucial factor lead to the function to fall down and, in turn, caught Robert out. Sorry, caught Gary out (I'm terrible with names). It ran out of soap.

As with all systems, whether mechanical or social, it only takes one simple blip to create a failure: it's only a tiny piece of rubber which causes the brakes to fail; forgetting to carry the 1 spoils the whole spreadsheet; a simple pocket call starts the family feud. You get what I'm saying.

Wanting to catch the failure, I used my machine again to examine its cycle. Yes, Hand movement triggers soap. A timer then lets you rub it in before the water flows. The water is also timed to switch off before the drier begins. Now in drying mode, the timed element is no longer a factor and it becomes a drier which stays on for as long as you're flapping your hands around underneath. More can go wrong than I thought, and I became aware of the scenario Gavin ... Gary? was battling.

With the machine out of soap and no way of alerting you to the fact, when the water flows, there's a strong chance you'll change your mind about how it works. You'll assume you missed something. So when you think on your feet and start pressing buttons that don't exist, it can really discombobulate you when the drier starts up and cuts out very quickly. It would feel as if you have no control over the task at hand, which in turn, bothers us. Frustrates us. And of course, when the cycle begins again, that short pause when the soap should arrive then leads you to believe it has a sketchy sensor, furthermore shaking you're beliefs of how the object in front of you works. Misbehavior breeds mistrust, and this is damaging for the product, the brand, and furthermore, the manufacturer.

A couple of suggestions which I think would aid user flow.

Make the soap visible (like many regular washstands). If you can see there's no soap, you'll better understand why the machine is behaving the way it is. If the soap can't be made visible, have an indicator telling us when its run out - like any other vending machine would. If the machine indicates putting your hands in the middle, make sure the soap is delivered in the middle - this broke the exercise for me. Usually the simplest solution in the design phase solves the complex problem.

I left Gary to it in the end and was left wondering how much resource gets wasted by the learning curve of using the machine. And also left drying my hands on my clothes as usual. My drier had a sketchy sensor.