Have you ever been baffled by a trash bin, frazzled by a restroom faucet, or juggled an armful of clothing in a small dressing room? You might think these seemingly mundane, utilitarian interactions would have been figured out by now; yet, it is surprising how basic tenets of usability are often disregarded in high-use public environments. Most of us in the field spend far more time interacting with these environments than many of the products we research and design, and we believe special consideration should be given to make these necessities as usable as possible.
So, why then do user experience designers seem less interested in improving these types of interactions? Perhaps along the way, user experience has become a synonym for the interactions that humans have with electronic products and services. However, we should view user experience as encompassing much more than that. Our tools, skills, and techniques can extend into assessing interactions in physical spaces. To have meaningful impact, we must overcome our electronic tunnel vision and begin to focus our sights on the bigger picture of user experience.
To put this philosophy into practice, we set out to conduct guerilla expert evaluations of some of the least glamorous environments in the physical world: street corners, public restrooms, and department store dressing rooms. We felt these locales exemplify typical and relatable user experiences not in the digital realm. As a result of this research, we emerged more assured that user experience professionals can tackle this kind of work. Additionally, we became more aware of how our skill set can be used to make any interaction, electronic or not, more effective, efficient, and satisfying.
Street Corner Trash Bins
The city of Chicago recently installed new trash bins downtown. The eco-friendly cans are designed to periodically compress the trash using a solar powered compactor. This seems a brilliant innovation as space is saved and an eco-friendly power source is promoted. Unfortunately, these trash cans ignore some common usability principles.
Poor Adherence to Standards and Familiar Cultural Constructs
Surprisingly, the trash cans simply don’t look like trash cans (see Figure 1). Lacking the familiar large opening, these hulking waste cabinets have a closed design with a pull handle; they look more like a mailbox or a Star Wars droid than a trash can. This distinct change in appearance, distant from the traditional metal trash bin, causes many to simply walk past, without recognizing the object’s function.
Context of Use Not Understood
When walking down streets, people need to throw away things acquired along the way: food wrappers, receipts, coffee cups. The old trash can design facilitated this with a wide opening that allowed users to toss in trash as they walked past. The new design not only forces people to stop, but also interact with the trash bin to discard their half-eaten Egg McMuffin. On crowded city streets, this only adds frustration as queues may form in front of the trash can.
Lack of Consideration for User Limitations
The new design also affects usage in other ways. First, opening the bin takes so much effort that sometimes a single person can’t do it alone. This could be a major problem for young, disabled, or older populations. Second, opening the can requires holding a potentially germ-ridden, often unidentifiably sticky handle, leaving people with a dirty hand and a negative reaction to the experience. Third, people carrying items with them have a limited ability to grasp the handle, making it harder to accomplish a task that was previously as easy as dropping an item into a bin.
How could the trash bin be eco-friendly and usable at the same time? If the solar compactor requires a closed design, one could take advantage of the familiar foot pedal operated model (see Figure 2). This design would allow someone to hold onto their shopping bags, while using their leg muscles to open the lid. Also, this design removes some of the perils of grabbing a mystery goo-covered handle.
Public restrooms are bound to vary widely; yet, despite building codes, disabilities guidelines, and the expertise of architects, sometimes they do not serve our needs well. As a space that fulfills a human necessity, at the very least a restroom should allow people to complete their tasks as efficiently and hygienically as possible, but we observed several common issues.
Mismatch Between Typical User and Layout of Materials
Some restroom stalls have toilet paper dispensers positioned too low, high, or far to be usable for the average person. If the dispenser is too low, it forces people to reach blindly and tug toilet paper from the dispenser across a potential sea of germs. If the dispenser is too high or far, the person must balance precariously, at the risk of tumbling from the seat, to reach. These problems reduce comfort and cleanliness in an already uninviting situation.
Lack of Visibility of System Status
Many restroom utilities, such as toilets, faucets, and hand driers, rely on often frustrating motion-sensing activation mechanisms. There are benefits to such systems, including sanitation and conservation of materials; however, with no visibility of system status, people often find themselves failing to activate the utility. If it were clear that the hand drier was timed out between inputs, we could all avoid waving our hands fruitlessly.
These issues present easy fixes. The placement of toilet paper dispensers in stalls should reflect the average height of a male or female, and accommodate the needs of those with disabilities. Optimizing for all users can be as simple as adjusting the position by a few inches in either direction. Restroom faucets and hand driers could indicate when they are timed out and when they are awaiting input. Both of these changes would lead to a more predictable and less frustrating experience.
Department Store Dressing Rooms
Dressing rooms are spaces where one wants to feel at ease as much as possible. Most shoppers walk in with their personal belongings in addition to the items they wish to try on. Their goal is simply to determine if their selections fit so that they don’t leave the store with an unintentional belly shirt or flood pants. Yet, the design of many dressing rooms makes this difficult to accomplish.
Insufficient Resources to Accomplish Common Tasks
Many dressing rooms have only one or two clothing hooks from which to hang items. If it happens to be winter, one of these hooks is undoubtedly used for a coat. Any other available hooks are then used to delicately balance garments, hoping they do not fall onto the floor (see Figure 3). Once a person removes their own clothes, they are left juggling a pile of clothes, which impedes their ability to efficiently and satisfactorily accomplish the task of trying on the potential purchases.
Lack of Visibility of Room Status
Doors to dressing rooms should have a visible lock indicator, but many do not. This omission adds doubt as to whether a room is occupied or available, causing people to bend over to look under the door and make sure no feet are present before barging in. Furthermore, there is often poor or no labeling of rooms. While less of a problem in smaller dressing areas, in larger stores, those who leave to show their outfit to a friend may return uncertain of which room was theirs.
These usability issues could be fixed with a few small changes. First, adding more hooks to each room can be done inexpensively and without a need for extra space. Another is to leave enough room between the hooks so that hangers don’t fight for space. Visible indicators of room status and a numbering or lettering system for each room can also aid people in identifying an open room or navigating back to the room they are using.
Where Do We Go from Here?
As UX professionals, we must shed our fixation on the usual range of interfaces and begin to see the bigger, holistic nature of user experience. We must be prepared to recognize processes outside of our usual scope of inquiry.
We notice usability issues everywhere we go, but we often ignore them because they exist in an uninteresting, or unflattering, physical space. We cannot ignore them for, as Jesse James Garrett posited, “The user experience mindset is an acquired condition for which there is no cure.” Yet, when it comes to the banal, we often assume these interactions are simply good enough, or fail to see beyond superficial improvements in utility. We must challenge our preconceptions about what constitutes “good enough” in the physical world—about what is simply useful, and what is truly usable.
In our brief exploration, we found numerous examples of experiences that frustrate, challenge, and confuse people. As user experience professionals, our charge seems clear: be an advocate for user experience research and design that will affect people in all aspects of life. No area is off-limits in this pursuit.
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