Kevin Cheng  

The Usability of Urinals

April 7th, 2006 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

The design of urinals can be a bigger challenge than one might initially believe, especially for those who don’t have any use for them (a large portion of you). “It’s just like a hold in the wall to pee in, right?” Wrong. There are subtleties to a well designed urinal which even the veteran user experience designers can miss.

In fact, even if we restrict the problem space to just urinals that are equipped with infrared sensors to detect usage and automatically flush, there are still issues to consider.

First, these sensors must indicate when they are activated. This is in keeping with the heuristics of _feedback_ and _expectation_. The user must not only be aware of what the device is for (now less of a problem as they have become commonplace) but also be informed of when it is active. The latter can be accomplished with a simple light.

A third state needs to be indicated - that of when the sensor has been active long enough to deem necessary for a flush. Typically, a blinking light or change in color has been used to accomplish this. Keep in mind that males are more prone to color deficiency (approximately 16% of males are inflicted to some degree) so the blinking light may be more accessible.

Obscured Sensor

A sensor which provides feedback is useless if the feedback is obscured. Urinals should take static anthropometrics into consideration when opting for where to place the sensor - and of course what height the urinal itself should be placed. Remembering the 95% rule of ergonomics, try to place the sensor such that child can activate it but place it above the piping so as not to obscure the sensor light from view.

In terms of the functionality itself, providing multiple paths for the user can be beneficial. Just look at how does their “breadcrumb trails”. A product could belong to different many different categories and users could arrive at them from different entry points. In the case of the flushing device, provide an alternate means of activating the flush mechanism. This option ensures that users can flush upon activating the system instead of having to deal with a previous user’s errors. Make sure this button is placed in the corner in keeping with Fitts’s Law.

Given the latest raves about emotional design, it would be remiss not to mention aesthetics combined with function. For the overall design, I would recommend rounded corners which are not only pleasing to the eye but would consistently reflect any input in predictable directions outside of the system. Adding a fly or some other small decoration in the middle of the unit can give some focus for the user as well as improve user accuracy.

Clearly, even the design of something as deceivingly simple as a urinal can have a myriad of issues to consider and design around. Next week: the usability of nudes descending a staircase.

17 Responses to “The Usability of Urinals”
miles archer wrote:

You’ve dealt with the least important part of usability as far as the user is concerned. The user in a public restroom doesn’t care nearly as much about flushing as he does about not getting pee on himself. Backsplatter and the mess on the floor from previous users missing the target are more relevant.

The owner of the bathroom cares about more automatic flushing.

Daniel J. Wilson wrote:

“If you go to the men’s washrooms at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, you may notice there’s a fly in the urinals. So what do you think most men do? That’s right, they aim at the fly when they urinate. They don’t even think about it, and they don’t need to read a user’s manual; it’s just an instinctive reaction. The interesting feature of these urinals is that they’re deliberately designed to take advantage of this inherent human male tendency. The fly isn’t really a fly. It’s a drawing of a fly, permanently etched onto the porcelain. And the etching isn’t placed in just any old location on the urinal. On the contrary, it’s been strategically etched into the “sweet spot” of the urinal, the point of curvature that minimizes splash back.”

-Kim Vicente, “The Human Factor

Rajio wrote:

why do we have to do everything with lights nowadays?

C. French wrote:

The toilets on Amtrak’s sleeper cars are each
equipped with a light above the “hole”. If memory serves me correctly, the light indicates three
possible states: Off (toilet ready for use); On
(toilet flushing); Flashing (toilet has broken).
Reasonably simple (assuming the lightbulb hasn’t
burned out). Having had to deal with “ghost
toilets”, other designers might want to consider
this option.

Re Aiming points: How many men remember urinals
with the “dartboard”-style inset in the bottom?
Now imagine rigging something like this to an
actual scoreboard — folks in line behind one can
see just how well one has been aiming…. >:)

“We Aim To Please — So You Aim Too, Please.”

Alan wrote:

So this is the type of discussion we get when OK/Cancel is bought out…

Just kidding! Interesting article! :-)

uurf wrote:

Luckily there’s ongoing research in this field.

Moi wrote:

You’re taking the piss, right?

User Centered wrote:

OK/Cancel on handling your business

Clearly, even the design of something as deceivingly simple as a urinal can have a myriad of issues to consider and design around.If [URL= …

BobG wrote:

Both genders can appreciate the autoflush toilet. I hate it when it flushes while I am still taking a messenger bag off my shoulder and positioning carry-on luggage so I can actually sit down.

At Chicago’s O’Hare airport they have a scary automated seat cover applier thingy.

stephanie wrote:

Public restrooms have come along way since the 50’s that is for sure. I went into one the other day and everything wasmotion sensored right down to the paper despencer you use to dry your hands.

Greg wrote:

As ever- we Brits are somewhat behind the game on IA. It’s a sort of benign dictatorship combined with supplier-driven engineering solution rather than user-focused consumerist democracy.

A British urinal typical flushes whenever it likes. With an average load, with all modules functioning correctly, this is fine.

However - when load is low, there’s a significant redundancy (waste water). When load is high, there is significant usabvility failure- they stink.

Worst is when the waste water module malfunctions and the thing becomes blocked. Every minute or ten it’ll automatically flood whatever is in the bowl across the floor. A denial of service attack is trivial (tissue or chewing gum thrown in).

Macka wrote:

G’day, I’m from Oz and what we have in one of the fancy loo’s down here is a slot where you can put your camera card in and download an image of someone you’d like to shit on - the image is placed on the bottom of the bowl somehow - and when you flush the image dissapears. Wish life was that easy!

Frank wrote:

Wow, this stuff is cool

fervor wrote:

Someone is making the fly stickers so that everywhere can be just like amsterdam. I like peeing on things…

Dick wrote:

in reference to C. French wrote: 8 Apr 2006

If the light is OFF when the toilet is ready to use… how do you see where it is?

Moi wrote:

How usable is a toilet when you have the feeling that everyone is staring at you?

Gucci Outlets wrote:

many thanks for discussing the information..

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?