A call to arms: Reboot the public bathroom

Day 58, by pasukaru76
Ladies and gentlemen, I am not a loquacious orator. I’ve never written an impassioned speech. I’m just a part-time tech blogger. But today I must do my best to motivate — nay, to inspire — you, the tech-savvy population of the Internet, to bring all of your design and engineering and user experience skills to bear on the problem of the modern era. Set aside your silly USB gadgets, and forget the Linux-vs-Windows debate. We need to concentrate on an issue that affects us all. Yes, I’m talking about the public restroom.

The Situation
I wrote in the summer of 1999 about my dislike for public toilets. It’s been a decade since I wrote that. In that time, my Palm III has been replaced by a Treo 650, then a Treo 700, then a Palm Centro, and finally an iPhone. In that time, hybrid cars have become commonplace on the streets of America. Wikipedia launched and collected more than 14 million articles. People of all technical ability now regularly pay their bills online. You can do video conferencing for free from your desktop computer! Advances have been made in every conceivable industry, and yet the public toilet is largely unchanged from what it was before the turn of the millennium. This cannot stand.

Please bear in mind that I don’t spend much time in women’s restrooms, so my rage may be myopic. Ladies, if your toilet experience is superior to men’s, I beg your patience. I suspect, however, that everyone could benefit from a few simple modifications to the status quo of public toilets.

As I observed in my 1999 complaint, public toilets are one of the most dehumanizing experiences of modern life, and yet we continue to make and use public toilets in the same way. Little privacy, poor sanitation, and a complete stripping away of personal dignity. In no other aspect of our lives do we put up with such a deprivation of basic civility.

The building in which I spend most of my working day is only four years old, but already the bathrooms are filthy, and they only get worse as time progresses. I was depressed to see, during my trip to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, that the gorgeous new multi-million dollar buildings were equipped with entirely ordinary public toilets. The school wasn’t even fully opened yet and already the restrooms were unpleasant to look at, let alone use.

I have identified a few common problems with public toilets, and I beg your indulgence as I list what are probably your own top complaints.

There are two kinds of sink faucets in use in public restrooms: manual and automatic. The manual faucets are no fun to use, because the handles get covered in soapy water from the previous user, who may or may not have been thorough in washing their hands. Even if there are no germs, it’s just not comfortable to grip a soapy faucet handle.

Automatic faucets are a great idea, but almost always fail in execution. The sensors are usually not sensitive enough, so users end up waving their hands around for some time under the faucet waiting for water to start flowing. Sometimes the neck of the faucet is too close to the basin, causing the user to touch the grimy basin itself. Or the neck is too high, causing water to splash unnecessarily out of the basin and onto the user’s pants.

Surely there’s some elegant solution to the problem of hand washing in a public bathroom? There has to be some cost effective way to make an automatic faucet that allows one to clean their hands without making more of a mess.

The dispensation of soap in public bathrooms is another area just waiting for a great solution. Current dispensing technology, like faucets, is either manual or automatic. Manual dispensers suffer from many of the problems of manual faucets: they get covered in sticky, soapy water that no one wants to touch, and therefore fewer people wash their hands. Clearly this is not an acceptable solution. Automatic soap dispensers aren’t much better, though. They either don’t work, dispense too little product, or dispense too much product.

Another problem with soap dispensers is their placement within the bathroom. Sometimes they’re over the sink, sometimes they’re off to the side. I can’t begin to count the number of automatic soap dispensers placed to the side of a sink that simply dispense their product all over the counter top, creating a huge goopy mess. As a clear cost-savings mechanism, there’s usually one soap dispenser placed between two sinks, causing users to wait their turn when the bathroom is busy.

Hand Drying
Just like soap dispensers, the mechanism for drying one’s hand is almost always poorly situated. Most often there’s a paper towel dispenser on a wall next to or opposite the sink. This causes the user to turn from the sink, dripping water all over the floor, and then make the dispensing lever all wet and yucky as they press it to get some towels. Assuming, of course, that the dispenser actually has product in it! Automatic hand dryers that blow air are no better in this situation, as the water is simply blown off the user’s hands and onto the floor.

While I was in Japan, I marveled at the automatic hand dryers there. Each one had either a small shelf under it to collect waste water, or was a vertical clamshell design in which the user placed their whole hand, making the surrounding area much cleaner and drier. Of course, moving from the sink to the dryer still caused water to drip from one’s hands, so while the Japanese are on the right track, they still have considerable room for improvement.

Personally, I prefer using a paper towel to dry my hands. I’m very conscious of the amount of towel I use, and try to maximize my drying with the minimum amount of towel. It pains me to see other people in the bathroom use huge reams of paper towels to dry their hands. They don’t even try to dry first, and then use more if they need it: they simply pull out fifteen paper towels and wad them up into a giant ball. But human behavior is not the point of this call to arms, so let’s side aside sloth and selfishness for a later discussion.

Automatic paper towel dispensers hardly ever work. They’re too slow to respond when a user waves their hand past the sensor, assuming of course that the sensor can be found. With no clear standard design, and poor instructional markings, users are left to wave their hands over, under, and in front of dispensers until something happens. Obviously this results in water droplets splashing all around.

The worst design I’ve seen — and I’ve seen it entirely too many times — is an automatic paper towel dispenser placed above or immediately adjacent to a sink. This seems at first blush like the right idea: minimize the amount of water that can be splashed around, make it easy for the user to wash and then dry their hands, and minimize the number of surfaces the user needs to touch. Unfortunately, this configuration almost always results in a never-ending stream of paper towels being dispensed directly into the sink, creating an even worse mess.

Of course, the issue of paper waste also needs to be dealt with. Most trashcans in public restrooms are either too small for the volume of paper waste generated, or they’re not emptied often enough (or both!), resulting in lots of crumpled paper towels scattered on the floor around the trashcan.

Urinal flushing technology seems mostly adequate, though urinal design itself could use some work. I suspect this largely my own problem, as a taller-than-average guy. For most men, I suspect the urinals work well enough for them. The flushing mechanism in stalls, though, needs a lot of work. Again, we have manual and automatic flushing. Manual flushing relies on the good behavior of the user, which is an unfortunate mistake.

Automatic flushing, though, suffers from a number of design problems. The intent is well-meaning: a sensor behind the user detects when they move away and the flushing occurs automatically. In my experience, the sensor triggers as soon as I stand up, resulting in an inefficient and wasteful premature flush: I haven’t even wiped yet! When I’m done, I need to manually flush again by pressing a tiny little button embedded on a plate above the toilet. Why is the button behind me? Why do I need to turn around multiple times in the tiny stall? Wouldn’t it be better to have the flush button in front of me?

And for that matter, why doesn’t the automatic flush mechanism trigger when the stall door is opened? This would, in my opinion, minimize a lot of wasteful flushing.

As I complained in my 1999 screed, public toilets provide almost no comfort. They’re almost an afterthought in the building design process. The most architecturally stunning, human-friendly buildings of the common era have drab, semi-functional public toilets. Why is this? Why can’t we spend even a little extra money to provide privacy and comfort?

I admit I have a shy bladder. I have a hard time urinating if I’m standing next to someone else. This is my own cross to bear, and I’m not asking for the world to change to accommodate me. But with just a little effort, we could all enjoy more privacy and comfort while attending to nature. Think about it: if you go camping, do you stand right next to your buddies while you all relieve yourselves? No, you spread out a bit to enjoy some privacy. Why then do we bunch men up in a row to take care of nature within the city limits?

Let’s face it: we use bathrooms because we have to. Why, then, is every public bathroom built exactly the same way, regardless of the kind of traffic that goes through the building? I’m thinking particularly of airports, train stations, and the like: people have luggage with them, but there’s almost no accommodation for this fact in any airport public bathroom. Heaven forbid you’re traveling alone with a bag of any size and need to use the toilet. At the urinal, your bag will stick out into the narrow aisle behind you, causing navigation problems for everyone. Or, your roller case will stand next to you, likely blocking an adjacent urinal. If you’re in the stall, best of luck! There’s barely any room for a human being, let along a human being with a bag.

The Future
In today’s world, we all cringe in disgust when we hear about how human waste was dealt with in centuries past. It is my hope — indeed, my vision — that future generations will cringe in disgust when they hear about the public toilets of the twenty first century. With your help, friends, we can make this vision a reality. I need your help, though. I need you to set aside your USB gadgets and your fanciful past times, and to apply your skills to this very real problem. Engineers, industrial designers, architects, user experience experts, efficiency experts, and every day people all need to pitch in to work together to resolve the problem of the public toilet!