Designing with users – are you flushed with success or going down the pan?

Organisation Design

by Sarah Beart

16 November, 2022

It started with Bella.

Bella cleans the toilets and public areas in a hotel that is undergoing prolonged refurbishment and where I was fortunate to stay recently. The main men’s toilets were closed, which made for a queue of affronted gents outside the combined baby change/disabled toilet, having to give way to assorted infants and a wheelchair user. After experiencing the peculiar joy of finding no queue at all for an absolutely spotless ladies’ facility, and the schadenfreude (yes, I am a bit ashamed of myself) of seeing the male queue, I washed my hands and encountered Bella, who was in for her hourly clean.

I apologised to her that the newly polished, shiny marble floor would get wet, because the paper towel dispenser was some distance from the basins. It’s strange, I said, that this brand new facility has been designed like this – making it so much harder to use, and of course to keep clean and safe.  This prompted Bella to give me a proper tour.

I learned that the Ladies has been refurbished to the precise and exacting standards of the hotel chain. There are 8 washbasins in two rows, and five cubicles. But as all women know, it takes longer to use a cubicle than it does to wash your hands, so there’s never a queue for the basin and you always want more cubicles than basins.

There is a tiny bin for paper towels which Bella says is full after about 10 users. It’s by the exit and a requires crossing the floor with dripping hands from four of the basins. The two hand dryers are next to each other on one wall farthest from the exit, right next to a cubicle (I hadn’t even spotted them).  Electrically convenient no doubt,  but not for the washer of hands. So the floor gets wet and the bin overflows.

Brace yourselves for the actual toilets. The cubicles are narrow. The sanitary bins are installed on plinths and overhang the toilets. So you can’t avoid touching them when sitting down, and the lids are at nose level. Stating the obvious, this is unpopular. There are no hooks on the backs of the doors so any handbag has to rest on the floor – probably fine if you’ve got Bella on hand keeping things clean, but not something women like.

The hotel standards require that the toilet lid should be down for each arriving customer. So you can’t access the flush button without closing the lid, which is meant to make guests close the lid and press the flush. But, explained Bella, getting extremely animated,  guests don’t like this. Arriving guests assume that they are going to find something unpleasant in a closed toilet. When they have used the facilities, they don’t want to touch the lid to close it, or they simply can’t understand where the flush is, so they don’t press it. It’s the worst of all worlds for users – they either have to deal with the expectation of finding something unpleasant because the lid is down, or they DO find it if the lid is up when people haven’t flushed.

Bella’s boss insists that this design is the gold standard. It’s the best. For who or what he (sic) hasn’t said. To be fair to him, I have read that it’s much more hygienic to close the lid because of the germ-laden aerosols that flushing generates. But he hasn’t said this to Bella, and he doesn’t want to hear what Bella knows about how people actually use the facilities, rather than how they should.

Bella is middle aged, doesn’t speak great English and doesn’t earn much money – could that be why?

At that point another user and her daughter arrived and endorsed all of Bella’s criticisms. She then gave me a peek into the almost ready men’s area.

That’s for another time, but I was left thinking about the everyday nature of the situation. How does it happen that a group of architects/builders/electricians, tilers and plumbers have designed and built an expensive installation that is unpopular with end-users (no pun intended) and maintenance staff alike? How did the hotel chain standards get written? Did anyone involved EVER ask a user?

I suspect it’s an ordinary story. People are busy. Decisions need making. Consulting users takes time, and can be irritating. People have different views about how things should work, and someone will be left having to deal with the contradictions and trade-offs. It’s probably easier to write the standard yourself, draw up the spec and tell the team to get on with it.  It’s a temptation all too familiar when we’re designing organisations – and yet we believe that designing ways to involve and learn from “users” (staff and leaders) gets you to a better outcome.


How do you ask users, in your organisation?

Designing with users – are you flushed with success or going down the pan?

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