You Shouldn’t Have To Go At Home

I was wondering what to write today, staring at the blank textarea as usual, when I realized I really needed to pee. Stay with me here.

And so, I walked to the restroom and did so. And that’s when I realized what I wanted to write about.

Here Begineth the Rant

… Men… honestly. How can you aim wrong while peeing into a urinal? Are you in that much of a hurry? Do you think you need to stand back 10 feet? I don’t understand …

This is what goes through my mind, more often then I’d like, when I use a public restroom. I become greatly annoyed and I can’t for the life of me figure out how anyone could do it wrong.

Which got me thinking: is this a situation of user error or a flaw in the interaction design?

A Peeing Experience By Design

Let’s think this through… If the Urinal was first patented in 1866 that means there’s been 142 years of opportunity to iterate on the design and the experience. And yet we still see yellowish stains or puddles on the floor in front of most public urinals.

I know, kinda gross but let’s leave our willies at the door on this one. I mean, the heebie-jeebie kind of willies, not… oh never mind. Just accept that all humans pee and it’s a natural thing and there’s something wrong with the way it works in public. I mean public restrooms. In public is another issue altogether.

The urinal is designed such that a man can aim in a limited arc along a horizontal plane. The sides of the urinal wrap some to allow for left or right side aiming to take place, thus limiting the amount of splash-back from the main “face” of the urinal. A protrusion at the bottom helps to catch the stream of “down aimers.”

Ideally, if the man stood within a few inches of the opening of the urinal he should have no trouble urinating without making a mess. At least, that’s the intention of the urinal’s design.

Why No Iteration

A lot can be assumed about the Peeing Experience by experiencing it oneself. One can also easily assess environmental factors. It’s even possible to understand some of the ergonomic hurdles to urinating successfully.

But one of the best ways Interaction Designers figure out what’s wrong with the current state of a design or experience is to observe the practice in its natural setting (contextual inquiry).

But therein lies the problem. Can you imagine the recruitment process?

Hi, I’m a designer currently working on a new interaction paradigm for the excretion of bodily fluid of the wastial variety. I’d like to observe you “doing your business” so to speak from 10:00 to 10:15 this Friday at your workplace.

I’ll watch you urinate and ask you some questions about your experience; about your approach to the urinal, what problems you might have urinating, and what you like most about using a urinal. I’ll also ask you to fill out a short demographic survey (after you wash your hand of course!).

We likely won’t use the entire 15 minutes, but I’ve padded our time just in case you aren’t able to relax enough to make.

Um… no.

More Research Is Needed

This is physical harm problem. I’ve taken a light hand here, but puddles of liquid on a tile floor are often a recipe for disaster and pain. Hence why companies put up “Caution: Wet Floor” signs after one-too-many courtroom appearances.

It’s a public health problem. Many diseases are transmitted via bodily fluids. A good design can help limit the likelihood of transmission, but perhaps it is also about behavior.

It’s a trust issue. You’ve been to restaurants that have messy bathrooms, right? How does that make you feel about the quality of the dining experience? Maybe you don’t think about it consciously at the time, but restroom cleanliness is one of the review factors for health inspections. Dirty restrooms are often an indication of a larger sanitation problem.

Yes, I thought about peeing from a Design perspective and tried to make you think about it too. Hopefully I did that in a non-icky way.

What gross thing/experience have you redesigned recently?


  1. I actually thought about this same problem a couple days ago…how would you conduct ethnographic research if you were designing a new toilet?

    The whole bathroom experience is ripe for redesign. Just from a public health perspective, think about how vulnerable to human “error” the system of a public restroom is. In the US (and pretty much everywhere else where bidets are not common), the way that, ahem, “#2” is carried out (hands which later touch faucet and door handles come perilously close to a not-so-clean region of the human body) seems like an accident waiting to happen. I wonder what the public health benefits would be to improving the public restroom experience…

  2. Matthew Oliphant says:

    Completely agree. And sitting on a toilet is so much more a hazard even though I didn’t go into that here.

    Probably the first place to start a redesign of the experience would be Women’s restrooms. Solely in that they don’t have urinals and are required to sit.

    Like I said in the post, while I was a bit silly in tone I do think it is an area worth attention from a design perspective.

  3. Lea says:

    Hm, interesting. :P

    But Matt, you’re just speaking about the North American experience. I believe places in Europe and Asia prefer a different type of design for their toilets which I know horrifies many a tourist. Usability-wise, are they any better or worse?

    While yeah, this is a bit silly, you do make a great point. It’s like how we’ve had prescription bottles the same way for decades, until Target decided to revise it for safety reasons. Makes me wonder what other designed things we take for granted haven’t been re-looked at merely because we are so used to it.

  4. Matthew Oliphant says:

    You are correct, as usual, Lea.

    I am just speaking of the stand-up style. I suspect there are issues for all styles. Which one is best? I dunno.

    I ducked into a bar in Spain (Sevilla) and asked for the restroom. I was pointed down a dark hall and found the room; a small closet with a hole in the floor. Doesn’t get more basic than that. And while it smelled bad, the floor around the hole was pretty clean all things considered.

    Maybe that’s the best design? :)

  5. Samantha says:

    What you don’t know is that this is also a problem in ladies’ toilets. Don’t be shocked. While women are supposed to sit on the seat, often they hover over, afraid of whatever germs could possibly live on a cool, nonporous surface. Unfortunately, they’re not kind enough to wipe when done. YUCK.

    There’s a reason that seat covers exist, yet they’re often unused.

    Perhaps the problem goes beyond aim. Perhaps it’s a fear of getting close to the toilet – whether men or women, which makes the problem more likely to occur.

    For women reading this – please just use the stupid cover and leave the problem to the men.

  6. Kimm says:

    I sometimes wonder what their home bathrooms are like?

  7. Derek says:

    Putting the idea of "design" aside, I think the first thing is to just understand that some people are inherently predisposed to be completely disrespectful, lazy, and sloppy anywhere outside of their own homes – or in general. Period.

    At work we have a shared restroom with a few other tenants in the building. No matter how hard maintenance tries, the bathroom is always a mess. Use the restroom in the morning and everything is as it should be. As the day progresses and more people relieve themselves, the level of disgust increases. First it starts out as a 1 ft. radius around the urinal, then it grows to 2ft… Eventually, unless you are completely comfortable standing in someone else’s urine, you’re forced to stand 4 ft. back. Personally, I put up and do as everyone else should… hit the urinal and leave the shoes at the door (at home).

    Bottom line… the mess usually starts with one individual. One lazy, sloppy bastard who doesn’t care about the design or experience.

    Various urinal designs have been tried –

    The mess will still happen.

  8. Lewis says:

    Solving this problem for men is easy. Turn it in to a challenge! No matter how drunk I am, if you stick a target and a little digital scoring screen I’ll make sure I hit that target. After all, it’s male pride at stake. Perhaps print off stickers for how well you did, or let you enter your high score in to a little table. You could even play a bit of music if you beat the last person to use the urinals. Or if you’re feeling particularly harsh/weird, take pictures of the worst “aimers” and publicly name and shame them.

  9. Anton says:

    I might be a bit late in coming to this topic, but I was reminded of something recently that strongly applies to your article.

    Apparently, the Amsterdam airport has a small fly etched into the bottom of the urinal bowl. This in turn encourages men to be more accurate about their aim, and spillage has been reduced to a claimed 80%!

    Here’s a link for reference.

  10. SOS Planeta: Xixi no Banho…

    Xixi no Banho – Eu não sei exatamente como começou isto, mas ganhou fama quando artistas da TV divulgaram sua nova forma de consumir menos água.

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