The Lyncinerator on… Bathroom taps

This blog was written by Lynne Ceeney, Technical Director at BSRIA

Don’t get me started.  We’ve all been here.  You’re out and about, maybe having a meal, going shopping or visiting offices, and you have to use an unfamiliar bathroom.   You approach the basin to undertake that most basic of human hygiene tasks, washing your hands.  And looking around, you realise you have absolutely no idea how to turn on the tap…  and in many cases, you have absolutely no idea where the tap is.  If you are lucky, there is an obvious spout from which the water should come out.  However in many cases, the detective work starts here – the spout might not actually be in a tap, it might be be under the shelf, or embedded in the granite.  Second detective task:  getting the water to flow.  Sometimes it is a button.  Sometimes a toggle. Sometimes something to turn.  Sometimes a sensor – which sometimes works.  Let’s assume you have managed to actually get some water to use, and you can start on your third detective task – getting the temperature you want.  Often helpful “danger” notices warn you that the hot water is hot (really Sherlock??  – well, I guess putting up a notice is easier than sorting out the supply issue). Clearly many, tap designers are a fan of puzzles, and assume you are too.  No clues to indicate how to adjust temperature, no blue or red symbol to help you out.  You have to eliminate the suspects until you find a way that works.  And after the application of a lot of thought and puzzling, hopefully you get to wash your hands.

Presumably someone thought these taps look great – but ‘clean lines’ are triumphing over clean hands. Whilst this functional obfuscation is frustrating for the average user, it is nigh on impossible for people with learning disabilities, confusion or dementia, something that we can expect to see more of in an aging population. It leads me to wonder what the tap designers and those who chose the bathroom fittings were thinking about.  Probably not the user.

Why should you have to solve a series of problems in order to undertake such a basic operation as washing your hands?

Surely the purpose of designing a functional object is to get it to work, and that requires a combination of form, technology and human behaviour.  The human / technology interface is a critical element of design.  It is irritation with taps that has prompted my thinking, but it led me to wider thinking about the design of buildings and their systems, and a series of questions which maybe we should use as a checklist.

Human error is cited as one of the problems leading to poor building performance, but isn’t it really about design error?  Are we more concerned with what it looks like rather than how it will work?  Are we introducing complexity because we can, rather than because we should?  Why don’t different systems work with each other? Are we thinking about the different potential users?  Do we understand the behaviour and expectations of the people who will use the building or are we expecting them to mould to the needs of the building? Is design that confuses sections of the population acceptable?   Are we seeking to enable intuitive use or are we setting brain teasers? Do we care enough?

We should wash our hands of poor design.  But once we have washed them we have to dry them.  And you should see this hand dryer.  Don’t get me started…

Lynne Ceeney will be contributing a bi-monthly blog on key themes BSRIA is involved in over the next year. If there’s something that ‘gets you started’ let us know and we may be able to draw focus to it in another blog. 

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