Let's look at the typical public bathroom from a customer experience standpoint. Our focus is place and process, two dimensions that are inseparable here, because the design of the bathroom largely determines the process. There are a number of design issues in the bathroom, as we'll see in a moment.
Location: where IS the bathroom?
Can you find it? Why do we always have to ask where the heck the bathroom is? Is it possible developers don't ever have to go? Or did they all go before they left home, just like mom said to do? Or maybe they never had a kid in their hand that was saying, "Daddy, I have to go now!"
Store employees report that they are frequently asked where the bathroom is, because mall signage is ambiguous. Nancy Lueck of Bloomingdale's in Stanford Shopping Center, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, says, "If you are standing in the store as an employee, the first question you always get asked is where are the rest rooms."
One of my favorite worst examples of poor location and signage is the ladiesroom in Scotia Plaza's food court.
Scotia Plaza is a triple A office tower with an underground shopping complex in the high rent financial district. They may have the most expensive square footage in the city. As you can see from the food court picture, it has luxe finishes everywhere, and there's even a concierge for tenants.
But if you can find the signage for the bathrooms, you will then have to walk through two fire doors, and wind your way through the bowels of the building to find the public washrooms.You leave the public space and enter the industrial corridor. Perhaps this was intentional, but I avoid their food court for this reason.
In general, the bathroom is removed from the official public space. In another food court across the street at Commerce Court, you also go into the service corridor to use the bathroom. Most malls are set up this way as well. Makes no sense to me at all.
Let's go inside
Here's a typical layout for a public ladies room. Three stalls, parallel to three sinks, each with a mirror. One of the stalls is wider for handicapped access.
Soap dispensers are sometimes provided for each sink, but sometimes, inexplicably, there is one for a whole group of sinks, and you need to walk to it.
As Heather S. recently pointed out to me, most soap dispensers cannot be used by someone without two hands free. You need one hand to press the dispenser, and the other to catch the soap if you don't want to scrape it out of the sink:
"I’ve seen handicapped people struggle with them and helped them out. And, yes, it’s been me with a briefcase and a purse and a coat…but, at least I have the option to put on my coat, or put down my purse/briefcase."
Of course, there is no official place to put down your coat or briefcase once you are outside the stall. You have to hold them, or put them down between two sinks, or on a floor that is likely wet. But there's not enough space between the sinks, and it's usually wet there too. It's wet because the towel dispenser is a long ways off, and so is the dryer.
The design in use
Here's my concept of what this design looks like in use. There aren't enough stalls to keep up with normal traffic flow, such as over lunch at the food court. So the line-up goes out into the hall.
At the theatre, there's a race to the ladies room in order to get in and out before curtain call, and people are literally pushing to get in ahead of the crowd. Really takes the edge off that expensive ticket, doesn't it?
Once the line-up starts, of course, the frustration of the space only gets worse. You can't get to either the towel holder or the hand-dryer without bumping into people.
Where does the stroller go?
Even though there are lots of moms at the mall with strollers, there is no accommodation for a stroller.
At newer airports, a curved entrance with no door is often used now, to make it easy for people to come and go with their hands full, wheeling, pushing and hauling all their stuff. I guess we're not supposed to have bags of stuff in the mall. But wait... we're shopping, right?
It might also be nice to have a place to hang all those bags while you wash your hands. So here's the thing -- whether a woman is in the mall or in a downtown food-court, she has stuff in her hands. A purse for sure, perhaps a briefcase, maybe a coat, maybe an umbrella, maybe a shopping bag, and maybe a child's hand.
Don't try to change behavior - plan for it
Women want to refresh their makeup at the mirror. We are not going to stop doing that anytime soon. And young women need a LOT of time for this activity, checking and re-checking hair, makeup, breath, and precise location of the yoga pants on the hip.
If the only mirrors are in front of the sink, there will be a crush while some try to wash their hands, and the rest primp. A more reasonable plan would be to put the mirrors off to the side, as a some better ladiesrooms do.
Part of the rationale for only one paper-towel dispenser located far from the sinks is likely the reduced maintenance. But I know of a couple of public washrooms that have an attendant wiping up almost full-time because of all the water dripping from everyone's hands. How does this make sense?
At a ladies locker room I recall a redesign that put jars of pot-pourri on the counters. Looked nice for the first week after the redesign. After that, they gathered dust. A year later, they were starting to look pretty disgusting. There was no maintenance plan.
Major overhaul needed
Kathryn Anthony, professor of architecture at University of Illinois thinks it's time for a change:
“Although we are all forced to use them whenever we’re away from home, many of today’s public restrooms raise a host of problems for women as well as men, adults as well as children.... It is now time for architects, facilities managers and building code officials to revisit public restrooms – and they need a major overhaul.
“Like it or not, most of us use public restrooms every day. Consequently, even the slightest improvements to this part of our built environment can have a tremendous positive impact on all segments of our population.”
References and Resources
A summary of Kathryn Anthony's article is here. In it, she highlights the challenge of changing demographics and the problem of opposite-sex caregivers who can't accompany an opposite sex person into a public bathroom. This means standing outside worrying about whether grandfather is okay or has he fallen?
The American Restroom Association is a not-for-profit organization that is lobbying for changes to public restrooms to improve accessibility and increase privacy.
The World Toilet Expo 2006 will be held in Bangkok Nov 16-18. These folks are concerned with sanitation on a global scale.
The World Toilet Organization has a number of articles on their site of interest, such as this one, that identifies lack of bathroom privacy as a major issue for people. Ikea apparently surveyed home workers, and discovered this was one of the reasons people like working at home. I also learned that some Japanese bathrooms have noisemakers you can push to provide covering sounds and increase privacy. There is also a game, called Urgent, that lets you design a 3D public washroom. It's a bit slow to load, but looked like it could be interesting.
Stephanie Weaver has a great post on design issues in the bathroom, with a picture of a sink designed at kid height. This is so obvious, isn't it? Why aren't there more of these?