Privacy issues (toilet content)

A while ago I started travelling from Bristol up the west coast of Britain to Manchester and Liverpool. There's a (now) decent rail service operated by Virgin Trains.

The trains are a good place to work. They've got plug sockets next to each seat to allow you to plug in a laptop and get a load of work done. I even once saw a girl use it to plug in her hair straighteners on the way to a job interview.

The major problem comes when you need to use the toilet. And more importantly when you want to close and lock the door.

The door is a large and electrically sliding. It's easy to open from the outside (the push of a button) and is easily wide enough for wheelchair access.

However inside it's a different story altogether.

Have a look at this photo:

How to lock the door?

Most public toilets including those on aeroplanes and trains have a simple bolt that locks the door. You go in , pull it across, and the door is locked.

Here there four elements, one illuminated message and three buttons. A user has to work out how to look the door. It's neither obvious or easy, you have to press one button to close it and another to lock it. And how do you know the door is locked, well a light tells you it is, but there's no way of physically seeing the door is locked. At the same time your being told the door is locked the open button is glowing... what does that mean? Is the door locked or open?

There have clearly been problems with this. Firstly they've put up stickers that tell you which button is which. Then they've put a sticker at the top reminding you to lock the door - and it indicates the label of the button at the bottom. I'm not sure people need a reminder, I'm sure they just want to lock the door. Lastly, they've stuck a bunch of words down the left hand side telling you how to use the door and lock it.

All in all there are a total of 39 words telling you how to work the door.

I've been using this as an example of bad design for a while. It's a clumsy solution that, using a user centred design process, could have been solved at prototype stage.

But then I gathered two more bits of evidence to add to this story:

Firstly, I was doing some user testing for Lexus with Amaze in London. Andy, from Amaze told me that on the way down from Manchester when he went to the loo and pressed the open button there was a lady on the loo with her knickers round her ankles. Maybe she'd forgotten to lock the door...
Secondly, Virgin know there's a problem, but don't understand what it is, and think the user is at fault. Here's an exert from this article on the BBC News site.

"There's a button to close the door and another with a key symbol on it which locks the door and flashes when the door closes," said David Ewart, communications manager with Virgin.

"It's pretty clear what you have to do. We've even got signs in Braille," he added.

He's basically saying his passengers must be stupid if they can't work the doors. Though I appreciate they're needed, signs in Braille have never helped me! And if the lock button flashes, does that mean it's locked?

The rail watchdog responded saying there might be a need for "clearer instructions for customers." I think there are enough words already.

So what would I do? Well if I could I'd redesign from scratch, making sure that all new trains built have a simplified interface that had been tested with users. I'd make sure that the users understand what they have to do, and that when they were using the toilet they were confident the door was locked.

To fix the trains in existence, I'd blank out the lock button and create a combined close and lock button. After all it unlocks automatically when you press open.

Richard formed cxpartners with Giles Colborne in 2004. The aim was, and still is, to focus on creating the best user experiences that give measurable differences to our clients’ projects.