Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bathroom product design. Seriously. Stick with me.

You see, I have a water resistant radio that hangs just outside my shower, enabling me to set a timer for a given amount of tune-age. I’ve almost always beat the timer by a minute or two, turned the radio off (to conserve batteries), and flipped on my AC-powered clock radio.

However, we recently installed a different shower head, which is much bigger and way more stylish. Unfortunately, the additional surface area of the shower head seems to be inversely proportional to its water flow; while I’m all for conserving water, the end result is that I’m now taking longer showers in an effort to feel clean. While this defeats the purpose of the low-flow shower head, I’ve also noticed something else--since I’m taking showers that are 2 or 3 minutes longer than my previously typical 6 to 8 minute showers, I’m not getting out of the shower before the timer on the radio goes off. Yes, I could (and probably will) start setting the timer for 10 or 11 minutes, to ensure that I’m out of the shower before I run out of time.

But, here’s the product design issue, which never really affected me before: when the music stops, the world’s most annoying alarm beeps for 60 seconds. This alarm would be fantastic if I needed it to rouse me from deep slumber. The challenge is, I don’t really need an alarm to tell me I’ve hit the end of my alloted time--the *&#(@^! music went off. That’s enough!

So, that’s poor product design issue #1. Testing this isn’t rocket science. I can’t believe that the manufacturer (Emerson) didn’t have *somebody* take prototypes of this unit home to test in their own bathrooms. If they had, they could’ve saved a few cents (and improved margins) by not including whatever little gizmo makes that horribly annoying alarm noise.

Product design issue #2 is on a much larger scale, and should’ve been much easier to test.

As I stepped into the lavatory on my flight this afternoon, I thought kindly of the previous user, who had the consideration to put the lid down. Unfortunately, consideration didn’t enter into the equation--no matter how diligently I tried, the lid/seat combination wouldn’t stay up. Male readers know how silly the next few moments were, trying to keep the lid/seat up with one hand. Female readers are likely snickering about this being karmic retribution for the legions of men who “forget” to put the lid down in the middle of the night.

The goal here isn’t toilet humor. The question is, who designs these things and puts them into service without testing first? I’m not sure what the book value is on a late-model 737, nor am I sure how many people worked their way through a mock-up of what the fore lav would look like prior to production. I have to believe that the answers are “many tens of millions” and “a bunch”. With all the time and expense that goes into the design of a modern airplane, it’s incomprehensible that Boeing couldn’t figure out how to move the pivot point on the lid/seat combination forward a few inches (or shave a few inches off the top of the lid/seat) to ensure that half their passengers don’t end up bumbling around like Mr. Bean whenever nature calls. This is certainly not the first airplane on which I’ve encountered this issue, and I know it won’t be the last, particularly with modern commercial airplanes having a lifespan of way more than 30 years.

So, there’s today’s lesson. Whether you’re designing a $10 product to be sold at Walgreen’s, or a $100 million-plus product to be used by hundreds of thousands of people over its lifetime, do us all a favor.

Do a little testing up front (with men AND women), and save yourself and your customers annoyance in the long run.


  1. Huzzah! Dual-sex (Bi-Sexual?) testing is a must. If this had been done in the past, color TV would look better, and they wouldn't have had to redesign the "rocket" elevators int he empire state building.

    I think the problem isn't lazyness, it's the hubris of product managers and engineers who are *sure* that they know the right answer, and thus never think that wider user testing might provide some value.

  2. Lets see... an electro-magnet in the wall behind the seat (shielded, so we don't mess up guidance systems) would tie to the switch that already turns on the lights when you close the door. You go in, close the door...lights go on, magnet is energized, and the toilet lid will stay up because you added a metal disc on the top of the seat. When you leave, you open the door...the light goes off, the magnet de-energizes, and the seat falls down. Simple! ;-)

    Donald Norman (Apple Fellow, and was (is still?) in cahrge of Apple's Advanced Technology Group has written a few good books on Industrial Design. My favorite of the set is The Parasychology of Everyday Things, a great series of explanations of the things we learn by doing, and why so many things seem 'counter-intuitive' to us.


  3. I suspect the engineers just used zip ties to hold the seat up during the QA testing...