Remember the first time you encountered one of those automatic hand dryers in a public restroom? The first time I saw one, I was for a second disoriented, because of course I was expecting to see an oversized button.
To help out, the contraption sported a small label that featured the word “automatic” prominently, plus an icon of a hand under red wavy lines, the international symbol of heat.
We as a society adjusted. And soon we saw all sorts of automatic devices in restrooms: toilets, faucets, soap dispensers (I think I found those at Memorial Coliseum) and even paper towel dispensers.
But there seems to be a design flaw in these devices, especially in the faucets. Look at the sign personnel had to install over the auto faucets at the Cincinnati airport. It reads:
Approach sink to turn on
Faucet will shut off automatically
Dark clothing may not activate sensor
Set aside the dark clothing comment, which may only be a means to prevent you from washing your jeans in the sink.
You don’t need a sign for a regular faucet. At most, you must identify the hot and cold water handles. You don’t even need a sign for those rest area faucets which are spring-loaded and turn off automatically a few seconds before you can completely rinse off the soap.
But these automatic faucets required a retrofitted four-line explanation. That means something about the faucet is just not intuitive. And I bet the sales pitch for these automatic faucets included not only the benefit of reduced water use, but also ease of use for airport patrons.
So, what’s wrong with the picture?
According to author and product design consultant Don Norman, an important design virtue is obviousness: Can someone figure out how to use a product just by looking at it?
Evidently, it’s too difficult for a lot of people to simply see how the new-fangled faucet works. The seeing-eye function is not obvious.
How could the faucet designer make the function of the faucet more obvious? Good question, and one I don’t have the answer for.
If anyone knows of some product with a seeing-eye kind of function that is visually evident to the user, please leave a comment.
Just wash your hands first.