One Misplaced Restroom Sign

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I was visiting Pompeii, Italy about a year ago and found myself grabbing a quick lunch in its visitor cafeteria.

I wanted to find the restroom so I looked around until I spotted a sign with the word “toilette” hanging from the ceiling with an arrow pointing to the left. The arrow was pointing towards a closed door so I tried the door knob and opened the door into what appeared to be a small administrative area with some video feeds and files everywhere. The person at the desk looked up at me.

Embarrassed, I muttered “mi scusi” and quickly shut the door. Looking around, I realized there was a small hallway right next to the administrative door that led me to the restrooms.

Afterwards, as I was eating my lunch, I sat facing the restroom sign and watched as people tried to find where the restrooms were.  A good number of people managed to locate the side hallway without any problem.

However, one particular young boy went up to the same door I mistook for the restroom. He tried the doorknob which was now locked and waited patiently outside the door for a few minutes, hoping that whoever was inside would be finished and come out. When no one came out, he went back to his seat and came back with his father in tow. His father also tried the door and then, like me, discovered the side hallway.

This series of events led me to ponder the placement of the restroom sign and how many people were misled versus how many people found the restroom just fine. More importantly, I wanted to ask the question: when does it make sense to seek a solution to a usability issue and is there ever a situation when you shouldn’t?

Almost immediately, business decisions come into effect. How much will it cost or how long will it take to fix a usability issue?  The answer to that must often be weighed against the stakes that are in play if the issue isn’t fixed.

Consider again the restroom sign. Even if 50% of people are confused at the sign, the loss of time is probably only a few minutes for each person. It might possibly result in overall dissatisfaction with the visitation experience if accidents were to occur because of a misplaced trust in a sign. Or perhaps the workers in the administrative room would be often bothered by confused patrons.  All in all, the stakes are relatively low and the cost of changing the sign is fairly low as well. They might need to get a ladder and various tools to remove the sign and adjust it accordingly.

Next, consider the interface for a fighter jet. In this case, the stakes of bad design is much, much higher. It could cost someone’s life as mission-critical tasks are often decided within a split second. There is no room for error here and management would be wise to spend the money and time to fix the design because of the high stakes in play.

As practitioners of UX design involved in various industries, we often have to consider how much it would cost (in both time and money) to fix or implement a feature and weigh that against the consequences of not doing so.

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