UX Design From The Bottom Up

UX Design From The Bottom Up

A toilet roll
Summary:

Matt happens upon an industrial design anomaly that leaves him puzzled: a confusing label on a toilet roll dispenser.

What lessons can we learn from the design of physical products, and how can we apply them to digital design?

Inspiration often strikes in the strangest of places.

Take the following toilet roll dispenser, for instance.

Just stop and think for a moment about the context in which this product is used. Here is a product that should not require instruction, nor should the user be forced to spend any time deliberating over options.

This is a task that you want to make as intuitive as possible.

A toilet roll dispenser with the label 'Use This Roll First.'
“Use This Roll First”. Umm, why?

And yet, for some reason, the designer of this dual toilet roll dispenser thought it necessary and appropriate to instruct the user about which end they should pull paper from. Both ends dispense paper perfectly well, but if you look closely you’ll notice a small label on the left: USE THIS ROLL FIRST it reads, helpfully.

My natural response to this puzzling instruction when I saw it was: “Or else what?”

I was determined to investigate how this label came to be—after I washed my hands, of course. 30 minutes of intense research (read: heavy Googling) and some debate around the UX Mastery head office, and we came up with this deduction: this product has been optimised for the person replacing toilet rolls, not the person using them.

Originally I’d assumed that this device had been designed to accept two sizes of toilet roll—large and small. I was wrong. You see, when the cleaner does his rounds, he checks whether the large roll on the right has been whittled down to the point where it might fit on the smaller holder. If it does, he’ll move it across and place a new roll on the right. The theory, I imagine, is that by encouraging users to finish one roll over the other, the cleaner will never be faced with a situation where they need to throw away an almost-finished roll in order to provide sufficient paper for the next visitor to the cubicle. A well-intentioned, environmentally conscious attempt to influence behaviour.

Here’s the problem I have with this:

  • Both rolls are available to be used, so the reason behind the instruction is confusing to the user.
  • The larger roll is closer to the user as she sits, confused, on the throne.
  • The roll that users are encouraged to use first is more awkward to use, as it requires the user to tear it away from them.
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Basically, the user is forced to undergo an additional cognitive load so that the cleaner’s job of replacing rolls is made more efficient.

Why am I writing about toilet roll dispensers?

This is an example of a product that has been optimised for the internal system behind it, not for the end user. When faced with competing priorities such as this, a bunch of questions come to mind, such as:

  • What is the context in which the user is using this product?
  • Is the user feeling rushed? Are they time-rich or time-poor? How attentive are they likely to be?
  • Is this the right user for which to optimise this product?
  • Is there an alternative design that would make the end user’s experience less confusing? (e.g. if there was no label, surely people would just take paper from the end that’s closest to them?)
  • Is the cognitive load introduced an acceptable compromise given the benefits in maintenance and paper wastage?
  • What are the ramifications of imposing this layer of confusion on the user? What is the brand risk? (Note: I located more than one instance of people feeling compelled to lob a wet pile of paper onto the roof in defiance).

These are all good questions to ask ourselves when we’re designing digital interfaces. Mobile apps, especially, require much more consideration for context of use.

So whether the product you’re designing is physical or digital, be sure to include these questions as you perform your research. Context is everything.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to duck out and use the roll on the other side. That’s just the kind of rebel that I am.

Matthew Magain
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Matthew Magain
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