Not Evangelism

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

User Experience and the Hair in the Bathroom

Websites are like bathrooms. Seriously, stick with me on this one.

Edit: By happy coincidence, Bathroom Blogfest 2010 coincides with this article.

Design for your users

A friend was having some building work done in his house and was describing how the builders had planned the bathroom just so; they'd laid it out quite cleverly. In particular, the basin was tucked away neatly just behind the door.  But although the design made good use of the space in the room, if the door was opened particularly hard or carelessly, then it would bang into the sink.  My friend wasn't happy with this, as the bathroom was intended for use by his young sons, who would doubtless charge exuberantly into the room, continually slamming the door into the basin.

Although the designers had produced a good solution, it didn't suit the user group it was intended for.

Don't let clutter hide great design

Let's say you want to wash your hands before dinner, but the bathroom you've just walked into is filthy. So much so that the only thing you can see is the dirt: the fingerprints on the mirror, the mess on the countertops, the ring in the bathtub. It's distracting enough that you leave the bathroom without washing your hands, without noticing anything else about the room.  It doesn't matter how elegant the basin or the taps, how well laid out the room (nor how poorly designed); the clutter stops you doing what you went there to do.

It's possible to address all of these things, of course; they're obvious and they're simple, trivial to fix. And once they're done, it's possible to see the things beyond the filth, the good and the bad: the shape of the shower, or the handle on the bathroom that knocks against the cupboard.  The fact that the basin is so close to the bath that you knock your elbows and knees on it when you turn 'round. The taps that aren't clearly labelled so you're not sure which is hot and which is cold.

And those can be fixed too, and the design made slick and clever and appropriate. But even after all the time and effort, there will still be times when people walk into the bathroom and the first - the only - thing they see is the hair on the soap.

There's a hair on the soap

On the one hand, the hair on the soap is the sign of a great job; all other problems addressed, all the other issues resolved. Until the mirror is clean, few people are going to notice the hair on the soap.

But when everything else is just right, the hair on the soap - that trivial, obvious, tiny thing - is going to stand out, jump out, get noticed.  It's the smallest thing and it's going to be talked about. A lot.

As simple and small are seemingly trivial as it appears, the hair on the soap is also important. The hair is not the most important part of the experience, unless everything else is right. But it's part of the many layers that contribute to the great user experience.  No matter how fabulous the bathroom, the hair on the soap needs fixing.

How's your bathroom?

What are the design elements of your website that, although clever, just don't work for your user community? What's the clutter that's preventing your users from doing what they came to your site to do? What are the hairs in the bathroom of your website?

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