Eric Karjaluoto

Invisible Design

If my bladder had a gauge, the needle would be at its highest point. There’s little time to waste. So, I locate a restroom, make my way inside, pee, wash and dry my hands, and am back outside—in less than two minutes.

At no point during this experience do I think about design. I just do as I must, free of any sort of friction, discomfort, or frustration.

Such an experience rarely ever occurs by happenstance. Instead, someone identified user needs. She explored material requirements/shortcomings. Additionally, she devised a plan and anticipated potential failings. She did so, to produce an experience in which the design seemed invisible.

Let’s back up a step, and consider this experience in more detail:

Of the many distractions surrounding me, the large restroom symbol is easy to spot. As such, I don’t need to ask for instructions, or consult my smartphone. Upon finding the entrance, clear symbols identify which side is for men, and which is for women. This means I don’t think for even a moment. I just direct myself to the opening on my left.

I enter, without needing to push open a door, as it’s propped open. A brief corridor (approximately 6 feet long) shields users from the gaze of those outside. Urinals are at the front—I gather to shape traffic flow. A small sheet of coated board separates each urinal, and provides a hint of privacy from the individual to one’s side.

After a sigh of relief, I leave the urinal, without flushing. There’s no handle or other means of controlling the urinal. Invisible design replaces such manual requirements. As I move out of the device’s range, an infrared beam triggers a flush.

This restroom’s designer baked needs fulfillment into the entire space. I place my hands under a dispenser, and it releases the appropriate quantity of soap—no waste. I move my hands beneath the faucet and water starts flowing. The water is set to a safe temperature—eliminating the risk that I’ll scald myself. As I pull my hands away, the flow stops. This conserves water (with no special effort required, on my behalf).

A blower dries my hands. It is also free of any sort of controls. Although the absence of buttons might have once been confusing to users, few even notice, any longer. Besides, in the absence of controls, most just poke and prod until something happens.

I’m a little obsessive about order and cleanliness—perhaps more than most. So, after witnessing many leave the loo, not having washed their hands, I’m reluctant to touch taps or door handles. Similarly, my fear of sharps in trash bins leaves me unwilling to push a paper towel into one that’s overflowing. However, this brief trip through the restroom involves no such touching.

Take my obsessiveness out of this scenario, and you still see how efficient my experience was. I knew where to go, what to do, and how to use the equipment. I completed this set of actions quickly—and without slowing others from doing the same. Meanwhile, there was nominal waste of soap, water, or paper towels.

I don’t design bathrooms. Nevertheless, I can imagine the many requirements for designing such spaces. For example, there are structural guidelines, budgetary concerns, and energy needs. Additionally, accessibility requirements, building/material longevity, and waste water management, are likely considered. Then, there are issues like sustainability, cleaning needs, upkeep costs, and user safety.

This is the important part of my post: because someone did their job well, I don’t need to think about, or know much about, bathrooms. I just use them and go on with my day. Just imagine if your website worked like that!

Postscript: For those who’re confusing invisible design with flat design, please read, These Aren’t the Skeuomorphs You’re Looking For.

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