While visiting my family in Toronto for the first time, I encountered a usability problem and attempted to quickly provide a temporary solution.

We parked our car inside a shopping centre, and immediately, my dad, my brother, and I desperately needed to find the nearest restroom. We saw the washroom signages just below the ceilings and followed them to the washroom. The door had a metal plate and no handles, so naturally, we pushed and the door swung open. We noticed another man was following us.

We went inside and everything inside had yellow tapes and plastic covering all over — the washrooms were under constructions!

We immediately came back out, only to be greeted by a security guard with a yellow jacket. He was roughly 6’2, had a full beard, and was not a happy camper at that point. He asked us, “Why did you guys go in there?!” I wanted to say something, but he quickly pointed at the sign on the door and the sign in the hallway and asked, “Did you not see the signs? Why did you still go in when you can clearly see the signs?!” I realized the questions were rhetorical as his irate face turned red.

We said nothing and left the scene to find another functional washroom. My family isn’t very good at handling public confrontations with strangers. I guess I felt that I should’ve said something, but opted not to as I was still trying to absorb all the information and understand just what had gone wrong.

The Problem

  • We entered a room that we weren’t supposed to.
  • We opened a door that we weren’t supposed to.
  • We did not read the sign that was on the door.
  • We did not read the sign propped up on the side in the hallway.

What attributed to the cause?

  • We were in a hurry. We needed to pee, not read signs. Our attention were focused on the route to the washrooms.
  • There are lots of signage inside a shopping mall, most of them are advertisements.
  • The words on the signage were tiny, and the sign had no clear signals to tell us to STOP.
  • The signage that was standing in the hallway was on the side, kind of saying “you might want to read this, but it’s alright if you don’t, you can still keep going”
  • The colours of the signs were not attention grabbing. They look like the washroom signs. Come on. If I were in a hurry and walking very fast, I would have thought that was a sign to reaffirm that this way was indeed the right way to the washroom.

My Solution

As a UX Designer, I could NOT just leave the place like that. The gentleman that followed us also went inside the non-functional washroom like we did. We did not fail to follow the signs — the sign failed to inform us. If, like us, under the right conditions, others may make the same mistake.

How can I solve this problem and prevent more people from making the same mistake we did in less than 10 seconds with minimal effort and resources?

Simple. Set constraints!

Physical limitations constrain possible operations. Physical constraints are made more effective and useful if they are easy to see and interpret, for then the set of actions is restricted before anything has been done. — Don Norman

And there you go. I was confident by placing the signage right in front of the door, people would not enter the washroom without being stopped in their tracks and forced to read the sign.

Now, I did not test this solution by observing other people because I’d be making my family wait for me while I watch and observe. If they don’t already find me odd, this would certainly help.

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