The ubiquitous toilet seat

You must be wondering what is a discussion about toilet seats is doing on a design website. If you are, then I’ve accomplished what I wanted to with the title. This isn’t an article about toilets; it is a design discussion, about a problem that I have been witnessing and facing for the last many years since I moved to the western world (Australia isn’t in the West but who cares).

As some of you might know, a large part of the world uses toilets that are quite different from the ones in the western world (known as squat toilets). It is generally agreed that the western versions are better designed in terms of suiting user needs, although there has been some research that suggests that squatting as posture is more conducive to the whole exercise. The western versions are elevated and therefore more comfortable, and have this curious concept of a liftable seat, that is supposedly a way to maintain hygiene. This seat has been something I’ve been observing for many years, and more recently as something that has been failing miserably to do its job.

When I was around 6 years old, I remember reading a note above the western seats in India that read:

“Gentlemen will lift the seats”.

I never quite understood what it meant at that stage, but I do now, and I’ll come back to this in a minute. Fast forward a couple of decades and the western toilets are ubiquitous even in much of the east. However, after having lived in the US, New Zealand, and now Australia, I’ve realized that the the western toilets with the liftable seats aren’t working very well. The primary purpose of the seat is to maintain hygiene, but it hasn’t been working very well. Some people needed to be reminded that they should lift the seat up before urinating in the bowl to keep it clean. That doesn’t happen very often, especially in public toilets (everyone wants their home to be clean). So think of this from a design of : the seat was designed to fulfil a need (hygiene) but due to changing or unanticipated user behaviour, that goal wasn’t being met.

Enter seat covers. The need remained the same — to maintain hygiene, but because users were not behaving in the expected manner (lifting seats diligently before peeing), a new solution was designed, presumably by someone keen to cash into this need. They invented these toilet seat covers, where you grab one of them and lay it on the seat. In theory, this would solve the hygiene problem, but in practicality, it didn’t.

The disposable seat cover

First, they costed money, so many public toilets, which needed them the most, didn’t spend on them. Second, people didn’t discard them correctly, and they were soon strewn around on the floors adding to the mess. Third, they still didn’t solve the fundamental problem that it only takes one bad user (in this context a user who pees without lifting his seat or soils the seat cover and doesn’t dispose it properly) to break the whole chain. If the previous user left a dirty seat with or without a dirty cover on it, the next person, unless very conscious of his duties, was unlikely to clean someone else’s mess and would unwittingly end up adding to it.

So, the seat covers failed in maintaining hygiene. They are still provided, but mostly in expensive places like hotels, where they serve more as a statement of concern than of any utility. In came the seat disinfectant spray, where you could spray some of it onto toilet paper and clear the seat. Probably another idea from a innovative businessman. But again, it failed to solve the problem miserably. They run out all the time. They cost money. And, they don’t solve the fundamental problem: that it only takes one bad user (in this context a user dirties the seat and leaves, and the next one is not inclined to try and clean it using a tissue and the spray) to break the whole chain.

Another business opportunity: Seat cleaners

The result is that public toilets, unless extremely well attended for, are mostly unusable. They merely turn into urinals, because then men can continue to stand and pee without touching anything, inadvertently worsening the problem. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that at several places, toilets are unisex, and that women, who must sit, have to often deal with the worst of this problem for no fault of theirs.

Let’s summarize what the seat is for and what are the problems:

  • The toilet seat cover is to allow people to sit comfortably and not touch any part of their body on a surface that is likely to have been soiled.
  • It is often soiled because people (mostly lazy and indifferent, sometimes also due to cultural differences and lack of awareness) don’t lift them and pee while standing (bad users).
  • Once it is soiled, a person who would have ordinarily picked it up (good users) wouldn’t do so either, and are converted into behaving like bad users.

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