Where is the balance between ¨too much¨ and ¨not enough¨?
During the design process, designers have to make a lot of decisions, so they ask a lot of questions, talk to users and listen to many opinions and requirements (can i change this? and that? set this value? control these parameters? have quick access to this function? What about this option? Why is this not possible?…). The decision-making process is definitely not simple here. It requires careful, sensitive observation and drawing conclusions about what will be the most valuable and important for people using the product. And one of the most difficult parts is to give up some features of our design.
One of the reasons why giving up features is harder than adding them is that people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them. Actually, when required to act, we almost always add some element, whether it helps or not. We tend to avoid scraping features particularly if they already took effort to be created (read more about it here).
Furthermore designers might expect to receive less credit for subtractive solutions than for additive ones. And the truth is that design is largely based on removing certain elements. A simpler product is usually more elegant and easy-to-use and can more easily become a part of daily life.
Probably every designer has encountered such problems. I face them frequently. We try to make our users happy and that’s all right, but do we have to respond to all needs of potential users?
No, we don’t.
We don’t have to take into consideration 100% of potential usage scenarios of our product. And we even shouldn’t do so. In my view, in a vast majority of cases fulfilling absolutely every possible user need will just harm our project, if not completely jeopardize it.
Why Zurich public toilet system is a ¨sweet spot¨ when it comes to product design?
Let’s take good design as an example — the system of public toilets in the city of Zurich. I know this city well and I believe that the problem of public restrooms can serve as an example of excellent design. I also know quite a few cities where it needs significant improvement, therefore, the case of Zurich seems special.
Why is it so good?
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the concept of a public toilet even come from? It seems obvious — human physiology is constructed in such a way that people have to use the toilet at least every few hours. Knowing that people spend a lot of time away from home, it makes perfect sense to put such objects not only at homes, but also in public places.
Below, the system of public toilets in Zurich. The current solution probably seems very obvious to you and does not raise any doubts. But let’s stop here and think about how many cases it does NOT solve while still being a very good solution.
How can this look from the design process perspective?
Imagine a world without public toilets where designers are given a task of placing public restrooms across the entire city. There are many problems, assumptions, cases that seem (and often are) important, e.g.: What if people need a toilet immediately? What happens when it will not be possible to find a toilet within a few minutes? — people should always find a toilet very quickly from anywhere in a public space. Should the density of public toilets be the same in every district? — quick access to the public toilet should be provided wherever there are or may be people.
Such assumptions are reasonable and are aimed at improving the use of our product (in this case, the toilet). But, if we would consider solving this problem for all people and needs, the map of public toilets in Zurich would look like this:
Everything seems to work — anyone who is away from home and feels the need to use the toilet will find it almost immediately. Thanks to this fact, people feel happy, there is no stress, no one has to walk around the city with a full bladder, great. But is it indeed so wonderful?
And here comes the problem. Such a solution would obviously have many very significant drawbacks. Nobody wants to live in a city with toilets at every turn. It’s actually a very poor experience, although it solves most of the problems with the placement of public toilets. In addition, the costs of this project — the construction and maintenance of such a number of toilets — would be enormous.
The city of Zurich has a smarter strategy: most toilets are located in areas where many people are on the move and away from home. This means that most of these facilities are located in the city center within a reasonable distance from each other (for pedestrians). In the surrounding districts, there are much fewer public toilets, because the demand is also much lower. These are residential areas where mainly their residents walk the streets (who have a toilet at their homes nearby). Placing fewer toilets there seems natural and for us it might feel like a very natural choice. Thanks to this design (or more precisely, service design in this case) the expectations and habits were formed, which with time become obvious. Many things that seem standard to us now have been shaped by something that was once designed and a specific decision was taken.
Most importantly — what are the conclusions out of these considerations?
- You will not make everyone happy. The goal is to find a solution that meets the most important requirements of our users and that facilitates access to what they need. That’s not always the same as giving people what they want in all possible cases.
- Don’t be afraid to remove features or elements of your project. The multitude of possibilities usually makes it difficult to use or complicated to understand the product. We should focus on a good experience, not on ticking off the maximum possible number of use-cases. The aim of the designer should be to find an optimal solution that is simple enough to serve its function and advanced enough to meet the expectations of the large majority of potential users.
- It is worth remembering that the structure of some products can considerably shape or remodel people’s behaviours and expectations. If we as designers influence those behaviours and expectations, our duty is to attempt to make them something convenient and easy to use. Only then those seemingly natural practices have a chance to become a pleasant part of our everyday lives.