UX Lessons from Hand Drying, #1

I have an undue fascination with hand dryers in public bathrooms such as paper towel dispensers and forced air dryers. Why? I think it has to do with the fact that they take a very simple job and turn it into something quite complicated for reasons that have nothing to do with just drying your hands. In public settings the issues of cost-reduction and trash-containment come into play, and this has resulted in all manner of methods of dispensing the towels. They all have two things in common - they try to get you to take less towels (so reducing the costs of buying the towels, and the mess associated with the trash), or they eliminate the towels altogether by using forced air.

In the process they provide some amusing but informative lessons about user experience design that can actually be applied to other areas.

As our first example, let’s take this San Jamar model. It doesn’t look very remarkable - apparently your typical mostion activated paper towel dispenser. Motion-sensing dispensers have become much more common as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, and personally I find them extremely annoying, like a mean nanny doling out towel at a frustratingly slow pace. The gambit is to make you fed up with waiting and so use less towel. Since the size of the piece is never sufficient, you inevitably have to wait for another to come out by waving your hand manically until, randomly it seems, it chooses to hand you another one.

The genius thing about this San Jamar dispenser is that it reverses the sequence. It has a piece hanging waiting as soon as you walk up to it. This means you can get happily started drying your hands, and a few seconds later another one pops out with no further effort required on your part (and no motion sensing required - the tug of the hanging towel activates the next one).

Lesson: Provide value before you ask for effort from users.

Google works the same way: The front page is blank save for the search box and a few buttons. Only after Google has provided value to the user (the search results) does it ask for any effort in return (looking at and possibly clicking on the advertisements). Sites that reverse this process violate the lesson, and generally don’t do as well.

In later posts I’ll look at some other things we can learn from paper towel dispensers and air hand dryers.