“Mommy, I’m NOT sitting on the toilet! It’s going to get me! NO, I’m not going to!”

“It’s okay, Amanda. Look, I’ll go in with you and cover the laser beam so it won’t flush,” says Mom to her 4-year old.

Automation is supposed to make life easier. Or automation is supposed to help fulfill a social value. But at least, automation should delight the user and produce business value. Today, manufacturers are making life “easier” by “doing it for you” in every area of life. Word processors are changing our hte’s to the’s so quickly that we hardly notice. Car manufacturers are locking our car doors as soon as we start moving. Appliance manufacturers are auto-setting our ovens. And bathroom designers are ensuring that we never have to touch anything in the public bathroom. Automation is intruding into the most intimate areas of our lives — but does it work?

I started watching bathroom usage many years ago when I went overseas. I was astonished that so many different toilets with so many different designs still communicated how to flush efficiently. So I started watching the simple work flow and usage in the rest room (we in the US can’t say toilet because that would be too direct): Running faucets that never turn off and splash all over; people avoiding any stall that appears used; paper towels overflowing; wastebaskets on the inside wall of the room instead of on the way out of the room, causing back-tracking and traffic jams. But then the automation started.

Certainly water is wasted with the push faucets that keep running after you are done. Environmentally conscious people (or those of us that grew up with Moms that talked about the water bill) don’t want to waste water — and it does cost the business more.

But now we can’t turn the water ON.  We wave and wave and nothing happens. Is it that I’m so cold that the heat sensor doesn’t know I’m there? Is it that I’m wearing black and it can only see white? Is there a special place to wave?  It’s true that this creates community (in the women’s room — do the men have the same problem?) as we all try to figure out what to do to make the water go. In the end we line up at the one sink that works. Is this an advance over the regular faucet with a handle?

Paper towels waste trees — and more importantly, make a mess. In one of the local theatres, which is very environmentally conscious, a sign is posted apologizing for the inconvenience and explaining the value of hand dryers. But at least the old hand dryers worked by a button — now we wave and wave to  get a paper towel. We even have to wave at the soap! And there is no work around! One woman finally hit the machine in frustration — and then a towel popped out. Maybe banging is the waving back-up technique.

But now toilets have taken away our agency — our sense that we can control what happens in the most private of places. If you are too light — like our little girl — the toilet keeps flushing. If you move to the edge of the toilet it flushes. Also there is a flush delay (is that to fix flushing while you are still on the toilet?) so polite people have to wait to be sure the toilet is left in pristine condition. Now you can’t tie your shoes or change clothes in the airport without incessant flushing (does this save water?) and you can’t flush on demand without getting up. Finally, the water splashes up, wetting the toilet and communicating contamination so the toilets are passed by anyway.

It’s not just the bathroom designers that are taking away our agency. Car manufacturers are locking our doors upon start, but not opening them when we stop — so we keep banging into the door that doesn’t open. The back windows of the car only go down half-way, perhaps good for small children but silly in the Boston Coach car that chauffeurs me around. And what are we being protected against when we have to press a button to get our key out of the ignition, or keep our foot on the brake to shift into gear from park?

In the software industry we like to automate and we like to complain about bad design. Word processors’ “hte” fix is a good thing for most people. But what about Power Point resizing your text and hiding how to turn it off? Or the cell phone taking voice commands — which sort of works if you rename your friends and places to pronounceable labels. (“Lescel” for my husband’s cell phone doesn’t work.) We think “smart” is better. But we have to get it right or we will frustrate, not delight, the users.

Automation in everyday life requires even more care, even more user data, and even more customer-centered design. If we don’t understand all the intents, the whole task, the real value; if we don’t understand differences across age groups and user populations; if we don’t understand the likely consequences and problems that automation creates and solve those we aren’t going to create products that work for people. Customer centered design is not a “nice to have” step in the design process — it is the only way to avoid creating the mess of the public bathroom.

PS: When I went into a public toilet in Italy last year I waved and waved and looked and looked at the sink and left without being able to turn on the water. Only later did I discover that it was one of those old fashioned pedal sinks where you turn it on with your feet! Transfer users beware!