Brad Feld

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The Public Restroom as HCI Laboratory

May 22, 2009
Category Technology

Well – that serves me right.  If you requested a Gist beta invite, be patient.  I’m grinding through my inbox and you’ll have your invite by tomorrow at the latest.  Thanks everyone who requested one, especially for all the kind feedback on the blog.

But that’s not what I’m thinking about this morning.  Last week I read an intro O’Reilly book to HCI called Designing Gestural Interfaces: Touchscreens and Interactive Devices.  It was ok, but one of the insights – that the public restroom has become a test bed for gestural interface technology – really stuck with me.

I found myself in a restrooms at DIA last night before I got in my car for the hour long drive home.  I generally hate public restrooms as my OCD kicks into high gear around everyone’s germs.  I no longer think that bad things are going to happen to me if I don’t touch every street sign on a walk, nor do I get stuck in my house in the morning because I have to do everything in multiple of three’s (and – if I blow it, then nines, and, if I blow it then 27’s, ugh – yuck.)  However, I still dislike the idea of the public restroom.  But sometimes you’ve just gotta go.

It was pretty late at night and I found myself in a recently cleaned and completely empty restroom at one end of Level 6 at DIA.  I decided to perform an experiment – could I go about my business without touching a single thing other than myself or my clothes.  I like to wash my hands before I go to the bathroom (You don’t?  Think about it for five seconds.  You’ve been shaking hands and touching things all day?  C’mon.)  The soap dispenser spit out soap after I put my hands under it.  The sink automatically turned on when I put my hands under it (I had to move them around a little.)  I walked up to the toilet, did my thing, and walked away to the sound of a toilet flushing.  Back to the sink for a redo of the previous drill.  I wandered over to the towel dispenser which automatically dispensed some towels when I waved my hands under it. 

The only think I had to touch was the door.  Even that seems easy to solve – automatic opening and closing doors have been around forever.  None of the gestures I did were particular complex and – as I think about it – all were pretty obvious. 

Life is a laboratory.  Don’t forget to always be exploring and experimenting.