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3 Huge UX Lessons You’ll Learn in a Foreign Airport Bathroom


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There’s nothing like the ultimate test of bladder control to teach you a thing or two about user experience. Last month, I hopped a half dozen planes, skipped through just as many airports and ventured through a few train stations with little to no knowledge of the local language.

Use recognizable icons

What words can’t tell you, images often can. In the case of navigating foreign bathrooms, the icons made all the difference. Our classic “person wearing a tent” and “person possibly not wearing pants” icons clearly marked the areas I needed to find. With arrows, no less, which only amplified their effectiveness.

What words can't tell you, images often can. In the case of navigating foreign bathrooms, the icons… Click To Tweet

In fact, everywhere I went, these icons universally represented women’s, men’s and family restrooms. And that was the key. The definitions of those icons are recognized on a global level. The designers didn’t get artsy by dressing the icons in funny hats. Or try to use clever local symbols to put their own spin on things. They kept it simple, straightforward and expected.

(Bonus points to Italy: not a single toilet location seemed to have a problem with anyone’s gender identity as long as you paid your 35 cents to get in. Now, there’s a stellar concept.)

Take the logical next step

So there I am, with a plethora of flush button options. Two to be exact. That’s one more than what we have in the States, so I had to make some assumptions and roll with a trial and error strategy to figure out what to do next. This approach isn’t unlike someone exploring your website or app — in times of uncertainty, they will experiment. The goal is to give them the most direct path to your ideal action.

In times of uncertainty, they will experiment. The goal is to give them the most direct path to your… Click To Tweet

The foreign bathroom designers knocked this one out of the park, too. Of the two flush button options presented to me, one button was larger than the other.

3 UX Lessons Learned in Foreign Airport Bathrooms | @marketmox

I pushed it. Flushing happened.

And flushing happened.

And flushing continued to happen.

“Shit,” I thought. “Why the hell is it still flushing?” Because, you know, in the States, continuous flushing is a problem. Noting, again, the second button — I sighed a solid “what the hell” and pressed.

The flushing stopped.

There were zero instructions to tell me what the buttons would do. Still, I could make a few assumptions based on the context and my personal end goals. The room for error in my actions was minimal — thanks to the strong planning of the bathroom designers. And, in the end, my experiment paid off. I enjoyed that bathroom experience. Five stars. Would pee again.

Know your user

With a backpack in tow (and later adding a bonus carry-on), I can honestly say I had a “favorite” bathroom experience. In certain airports, you could luck into finding slightly wider-than-average stalls with heavy-duty hooks and the occasional small shelf. Suddenly, I could fit through the stall door with my bags on my arms. And, I didn’t have to sit my luggage on the disgusting floor before tossing it over my shoulder a few minutes later. When I was really lucky and snagged a shelf, I could even pull my makeup out of my clutch without having to dodge the barrage of hand washers at the counter outside. Those bathrooms knew the struggles I would face as a traveler and made an effort to improve them.

Those bathrooms knew the struggles I was facing as a traveler and made an effort to improve them. Click To Tweet

That’s the best you can do for your user. Anticipate their struggles. Know what baggage they’re carrying around. Preemptively solve it. Don’t ask what cool new thing you can add to your user experience. Ask what new addition or invention will be most helpful for your users.


Have you learned a few amazing UX lessons while out and about in the real world? We’d love to hear about them. Tweet @marketmox to discuss or send an email to hello@marketmox.com to learn more about contributing your UX stories to our blog!

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