Design and Emotion Behind Automated Objects and No-Touch Environments

Have you ever walked into a public restroom and found yourself waving your hands under the faucet only to realize that the sink requires human touch to dispense soap and […]

Have you ever walked into a public restroom and found yourself waving your hands under the faucet only to realize that the sink requires human touch to dispense soap and run water? That moment of realization is strange and leads to disappointment as you decide what to do next. Some might grunt and unwillingly use their hands, knowing that they’ll be washed soon anyways. Push with Elbow photo by Cat NormoyleOthers try to use elbows or wrists to manually turn on the water. Whatever the decision, there is a moment of uncertainty and awkwardness when the experience of using a public restroom breaks down.

Public spaces and automated, no-touch objects are a relatively new experience beyond the occasional sliding door. Yet, they are transforming the dynamic of public spaces.  Moving away from the traditional “hands-on” approach where the feel of  the object and its material enhances your experience to a “no-touch” gesture or motion based approach that has many implications both for the design of objects and environments as well as for creating the best emotional equities for different spaces.

The desire to move in and out of a space without making physical contact depends a bit on the type of space, but for public spaces two underlying needs are driving these changes:

  1. An efficiency play, to reduce the need for cleaning, and,
  2. Reduce the perception of dirty, especially the idea of spreading germs and bacteria.

No-Touch Movement And A Closer Look At Public Restrooms

This no-touch movement really has really exploded in public restrooms and has helped people feel more comfortable. But, is it also contributing to a heightened need for clean and a heightened fear of dirt? Is there a better way to rethink the design of these spaces? Can we design automated objects and the spaces to emotionally connect with people and reinforce more positive feelings versus adding to dirt obsessions?

Public restrooms have a hard time escaping the typical feeling that they are contaminated, unclean, germ-infested, and well… gross. Elizabeth Landau at CNN writes that while most people fear the toilet seat as the germiest location of a public restroom, it is the sink that hosts the most bacteria and germs. The faucet and handles are primarily the worst offenders due to the high-traffic and high-touch nature of the area. The CDC suggests washing your hands for 20 seconds and using paper towels whenever possible and suggests avoiding air blowers as they can circulate germs and bacteria into the air.

Public restrooms must fight beyond private bathroom standards to assure a more comfortable and sanitary experiences for patrons. The biggest reason for this is its undeniable feature that it is public. Mere numbers make the possibility of germs spreading more plausible. People do not enjoy the idea that they are sharing toilet seats, sinks, door knobs, and paper towels with people they don’t know, even if everything is cleaned and sterilized consistently.

On a recent trip out of town, my experience in the public restrooms at the airport got me thinking… How many people use this bathroom every day? Looking out into the sea of travelers, waiting for my turn in line to walk through the series of events that was taking place in this public restroom, I started to notice this no-touch phenomenon even in places where technology wasn’t involved. People moved through the space quickly and efficiently, using their hips to open doors, waving their hands to run water and dispense soap, standing (rather impatiently) while the air-blowers dried their hands, all the while never touching anything in the space. This sort of a dance is routine for most and might even remind some of the latest batch of Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect gesture based games if people were in front of a big screen instead of out in public.

Incremental Upgrades Cause Automation Experience Breakdown


Image by Loranchet

Ideally, the bathroom experience is easy, comfortable, and clean but sometimes the system breaks down and problems arise.


Have you ever been in a stall when the toilet automatically flushes on its own before you are ready? This causes serious discomfort and sometimes embarrassment not to mention the waste of water eating away at potential cost savings behind automation. Or worse, the toilet won’t flush at all and you stand in the stall waiting for the automatic flush to triggr or admit defeat and exit the stall confessing to complete strangers that the toilet won’t flush. Just think of the feelings you are left with when any part of the system breaks down. Many prefer toilets that do not flush automatically because of this issue and use their foot to flush the toilet.

Assuming you make it out of the stall with no hiccups, off to the sinks to wash your hands. Often we see a mix of no-touch and touch products in a single bathroom. This causes much confusion and an emotional dilemma as people try to gesture to make something work, realize it is manual and then figure out what they are going to do about it. Some people just stop where the system goes manual and don’t use soap or don’t dry their hands. In extreme cases, a person will look at the sink and just leave without washing their hands.

One of the biggest complaints we’ve heard about public restrooms is the exit strategy. After you use the facility and clean up, how do you exit the bathroom without touching that dreaded handle? Some may grab an extra paper towel just to open the door but then you must look for a trash receptacle to dispose of the paper towel. Why even bother to be clean conscious and use no-touch bathroom appliances if you have to grab that high-traffic, germy bathroom handle as a final result of the whole experience?

So where does this anxiety and worry stem from regarding public restrooms? Is it only about germs spreading or could it have to do with a simpler idea of cleanliness? Perhaps people are more concerned with public environments providing clean facilities with no-touch design so their experience is seamless and unobtrusive. Hand-sanitizers and clean wipes can be found in an abundance of public environments like offices and supermarkets, not just bathrooms. We carry portable hand-sanitizer in our purses. The idea of cleanliness has moved well beyond the scope of public restrooms and is a well driven standard in most public spaces.

Restrooms Are Just The Beginning

There are many challenges that designers face moving toward no-touch designs in public environments from the disjointed incremental upgrades that interrupt the experience to finding a way to illicit a more positive experience across the space.

The article, Avoid Getting Sick: Top 8 Germiest Public Places Exposed written by Nicole McEwen, suggests that supermarkets are the number one top germiest public places. Think about how many people use shopping carts daily, touching the handles, picking up foods, and checking out at the cashier.  The possibility of germs spreading is very high but now you can find sanitizer and hand wipes throughout the store, particularly in produce sections.

What are the next spaces where design and emotion can learn from current no-touch, automation and improve on the experience?