design for style


Web site usability and bathroom findability


My wife and I celebrated our anniversary the other day and a large part of the festivities involved me _not_ touching a computer. My work is almost always on my mind, though (sorry, Sam), and at lunch, I stumbled upon the realization that what a person goes through trying to find a bathroom in a restaurant is a great illustration of what we go through when we try to use web sites. That is, bathroom findability is analogous to web site usability. Refer to the footnotes below to see the similarities.

I usually order a carbonated beverage when out to eat and average about 1.5 refills in a meal. Add to that a bladder the size of a tea cup, and you have me, someone who usually needs to find the bathroom (at least once) during the course of a meal and doesn't want to take too long about it1.

So, today, I excused myself from the table and stood up. I quickly looked around and didn't see any signs marked "Restrooms" nor did I spy the Man or Woman figures one finds next to or on restroom doors2. In fact, the restaurant was laid out in all these small dining rooms with lots of windows onto other dining rooms... a little busy and confounding if you're wanting to scan for signage3. (Of course, nicer restaurants don't necessarily want to yell BATHROOM! to people who are dining, but, we do need to know where they are. There's a balance to strike between discretion and necessity.)

We were at a restaurant in Nampa whose Boise location I'd been to many times. I knew the bathroom was near the front doors at the location I was familiar with, so, despite remembering not seeing bathrooms on the way in, and the entry being totally different from the other location's, I decided to make my way to the front and start there. This even in light of the fact that most restaurant bathrooms tend to be in the back4.

And I would have followed through with that plan had I not happened upon a server coming my way - I simply asked "Can you tell me where the bathroom is?" and was directed to the back with a "See that guy with the green shirt there? It's just past him."5

Past the guy was an entry into a small hall with clearly marked Men and Women doors on either end.



  1. We don't have the time to read everything on a page and then to weigh all the options from a well-informed position. We just want to get our stuff.
  2. Visible, clear labeling, free of jargon or cuteness: simply put, we need it.
  3. We're best served by a clean design with a minimum of noise. Keep it to essentials.
  4. We fall back on what we know. In this case, I had a choice between what I knew about the Olive Garden and what I knew about restaurants in general. I chose to go with the more specific (the other Olive Garden had a bathroom in the front), and to keep the more general (bathrooms in restaurants are generally in the back) as a fallback.
  5. More than one method of navigating a site can be helpful, though isn't necessary. If there's more than one type of navigation, it's best to stick to only one of a navigational type - a plain menu, a hierarchical menu, a contextual menu, tags, a tag cloud, a search box, drop down quick links, etc. More than one type and you run the risk of confusing users (unless the navigation type is very clearly associated with a certain realm of content). In the case of the illustration above, I found a search engine of sorts that pointed me in the right direction.


I think I'll use this illustration when explaining the importance of usability - and designing for usability - to others. I've seen too many sites made confusing by departing from conventions that just work (for the sake of being unconventional), too many great ideas rendered worthless by cute or wishful labeling, and too much content and functionality undiscovered by too many or too few navigational elements.


© 2008