Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Would I review commercial toilet paper holders.

Will you, one day, do a review of toilet paper holders found in commercial restrooms? Virtually all of them are user-hostile. And we all encounter them, every day.

(This question is obviously referring to one of my most famous papers: Toilet Paper Algorithms: I didn't know you had to be a computer scientist to use toilet paper.)

Nope. I've done quite enough on toilet paper holders. Among my many aspirations, I do not include that of becoming the world's authority on the dispensing of toilet paper.

Anyway, the proper solution to a problem is to redefine it so it goes away. Look what happened with VCRs. The inability of many to program their VCR became a national joke, and President Bush (the first Bush) even declared it his ambition for the country that everyone would be able to program theirs. He failed. Did we make it easier to set the time on the VCR or to program it? No, we made the problem go away.

Why set the time — let the recorder get the time from the TV stations. TiVo showed how programming could be gotten rid of, replacing it with selection. Do I want to watch the show "West Wing"? Just type "W" "e" "s" into TiVo and then select "West Wing" from the list of shows starting with that spelling. Then select the option to record the series. Programming is replaced with selecting. I don't even have to know what day or time the show is broadcast, nor the channel. So the problem of programming disappears.

(Redefining the problem in this way has other side effects: it gets rid of the concept of Prime Time in television. And networks and stations lose their identity (and commercial value) if the viewer no longer even knows where the show is shown. And I haven't even mentioned the fact that I can skip over the commercials, because if I did, I would be digressing.)

Having problems dispensing with toilet paper? Rethink the problem: why do we even need toilet paper? The Japanese have already have a solution. When finished with the toilet, press a little button, and you automatically get washed with pleasant, warm water, then dried. See the various "Washlet" designs from Toto.

(Now the problem for designers is to make it so we don't even have to press the button. Actually the real problem is to get people to accept this technology. The Japanese love it. Westerners think it kind-of creepy.)

OK? It's bad enough that I am the world's authority on doors that are difficult to open. I don't want to be the world's authority on toilet paper dispensers.