Eco-Friendly Vs. Usability: The Automatic-Flush Toilet

Lea Aharonovitch, a Senior Product Manager at Answers.comIn this guest post Lea Aharonovitch, a Senior Product Manager at Answers.com, shares her expertise about the green sides of usability.

Among other things, I’m a usability expert. Usability is the level of friendliness and ease of use of products and interfaces. Products should be easy to use, designed clearly, and fit the user’s needs.

Often companies design products without considering usability, and the product ends up sitting on the shelf or having users utilize only 5% of the features available to them. For example, think of a person who isn’t tech savvy trying to use a new TV remote control.

I’m usually very excited to come across a new product or interface that offers enhanced usability. But ever since I became more of an environmentalist I pay more attention to products that are not environment friendly.

There are green products that for the sake of being environmentally friendly lose out on some of their usability. On the other hand, there are products that are very user friendly but then lose out on the environmental aspects.

How many of you remember the old pull-tab that beverage cans used to have? You needed to pull and detach it completely out of the can in order to drink from it. The small tab was very harmful to the environment for the simple reason that the person drinking from the can had to find a way to get rid of the tab after pulling it out, so it usually ended up being thrown aside somewhere. A later patent introduced the push-tab that we are familiar with today, keeping the tab attached to the inner side of the can and allowing the user to drink while also keeping the environment clean.

This example has the product work effectively both in favor of the user and in favor of the environment.

Auto Flush Toilets, Great Example of Waste

Another example of a product that is useful but not very green is the auto-flush toilet.

I must confess that I didn’t know these existed until the first mall in Modi’in (a city close to Jerusalem) was built a couple of months ago. The auto-flush toilets there have special sensors so that when you’re finished and you rise from the seat it automatically flushes the toilet. The first time I saw this I thought “Wow, What a clever solution!” This frees the user from needing to figure out how to flush the toilet (you would think that’s an easy job but I have horror stories to share about different hostile toilets around the country). It also makes sure the toilets are clean since you don’t “forget” to flush them. Not to mention the great hygiene advantage of not needing to touch any mechanism to cause an action.

But the next time I happened to use this mechanism I thought “What a waste of water!”

It surprised me that a new mall in this green day and age would install such a mechanism, not allowing flushing only half the amount when possible. Not to mention the wasted energy of keeping the electric sensor always on.

Strive for Balance

This product is a perfect example of where people’s needs conflict with the environment, but then again it’s the balance that’s important. Sometimes it’s okay to not go all the way to meet people’s needs and put more thought into meeting some of the needs of the environment instead. Come to think of it, that just might be what’s wrong with my last statement. Many times we don’t consider the environment’s needs to be equal to people’s needs, and we give the environment’s needs a low priority or don’t even consider them while designing a product.

Lea Aharonovitch is Senior Product Manager at Answers.com, located in Jerusalem. She also works with UPA Israel (Usability Professionals Association) as Management Member and Director of Events. Lea writes about green products and businesses and also about green usability at Green Products (Hebrew). She also writes about usability issues and more in her personal blog Notes (Hebrew). 

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8 thoughts on “Eco-Friendly Vs. Usability: The Automatic-Flush Toilet”

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  2. whitenteeth says:

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  3. Hostile flush. Gotta hate those! I find the automatic taps in airports and elsewhere are usually broken more often than they are working. I am sure they are there to save water, but it defeats the purpose when we can’t use them.
    – Karin

  4. Shiri DH says:

    Great post Lea! Another drawback of the auto-flush toilets is that their sensors sometimes fail to work properly, causing either a useless or even a hostile flush (e.g. when you’re still on it!), or at the other extreme a refusal to flush even after you got up. Then go try to figure out how to flush it!

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