The toilets mishap

The lost dream of the automatic city

I spent Christmas eve at Notre Dame de Paris, the big cathedral of Paris that you might know of. There were so many people, I’d say around 50,000 people coming and going, queuing and praying inside. It was like “the big show”.

I came with my parents but since they had arrived earlier they could actually attend mass from inside while I had to view everything through a big screen outside sitting in the cold on arranged benches. It was nice to observe all those people – mostly tourists – sitting there and queuing in the cold. I was sitting with my brother, another professional geek, and we couldn’t help noticing how people around us would share their activity online. We spotted 3 sharing patterns : facebook, twitter and foursquare. (Un)strangely, I suspect all the people that we spotted sharing to be Americans (I heard them speak). I visualize well their post “Celebrating Xmas @NotreDame in Paris, OMG so beautiful!” :) I never post my activity online on the fly, ne-ver, I never know what to write. I prefer the elaborated blog article that I can re-read later. Each to their own sharing habit :) I will not say that it was “OMG so beautiful” though, but listening to the choirs was indeed quite pleasant in spite of the cold.

Notre Dame

The saint songs, the Christmas lights, the festive atmosphere, what on earth does it all have to do with toilets ?!

Let me ruin the moment, please. As we were waiting until midnight in the cold for about an hour and a half, when midnight finally happened, we were so relieved “Finally !!! Happy Christmas !!!”, “Now, Let’s have dinner .” Yes, we hadn’t had diner, and I was really starving, my mind kept blinking “Where is the foie gras ?”. Little did we know, midnight was just the kick-off for the evening mass. Another 1h to wait. Knowing my parents I knew they would never get out of there before the end no matter what, saint is Saint. $#%*()$#& !!! To make things worse I badly needed to pee, of course. What to do?

I kept dragging my brother around, “come on, let’s go eat foie gras !!!”, he wouldn’t react so much as we were supposed to wait for my parents for dinner, so I changed my campaign into “come on, let’s find a pipi room !!!”. So we wandered in the neighborhood looking for toilets. Full of hope we went to check the nearest Mc Donalds that would greatly satisfy both my urges. Closed. It was closed !!! So we went back, until finally we found this structure coming out of the ground : the “sanisette”, the Parisian emerging toilets cabin.

Sanisette

If you have already been to Paris you might have not noticed them because they’re part of the urban furniture and you wouldn’t know that such sophisticated construction is actually just toilets. Unless of course you read the giant TOILETS sign. So we finally had found what we were looking for. We were 5 in line. It was 12:45 AM. Again, in the cold.

Before I develop more, and while we wait together, you need to know how special those toilets are. It’s all automatic: self-cleaning, self-opening, self-closing, undoubtedly highly technological toilets. When a user gets out, first a blue light indicates that the toilets need time to self-clean, then it cleans itself and when it’s done it shows a green light meaning “GO”.

So the first person got out, then after the 3 min pause, the next two guys got in together (huh?), when they got out, we were finally only 3 in line. The light went blue. We were all waiting for the green signal. *Green, green, green*. After 5 min, no green. The next person in line checked the door, nothing, no sign, no light. Looking closer, there were 4 status : vacant, occupied, wash cycle, out of order. None were on.

5min more. Still nothing. *$#%*($@-^!!!!

Finally we all concluded that it was not working anymore. Nobody knew why. So everybody went their way. Waiting there for a moment, we quickly checked the Internet and found that those free public toilets open only from 6AM to 10PM, so it was rather exceptional that it actually worked after midnight. Everybody was gone, but I stayed, I was the only one wandering around the toilets to check a sign or something telling me what was going on loudly cursing the engineers. &@#($#@*$* !!!

Why would something automatic need to be closed at such early hours? Why would it need to be closed at all ?! Security reasons? Maybe. That can be indeed problematic if someone gets stuck in there during the wash cycle. And probably no one would be available in the middle of the night to solve a critical toilet problem. Right.

That’s why I can’t wait for the all automatic city. How great would that be ! We will not have to suffer from obvious human limitations anymore, just from the crappy designs limitations. I imagine the engineers who built those toilets and didn’t examine the edge cases:

engineer 1 :
What happens when we stop the service? How do we notify users?
engineer 2 :
Nothing. We just stop it. It’s not like they’re gonna be in line in front of it or something, no one is dumb enough to stay there even if it doesn’t open. They will pass by and just see that it’s not working.

Alright. Alright. I like torturing my mind. It’s not a matter of life and death. Still, why does it seem like no one ever cares about the edge cases of design ?!! They could have made a fifth status “Shut down”, or actually display the working hours, at least.

We are for sure nowhere near the automatic city. What would an automatic city be like if every two steps, things stop working and you just don’t know why? Nightmare City.

So design memo to myself: NEVER EVER FORGET THE USER FEEDBACK. EVER. DON’T LET IT JUST STOP.

That’s it, that’s my Christmas gist. ….Sparkling ! Still, Happy Christmas & Happy New Year everyone !