Shoppers must wash hands

Special notice #1: I am participating in an online event called the Bathroom Blogfest. A bunch of female bloggers are posting this week about ladies rooms.

Special notice #2: I am about to bare my innermost secrets, and I hope you won't think I'm a horribly gross person. Thank you.

So I've been thinking about bathrooms for the past few weeks, and the trend that's shouting the loudest is cleanliness. We are obsessed with staying clean. This means toilets that flush automatically, plastic seat covers that whirr and rotate, sinks and soaps that sense your hands, paper towels that release with a wave, and fewer and fewer doors. Fewer doors? It's one less thing to touch.

We don't want to touch anything in the bathroom. We think every handle, button and lever is covered with an army of germs. And while Google produces a plethora of articles stating that my desk contains 400 times as many germs as a toilet seat, the notion persists that bathrooms are the dirtiest places on earth.

Bathrooms may be germy, but I still think our germophobia manifests itself in strange ways. This sign in RJ Grunts inspired two reactions, one right after another. "Hey, that's resourceful," followed by "Wait, what? Who has the time?" The logistics of actually grabbing a paper towel, using it to open the door, and then turning back to reach the garbage can are a little absurd to me.

Then again, that door probably has tons of germs. What if I got sick from touching it? What if the flu was going around and some lady had it and she touched the door and then I touched the door? I better use a paper towel. On second thought, I should wear gloves and a face mask. You know what, maybe I'll just stay home.

I think that when taken to its extreme, all this sanitary behavior can lead to isolation (not to mention stronger bacteria). People don't shake hands because they are nervous of passing on germs. Fine, why don't we all live in sterile sanctuaries, germ-free and human-interaction-free? We wouldn't have any social skills, but at least we'd have our health.

I think that for all the convenience these amenities bring, the main goal of bathroom sanitation is just to get people to wash their hands. If we would all just wash our hands, every day, every time, a lot of these fears would go away. Because, as my dad used to say, "I trust you. It's the other people that I don't trust." I might wash my hands, but if the woman before me did not, then by touching the doorknob I am erasing the effects of my own good habits. In other words, bathrooms need to do more than inspire me to wash my hands; they need to assure me that everyone else washed their hands too. It's kinda like driving - the system only works if everyone follows the rules.

So here's the embarassing part. I...don't always wash my hands. I mean, I do, the vast majority of the time. But not every single time. Once in a while, I'm in a rush. The hot-air dryer takes too long. The soap dries out my hands. There's no more paper towels. Plus, if nobody else is there, well, I feel like nobody will ever know. (Of course, writing this post kills that theory, but until now, I had that).

And I have reason to believe I'm not alone. Some friends have said that they usually wash hands in public places, but not always in their homes. I asked my boyfriend if guys always wash their hands, fully assuming that they do. He said, "Not always. But I thought girls always washed their hands!" Each thinking the other was the cleaner one, we had a good little embarassed laugh about it. But he echoed my sentiment - if somebody else is in the bathroom, it's a no-brainer.

So that's the key here - I would never, ever skip handwashing if somebody else was there. Because that social pressure is huge. If I just walk right out, what will they think of me? I know that if I saw them beeline from stall to exit, I would certainly judge them, however hypocritically.

This story details an observational survey where Harris Interactive researchers stood in bathrooms. They recorded that 90% of women and 75% of men washed their hands. But my problem with this study is fundamental: a person was standing in the bathroom, watching. If they had used discreet video cameras, I'm guessing the results would have been lower.

Now, I am by no means condoning wash-skipping behavior. I should wash my hands every single time; so should everyone. Handwashing is one of those universal tenets, like "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." We know it's the right thing to do, and there's lots of persuasive statistics around it controlling the spread of disease. But obviously, this message either hasn't gotten out, or hasn't resonated with its target. So how do we design bathrooms that motivate people to wash their hands?

1. We can force it. Employees must wash hands, why not shoppers? We think it's part of the process, and we take it seriously here at Target/Starbucks/Disney World. You must wash hands in order to leave the bathroom. Perhaps you pay a dollar to enter, and after washing hands, that dollar is returned to you. Perhaps the door locks until your hands are clean. Of course these ideas are silly, but you get the point. A big red sign saying "SHOPPERS MUST WASH HANDS" would probably work just fine.

2. We can improve it. Here's some good-smelling lotion soap and soft paper towels. Here's a clean, dry counter to put your purse on. In fact, here's a special holder just for said purse, because we know how awkward it is to wash your hands while keeping it on your shoulder. Here's some flattering lighting and an inviting faucet handle. Here's some warm water followed by some cool water. Here's a big mitt that massages your hand as it washes it. Surely we can think of ways to make the process delightful and interesting. None are silver bullets, but they might begin to alleviate some of the barriers. For example, I find that washing my hands is more fun when they have that foamy soap. Negligible change in infrastructure; big difference in the experience.

3. We can socially influence it. This to me is the only surefire way to get average Joes and Josephinas to change their ways. It's also the toughest to imagine solutions for, but here goes. We can make people go to the bathroom in pairs. We can install windows in front of the sinks, so the people in the club/restaurant/office can see in. We can set up a "clean hand check" outside the door. We can make the sink area unisex. We can show photos of hip, beautiful people washing their hands. Or, we can hire Harris Interactive to stand in every restroom.

Social pressure can be used in all sorts of ways, in order to get people to do the right thing. It's pretty powerful. More than their own health (a sometimes distant, intangible thing), social rejection is immediate, and we all know how it feels. I think people would do a lot in order to avoid being judged, even by complete strangers. They might even wash their hands.


For more Bathroom Blogfest, see:

Church of the Customer
Customers Are Always
Customer Experience Crossroads
Fast Company Now
Flooring the Consumer
What I Do For a Living

PS: After writing this incredibly embarassing post, I can assure you that I will never skip handwashing again.


Steve Portigal said...

Great stories!

Years ago we did research for Unilever on out-of-home cleaning, with a lot of discussion of handwashing.

The social issues are huge, and very complex. There's a lot of awareness of the "dangers" in germy environments from other people who fail to adhere to basic standards and touch doorknobs with their dirty hands putting us in jeopardy.


There's a lot of concern about not demonstrating our disgust or acting in non-"normal" ways to protect ourselves. Excessive hand-washing, after all, is a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder and if we are too attentive to our own health, we might be seen as having some mental or emotional problem.

We described it as the tension between Oscar and Felix, and if you were too out of the "norm" in either direction you would be uncomfortable, or you would avoid behaviors altogether that might send you down to one or the other end of the continuum.

The various forcing technologies (bathrooms that lock until the water has been running for a few seconds and the soap has been pumped) don't take these social factors into account and will ultimately fail.

"Giving permission" is more subtle than "encouraging" but I believe the key may lie in that mindset.

Anonymous said...

for me, personally, i have always perceived the bathroom-squatting-intense-handwashing thing to be all about avoiding germs because of a dirty bathrooms, which i think is absurd (i am not a squatter, as many women are). pee is sterile (right?) and you aren't going to get an std sitting on the toilet. it doesn't happen.

the actual issue is, as you noted, about passing diseases like the cold and flu.

maybe i'm the only one, but i do not feel this connection very strongly. i know that it exists, but i don't have that constant nag that if i wash my hands i'm helping to stop people from getting sick.

maybe there's a solution in helping to remove the mystery of what will ACTUALLY HAPPEN if you don't wash your hands.

(although i do agree that most soap in bathrooms dries out your hands or smells like chemicals - and i HATE hand driers, nature be damned)

fueledbycoffee said...

I once went to a Thai restaurant called "Sea" in Brooklyn. Very trendy and super-designed. Their bathrooms were actually in round pods in one corner of the loft space-- but there were no sinks. In the middle of the group of "toilet pods" was a single round sink that multiple people could stand around and use at the same time-- right in front of dozens of people waiting for the restroom or at the bar sipping a martini. You had no choice but to wash your hands-- or look like a chump.

sara said...

Thanks Steve for sharing these insights. I often find the countertrends more interesting than the trends - how in this case, increased attention to cleaning produced increased awareness of one's "cleaning image."

I agree that forcing technologies wouldn't solve the problem, although I do think that when in doubt, some people fall back on rules. But certainly a permission-minded approach would yield more lasting results. Maybe we want to tell people that it's okay to wash hands; you won't be too dirty but you also won't be "too clean."

Hillary, I am not a squatter either, though I am a frequent seat-wiper-downer. I mean, you can get pregnant from a toilet seat, right?

Removing the mystery of what might happen would certainly get the message across, though it would have to be realistic and tangible. "You might bring germs back to your desk" is closer to home than "You might give your germs to someone else," so maybe we focus on infecting the rest of your own life, rather than infecting someone else. But agreed - there is no clear set of consequences.

Craig, wow. Great example of using social tension to regulate behavior. So the toilets were enclosed in walls, but the sink was actually in the public domain? That is quite open...but I bet nobody ever, ever skipped it.

Steve Portigal said...

The Slanted Door in San Francisco also has the common sinks. At the rear of the restaurant, behind a wall, are a series of doors to one-person bathrooms, without sinks. The sinks are opposite those doors. I can't remember if it's a series of individual sinks or more likely a supersized communal hand-washing sink. It is not within view of the diners, but there's a lot of employee traffic and of course other bathroom users as well.

Anonymous said...

I went to a Thai restaurant in Manhattan recently that actually had a coed bathroom. Other than on "Ally McBeal" I had never seen this before. It was an interesting experience overall (thank goodness the stall doors shut you in completely) but talk about social pressure! No person wants their date to think their hands are dirty!

If you really want to get people to keep their hands clean, I suggest having them be vulnerable to not only the judgements of their own sex, but the opposite one, too.

Anonymous said...

It isn't desireable to eliminate 100% of all "germs," as so exposure primes our immune systems to fight off the big bads.

In a winderness survival course I was told about how Navy submarines cut down the transmisison of communicable diseases by over 80% by requiring everyone to was their hands 5 times a day. If you think about it, that's fairly normal. Once before every meal, and once during bathroom breaks (assuming you go twice a day).

It isn't so much that bathrooms are dirty places, but that hand washing is a good policy for cutting down the transmission of disease. Washing your own hands has benefits even if others don't wash theirs.

Anonymous said...

It isn't the "germs" like a cold or flu virus that's the issue. It's the urine, and fecal (crap) matter that's the issue. I'm a guy and notice men that do the "piss-n-go" quite a bit. At restaurants, where they go back out and handle ketchup bottles. In grocery stores where they fondle through the produce. I've watched them and followede them out of curiosity of what they'd do. We had a group of guys at work that would email the newest hygiene violator. There are also what we called the "squat-n-scoots" that didn't wash after they dropped the kids off at the pool. I've seen it in public, too. And yes they went straight for the ketchup bottle.

So, it really isn't wash only when someone sees you. Or, no one will know so who cares, because there may be someone before you that thought the same thing, and then what? You get a hand full of crap-matter and wipe it all over the bun of the burger you're about to eat.

It's wash youyr hands everytime, all the time out of respect the your fellow human beings that you will never meet, or ever know, because what goes around comes around.

That's my 2 cents.

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