Why do I try to avoid using public restrooms at all costs?

Maybe I'm going to the wrong public restrooms because I can't think of a single time when using a public restroom has been a great experience for me. Unfortunately I can't avoid them forever and sooner or later there comes a time when using a public restroom is my only viable option... ☹

Looking at a line of closed door stalls and pondering my options...

  1. I could squat down to see if any feet are visible under the door but that looks and feels wrong (especially that one time when another guy came in behind me).
  2. I can slowly pass by each stall and listen for the obligatory this-stall-is-already-occupied-please-move-along "courtesy cough" BUT (there's always a big but) this requires the cooperation of another user and is entirely outside of my control.
  3. I can start trying to open each stall one by one touching every handle as I wonder how many other people chose this approach and touched every gross handle?

People seem to favor some variant of Option 3. I know because I've been on both sides of the door here and it isn't fun either way. Either the door rattles and doesn't open while someone yells occupied! on the other side or even worse the door accidentally opens because I didn't securely latch it. ☹

(I'll go out on a limb here and guess that this is the reason the "courtesy cough" was invented).

Why don't public restroom designers make finding an unoccupied stall easier?

What are some ways to improve the public restroom experience overall?

There has got a be a better way!

After all, it doesn't matter how rich or poor you are EVERYONE EATS and ...

  • 2
    So far, the public restrooms I've used have an indicator outside to show whether the door is latched / locked. The problems are: 1. some men will not bother to lock, especially if they are only urinating 2. there are nobody in the stall, but the toilet is gross, and I'd rather not see the grossness. Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 1:43
  • The better way has already been invented. See airplane bathrooms or port-a-potties that use the 'occupied' lock mechanism. Why most restrooms in the US don't also use those is a good question--though not sure it's a UX question.
    – DA01
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 5:31

3 Answers 3


The restrooms in Vienna Austria airport were designed with UX in mind

I had one amazingly awesome experience in a public restroom. I entered the restroom in the Vienna airport and was greeted with a solid white glass wall lit from behind extending from floor to ceiling. There was nothing else so it was easy to see a row of equally spaced red or green dots in a line. (I wish I could have taken a picture but there were other people in there)

If I only saw a row of red dots then I could leave without trying and failing to open 20 doors in a row. Since there was a mixture of dot colors, I intuitively walked straight to the closest green dot and sure enough it opened with ease on the first try.

On the other side of the door was a sturdy stainless steel knob that could only be in 1 of 2 positions. The knob didn't stop in between and either a red dot or a green dot appeared on the other side. I was so impressed with the locking mechanism that I took a picture from inside the stall.

It wasn't high tech but it was intuitive, language agnostic and brilliant.

universal lock

I couldn't help but think that if they are willing to design their restrooms to be as elegant as an Apple store then I would trust everything else in that airport by default. Surely the designers would pay equal or greater attention to detail to everything outside of that awesome restroom!

This ended up being a good lesson in how much the seemingly little things matter when it comes to building a relationship of trust.

Color blind people need to go too

Adding words or a universal icon would help in cases where people can't see the difference between red and green colors...

enter image description here

credit: WR Hardware

  • they have this in most public restrooms in Singapore too
    – Blue Ocean
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 2:36
  • Singapore is awesome then. I hope more Americans will realize how much these seemingly little design decisions go a long way in improving the overall public opinion.
    – DaveAlger
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 3:59
  • 1
    These are also standard (at least in the US) on airplanes and port-a-potties.
    – DA01
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 5:33
  • @DA01 you're right! port-a-potties are actually a better UX from the outside than most public restrooms...
    – DaveAlger
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 11:04

As a UX Design intern, I find this question interesting! Here is the solution that first popped in my mind. Here's one image of a parking lot with lights on top of every parking space:

As you can see in the photo below, if the space is already taken, the light is going to be red. Otherwise, it's green.

enter image description here

Credits: http://morganmission1.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html


  • It saves TIME. You won't have to browse through every space to check if the parking space is free.
  • It saves GAS. Since you already know where to go, you won't have to waste some gas just to browse through every area and find a parking space.
  • It saves EFFORT. The lesser you move around, the lesser effort you'll have to exert.

I believe it would be great if we could also apply this to the public restrooms. For each of the cubicle there's going to be a light in the ceiling. The toilet could detect if someone is sitting on it and then the light turns red. Otherwise, the light is green.


  • It saves TIME. Just lift your head a little bit and you'll know the status of all the cubicles.

  • It saves EFFORT. You won't have to kneel down, knock, cough. You just look at the lights and then you're good to go.

  • It saves yourself from HUMILIATION. Never get worried about doing something weird and being caught by someone at your back.

I'm not pretty sure about the installation and engineering behind it, but does it address all the problems that were stated in your question? I think yes.

  • Nice. Perhaps we can take this one step further and show number of vacancies on the outside door? -- Then I can tell if I even need to bother going in at all...
    – DaveAlger
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 1:55
  • 1
    Yes that's great! And to add another idea, we could also install a digital mini-map somewhere beside the door. Before you enter through the restroom you already know the status of all the vacancies of each cubicle. That'll be very awesome. Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 2:00
  • The parking garage at my local airport uses the same mechanism in the picture. Plus it also has @DaveAlger's suggestion. The garage has a very prominent display of the number of spaces left in each level which you can see before you even enter the garage. Then each level has, on the ends of each row, the number of spaces available in green or "XXX" in red if none are available. Great solution to this problem.
    – David
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 4:36
  • I like the idea, but this might be a case of over-engineering in the context of a bathroom--where you maybe have, what, 12 stalls at most? I think a simple 'red/green occupied/vacant' slider would accomplish the same thing with a lot less complexity.
    – DA01
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 5:34
  • 1
    I have once been in a department store fitting room stall that was minimally lit until you properly shut the door behind you when the lights turned up automatically. For public toilets, I like that idea better than red and green lights at the door or ceiling.
    – Crissov
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 16:14

There is already a design element engineered to provide this signal. As a matter of fact it is so elegant that you probably haven't noticed it. I am talking about the gravity activated door hinges found on many stall doors. It works by having the hinge made with a V-shaped cam fixed to the wall, a matching hinge pin mounted to the door that allows for some vertical movement of the door, and a cam follower mounted to the door that rides on the top of the V-shaped cam. Gravity pulls the door downwards, so the follower travels down either side of the V, rotating the door so that the door naturally comes to rest at the lowest point on the V. The installer simply angles the V on the wall so that the door hangs open about 10 degrees when the door is at its resting point.

In these restrooms, a closed door provides the visible sign that the stall door is latched, and therefore in use. An unlatched door always hangs ajar. The system gets all its operating energy from the users, and makes use of the only moving parts that are already needed in any such system - the door and the latch. Simple, efficient, and elegant.

As for your second comment, checking the door by tugging on the handle actually serves two purposes. The first is to confirm to you that the door is indeed latched. The second is to make the current occupant aware that someone else is waiting outside, and they should finish their business. A light or silent signal will not provide feedback to occupant that there is a queue of patrons outside their stall.

  • +1 for the point about 'knocking' on a closed door letting the occupant know you are in line
    – DaveAlger
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 3:10
  • 2
    This was my first thought as well, but to be effective it requires either that all restrooms use this hinge or knowledge of the particular restroom. If I walk into a random restroom and all the doors are closed, I don't know if that's because they use the special hinge and are thus occupied or because they do NOT use the hinge and the open door state isn't a reliable indicator. It is definitely a good idea for any restroom because the open door state is unambiguous, but it doesn't solve the door closed state issue.
    – Drew Beck
    Commented Jan 30, 2015 at 5:33

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