UX Consultant & Educator
Cutting-edge technology upgrades always promise improvements but do not always deliver, despite the considerable efforts and costs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel safety is a great concern. Many airports closed drinking fountains for fear of spreading COVID-19. Or perhaps they did it to increase the sale of bottled water. In either case, travelers need to search hard to find free drinking water to refill their bottles after passing through security, before boarding flights.
Zurich airport was one place with easy access to clean and trustworthy Swiss drinking water! On my trip through the airport in November 2021, I was surprised to see a change.
This airport, previously, had traditional washroom faucets dispensing water at any temperature and activated by touchless sensors. The old faucets in the airport were replaced by the high-tech Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry all-in-one faucet+hand-dryer devices.
So, now instead of being able to get warm water for washing or cold water for drinking, these faucets deliver either warm water or warm air at high-pressure. The user must place their hands directly under the center of the faucet for water, or to the sides for air. These instructions are written on stickers attached to the faucets and on signs on the mirror in front of the sink (see Figure). Travelers speaking any language other than German, English, and French, are not availed of the instructions. But, why would anyone need instructions to use a faucet?
Unfortunately, this faucet requires precise actions which are not evident to weary travelers! Instead of water, users are often surprised by a blast of air from the faucet. My first attempt at hand-washing resulted in me being showered by foamy white soap. The same thing happened to my washroom neighbor. I almost got a picture of the poor lady cleaning the mess off the shiny black countertop, while swearing in German under her breath!
In my day job as a User Experience Consultant, I conduct usability tests of technology to see how real users react. Given this informal two-user usability test, I am concerned about the decreased hygiene at the Zurich airport.
Consider all the different dirt people try to wash off in an airport washroom, anytime, not just during a pandemic. Imagine the horror of a sudden gust of forced-air sending filth flying around the room, to land on unsuspecting passengers. I have traveled with babies and had to clean them in airport washrooms. This difficult task has been made harder by the Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry.
Ironically, one week before my Zurich airport visit, a student shared an image of this device during the discussion of good and bad designs in my UX Design class, at the University of Toronto. In the following class, I shared my hand-washing story with the class.
One more detail worth mentioning is that this change of faucets happened during the pandemic. At this same time as Zurich airport upgraded the faucets to AirBlades Wash + Dry, other airports and public places, turned off forced-air hand-dryers due to concerns about spreading of COVID-19 virus with increased air circulation caused by forced-air hand dryers.
Before concluding, let’s look at the cost of the roll-out, at the estimated budget for replacing traditional faucets at Zurich International Airport. Don’t forget that to quench the travelers’ thirst they will also need to add water fountains to replace the functionality lost with the original faucets. Plus, I don’t know the value of commission earned from the sale of all the hardware. But, let’s just look at a rough estimate in this table.
2x Basic faucet
1x Hand Dryer
Touchless w motion sensor
Dyson AirBlade wall-mounted
2x 42 Euro, or 2x $47 USD
1x 304 Euro
TOTAL from 388 Euro
2x Dyson AirBlade Wash+Dry
1xTouchfree Hydration Solution
All-in-one washer + dryer
1,000-1,600 Euro/$1,800 USD
1x 1,000 Euro
TOTAL from 3,000 Euro
TABLE: Comparing the cost of the traditional faucet setup with Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry.
Unfortunately, some technology upgrades do not improve users’ experience regardless of the cost.
Post Script: On my return trip home through ZRH Zurich Airport, I again encountered these Dyson faucets. I noticed that when the airflow activated the faucet moved at its base on the sink. Its forced air was so strong that it almost propelled the faucet by blowing it out of the sink. The movement of plumbing components is never a good thing, I can speak from experience having had many plumbing projects in my home. This suggests that the Dyson faucets will require additional maintenance during their lifetime, suggesting an increase to the above cost estimates.
Finally, after I passed security, I was thrilled to find a washroom with traditional faucets. These older devices enabled me to refill my water bottle with clean cool Swiss tap water that I could safely bring with me on board the plane for the 9-hour trip home. Thanks, ZRH.
About the Author:
ILONA POSNER is a User Experience Consultant & Educator. She enjoys encounters with good design and is enraged by bad design which jeopardizes users’ experience, health, and safety. ilona teaches UX Design to Computer Science students at the University of Toronto and aims to inspire empathy among techies for their users.