Attention, toilet door is not locked!

Every few weeks, my work at mySociety sees me travelling down to London to meet clients. The Liverpool to London train link is actually very good,1 and it’s run by Virgin Trains, who are, as far as I can tell, one of the more switched-on British rail providers.

I typically book far enough ahead that I get a table seat so I can get stuff done. Even when I don’t get a reservation, I’m usually lucky enough to find space somewhere, often crammed into a two-seater with a person who’s trying as hard as me to pretend—in that most British of ways—that the guy next to them doesn’t exist.

A mid-20th century train carriage full of passengers reading news papers

Today however, dear reader, my cosy schedule was turned upside-down. I not only booked too late to get a reservation, but also turned up to the platform to find every man and his dog was on the 10:47 to London, and un-occupied, un-reserved seats were pretty much nowhere to be seen.

Vultures, dragging wheely suitcases and folded waterproofs, scoured the aisles, while great agglomerations of baggage collected in every spare corner of the train like fat in an over-stressed artery.

On my second pass through carriage D (the unreserved coach) looking for any spaces I might have missed before, I suddenly realised the two seats everyone was ignoring. Quietly folded in the corner of the walkway between the coach D toilet and the doors, was my unassuming throne for the day.

And I mean that with only a hint of sarcasm – by typical standards these seats are actually pretty good. There’s nice air flow from the carriage doors and air conditioning (which is more than could be said for the stuffy, sweaty coaches), lots of natural light, and a good metre or so of leg room (except for when people occasionally wander past).

Folded seats in the Coach D corridor, on a Virgin Pendolino train

As soon as I saw the seats, I wondered whether sitting on them would break some sort of rule. Were they just for people waiting for the toilet? Surely not. Maybe disabled seats, since they're the closest to the door? Not as far as I could tell. They were odd little things, but I figured, if I left it any longer, the vultures would get them. So I sat myself down, and waited for the train to pull away.

It didn’t take long for me to realise the seats also come with a comedy soundtrack for your journey: the sounds of the toilet next door – from people entering, flushing and washing, to the vocal declarations of the door locking system.

Virgin Pendolino toilets, in case you’ve never visited one, are a curiosity of toilet-based over-engineering.

Vaguely pear-shaped in plan, with the toilet bowl, mirror, and miniature sink squished up into the smaller end, the larger, rounded end of the cubicle houses a ridiculous revolving door. This must have seemed like an obvious solution to the train’s designers: doors require space to open into, especially wheelchair-friendly doors, but space is at a premium on a train, so how about a door that slides round? Genius.

“But while we’re at it,” the designer must have said, “let’s make it a game to actually get into the thing. Let’s remove the door handle, and replace it with a button that’s positioned off to the side, so it looks like it opens the carriage door to the right instead.”

Button for opening the toilet door on a Virgin Pendolino train

“Genius!” says a second, “They’ll love that. It’s quirky!”

“And when you get in, let’s present them with three inscrutable buttons to close it again.”

“But won’t that cause embarrassment?” asks the account manager.

“Nah! We’ll paste a little user manual to the wall explaining how the buttons work, and in case they miss that, we’ll add in a stern but calming female voiceover that tells them what they’re doing wrong.”

It feels a bit like a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it’s true. You walk in and you’re faced with this:

The door lock controls on a Virgin Pendolino train

If you’re foolish enough to miss the middle button (perhaps mistaking it for a light, or assuming this space-age toilet must lock itself, given the lack of a manual lock on the door) then after a few seconds the toilet detects your mistake and shouts:

Attention, toilet door is not locked! Attention, toilet door is not locked! To lock the door, press the padlock button.

From my spot outside the cubicle, I imagined hilarious scenes of occupants taking their place on the toilet, trousers around their ankles, when this voice echoes around them, “THE DOOR IS NOT LOCKED!” and like rabbits in the headlights, they themselves suddenly picture someone opening the door on them at that very instant. They dive across the cubicle, half naked, to press the padlock button, desperately attempting to counteract the buffeting of the train, lest their finger over-reach and press the “open door” button, barely an inch lower, instead.

I mean, why on earth are there two buttons, one for closing the door, one for locking it? When does anybody ever want to just close the door, without locking it?2 They obviously realised the little red light above the padlock button wasn’t clear enough, so they added a honking great padlock light further up – but I speak from experience when I say, even with the second padlock light, you have absolutely no trust that the door is actually locked.

Anyway, once you actually lock the door (accompanied by another stern announcement of “TOILET DOOR LOCKED”) and lift the loo seat, you’re greeted by this sticker on the inside:

Sticker on underside of toilet seat, advising you not to flush hopes, dreams, or goldfish down the toilet

For maximal embarrassment factor, a voiceover announces the monologue while you stand there, unsure of whether to start your business, or wait until she’s finished.

Please don’t throw nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams, or goldfish down the toilet.

Somebody at Virgin obviously had fun writing that. And on the train back later that day, I heard a lady chuckling about it as she returned to her seat. But not much in life prepares you for having a toilet speak to you while you start using it.

Even the toilet flusher is over-designed. Why go the easy route and have a handle like every other toilet in the world, when you can instead hide a push-button marked “F” down behind the loo seat?

“What if people leave the loo seat up, or don’t spot the button?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll stick a big sign up, telling them where it is and what it does. People love reading stuff in toilets.”

*sigh*

Sign above toilet flusher, telling you about toilet flusher

The thing is, toilets are the sorts of things you want to operate on auto-pilot. We’re all trained, from a very young age, on how to use toilets. And with a few stylistic alterations, 99% of the toilets we see in our daily life look pretty much the same. The doors either lock with a sliding bar or a rotating latch. The toilet flushes with a lever in the top corner, or a push-button, top centre.

When you encounter, then, a different toilet, those years of practice go out of the window. At the very moment you have only one over-bearing goal in your mind—relief!—you’re instead forced to analyse a panel on the wall and re-learn how a door works.

How hard would it have been for them to put a manual lock on the door? Or even an electric lock that looks like a manual lever? And the toilet flusher – yes, reusing the same button as in the door controls elsewhere probably saves money, but why on earth position it bottom centre of the toilet backplate, where exactly zero people will expect it? To force me to close the lid? Surely there are less confusing solutions.

As a designer it’s often tempting to reinvent the common stuff, to come up with some new take that’ll make your work stand out. But the answer is almost always just to go with what people expect.

Nobody’ll thank you either way, but at least if you build on their existing experiences, they won’t be left fearing indecent exposure while using your toilet.


  1. My previous colleagues at ScraperWiki, who commuted fairly regularly to government offices in London, would regularly joke that their 1h45 commute from Liverpool was quicker and more comfortable than many of their counterparts theoretically “living in London,” out in underground Zone H or something, two hours from the centre. 

  2. My colleague, Mike, suggested the split closing/locking system might be in there for parents who want their children go to the toilet unaided, but don’t want the kids to lock themselves in. Which is fair enough. But during my journey, every single parent who arrived with a child went inside the cubicle with them, rather than waiting outside.