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Could tech upgrades increase Covid risk? Covid-19 risk in public washrooms


Authors: Ilona Posner
Posted: Wed, February 02, 2022 - 11:40:43

Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry faucet instructions in English and French. Photo by Ilona Posner
Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry faucet instructions in English and French. Photo by Ilona Posner

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 this airport in November 2021, I was surprised and saddened to see a change.

Previously, this airport had traditional washroom faucets that dispensed water at any temperature and were activated by sensors touch-free. The old faucets in the airport were replaced by the high-tech Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry all-in-one faucet and hand-dryer device.

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, and to the sides for air. These instructions are written in German on stickers attached to the faucets and on trilingual signs in English, German, and French on the mirror in front of the sink (see below). Travelers speaking other languages, or those who are visually impaired, need not bother with these instructions.

Faucet instructions in English, French, & German on the mirror (left). German only instructions on the faucet handle (right). Photos by Ilona Posner
Faucet instructions in English, French, and German on the mirror (left). German only instructions on the faucet handle (right). Photos by Ilona Posner

Unfortunately, this important information is not at all obvious to the weary travelers passing through the airport! Instead of water, they are often surprised by a blast of air from the faucet. My first attempt at handwashing resulted in me being showered by foamy white soap. The same thing happened to my washroom neighbor. I almost got a picture of the annoyed lady cleaning the wet mess off the shiny black countertop, while swearing in German under her breath!

Wet counters with Dyson AirBlade Wash & Dry faucets in two different places at the Zurich airport (left) and the Louvre Museum, Paris (right). Photos by Ilona Posner
Wet counters with Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry faucets at the Zurich airport (left) and the Louvre Museum, Paris (right). Photos by Ilona Posner

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. Considering all the different types of dirt people might try to wash off in an airport, 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, just one week before the Zurich airport, a student shared an image of the Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry during a discussion of good and bad designs in my UX Design class at the University of Toronto. In the next class, I shared my airport story with this same device.

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 the coronaviruses with forced air propelled by hand dryers.

'Gesspert Für Ihre Sicherheit' ('Closed for your safety') sign on a Dyson AirBlade Hand-dryer in Graz, Austria (left). 'Caution, hand dryer out of service. Please use the provided paper towels,' sign at the Lindt Home of Chocolate Museum, Kilchberg, Switzerland (right). Sept 2021. Photos by Ilona Posner
“Gesspert Für Ihre Sicherheit” (“Closed for your safety”) sign on a Dyson AirBlade hand dryer in Graz, Austria (left). "Caution, hand dryer out of service. Please use the provided paper towels" sign at the Lindt Home of Chocolate Museum, Kilchberg, Switzerland, September, 2021 (right). Photos by Ilona Posner

Before concluding, let’s estimate the cost of the rollout for replacing the 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 temperature controlling 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:

TABLE:  Comparison cost of traditional faucet set up with Dyson AirBlade Wash + Dry.

The rough estimate shows about a tenfold difference between the original faucets and the Dyson upgrade. Unfortunately, some technology upgrades do not improve users’ experience despite 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 estimate.

Finally, after I passed security, I was thrilled to find a washroom with traditional faucets. These older designs enabled me to refill my water bottle with cool, clean Swiss tap water that I could safely bring with me on board the plane for the nine-hour trip home. Thanks, ZRH!

 Traditional sinks in an airport washroom.
Airport washroom with traditional faucets. 



Posted in: on Wed, February 02, 2022 - 11:40:43

Ilona Posner

ILONA POSNER is a user experience consultant and 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 tries to help techies develop empathy for their users. ilonap@gmail.com
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