Design Fail: I Just Wanted to Take a Shower

An unconventional and unobvious bathtub faucet design made it way too hard to take a shower.

Karl Wiegers

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A photo of a showerhead with water coming out of it.
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Physical devices that lack signifiers to reveal proper usage can be perplexing. I was taking a shower while staying at a friend’s home. That is, I was trying to. I couldn’t see how to divert the water from the bathtub’s water spout to the showerhead. I’ve taken showers in many bathtubs, but this one baffled me. I eventually had to call out to my friend’s wife and ask for the magic trick to change a bath into a shower. It turns out there was a ring cleverly concealed beneath the tub’s water spout (circled in the photo below) that I had to pull down to divert the water to the showerhead.

A photo of an unconventional bathtub water faucet design with a concealed diverter to make the water come out of the showerhead.
This bathtub spout has a concealed control to divert water to the showerhead.

That diverter control was invisible from above; nothing hinted at its presence. The ring failed the discoverability test that lets a user know a control is available. It was unobvious, but it was easy to use once someone told me where it was. I just had to remember the counterintuitive action of pulling something down to make the water go up to the showerhead. You know, like in practically every other bathtub faucet I’ve seen.

I didn’t feel quite so dumb when I learned that another friend also struggled when he bought a house with the same sort of water diverter. We both have traveled extensively, and we both have taken a lot of showers in unfamiliar places. My friend learned how to take a shower in his new home through a web search. Should you need a web search to understand how to use such a commonplace object? I don’t think so.

Since my book The Thoughtless Design of Everyday Things was published, two additional readers have shared with me that they had the identical issue with the same bathtub spout. We all felt silly that we couldn’t figure it out. However, when you have difficulty trying to use an unfamiliar product, that’s often a sign of a design deficiency, not user incompetence.

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Karl Wiegers

Author of 14 books, mostly on software. PhD in organic chemistry. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids. karlwiegers.com and processimpact.com