Observation: Habits are Hard to Unlearn

posted in: User Experience | 0

Our company just went through a series of renovations, during part of which our department was temporarily housed in a conference room on a different floor. This past week, we finally made the move back to our original floor to our permanent seats!

So many things are different: new standing desks, a larger kitchen, a redesigned reception area, and different neighbors. But even though almost everything has changed, I’m pretty sure that one thing has remained constant: the bathroom. It’s in exactly the same location and there was nothing wrong with it to begin with, so there’d be no reason to rebuild it or replace anything, right?

Yet, after our 5-month absence, it feels subtly – but noticeably – different.

Every day of this past week, I’ve finished my business, washed my hands, turned to leave, and wondered why the faucet was still running. Shouldn’t it have shut off by now? No, of course not, because it’s not automatic. And if my memory serves, I don’t think it ever was. But the faucets on our temporary floor were.

This illustrates the fact that, once we get used to how something works, it’s hard to make adjustments – even if it’s to go back to the way things originally were. In fact, it might even be the case that it’s easier to ditch an old system and learn a new one than it is to ditch (or unlearn) a new system and go back to the old. I had automatic faucets, man, and I liked them.

It only applies to systems in the same context, however – I don’t leave a trail of running faucets everywhere I go, but I see this particular sink and this particular set up, and I think ‘automatic’. I also noticed that it applies to the toilets: all of them flush automatically except for one, and I’ve frequently come across some unexpected leftovers in that particular stall.

The curious thing is that I don’t stand in front of the sink bewildered, wondering why the water hasn’t turned on. I automatically know that I have to reach out and physically lift the handle, and this reintroduced action doesn’t enter my awareness in the slightest. But then I get distracted by admiring my new pearly white teeth, and my brain quickly clicks into automatic-faucet mode.

How long will it take to get readjusted? Only time will tell. But it goes to show that UX insights can come from anywhere, even the most unlikely of places.


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