So I stop at a local gas station/convenience store needing my customary Diet Mountain Dew. However, before I onload 32 ounces of refreshment, I need to visit the little strategic marketer’s room.

This is a very common store in my beloved St. Louis, so I am familiar with its layout. The ATM is in the same place in all of them, so is the soda fountain. I round the corner and dodge a young man holding a mop, leading a mop bucket out of a store room.

To my immediate right are two bright red doors. As I dodge the mop bucket and mop-wielding 20-something, the store room bumps out just a bit, so the placard identifying the gender of the restroom at my right is not clearly in my line of sight.

But the placard to the left of the second door is clearly marked “Women.”

The mop-guy cries out as I swing open the door on the right. “Dude – the men’s room is down the hall.”

Confused, I let go of the door. In my peripheral vision, I see the sign next to the door on my left.

“Women.”

I reach for the door again and think, “kids today.” Mop-guy warns me again, “You don’t want to go in there.”

I look, and to my right is another placard. It clearly says “Women.”

This particular store had been remodeled in the last several months, and the restrooms had been expanded. By rotating my head to the left an additional 30 degrees, I could see a door marked “men’s restroom” further down the hall (back where I would have guessed the back door would be). In this case, the planners clearly decided to save money by not knocking down the wall between the old men’s room and the ladies’ room and removing the door. Instead, they opted to simply place an extra sign on the walls – reminiscent of the dubious solutions archived on the website “There, I Fixed It.”

A key aspect of usability is not surprising the user with novelty.

Whether it is restrooms, brochures or websites, there are certain things that are expected to function a certain way. These are called affordances. If your novel idea deviates from a common practice, you may be introducing a problem.

Novelty is not bad all the time. Certainly a GUI* beats the heck out of using DOS commands to run a computer, but the likelihood of your particular project being the breakthrough idea in user engagement is fairly remote. Requiring your user to relearn how to engage your content has a high probability of creating headaches.

I have seen software developers shave a couple hours off a project by not improving a flawed usability feature, only to cause countless hours of extra work by the end users.

Mop-guy and I talked for a few minutes. Since the redesign, he had spent a lot of his time keeping gents out of the ladies room. Think about that for a moment. If he spends an extra 10 minutes a day correcting for poor bathroom usability planning, his boss loses an hour of his time every week – even before we consider the opportunity cost of what mop-guy should have been doing.

When considering a design – whether it is a presentation, a website, packaging or brochure – carefully consider the usability features, and ask yourself if it will confuse the user.