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Crappily crafted cisterns

Do we press here, or there, for the right flush? Why isn't it more intuitive?

Visual cues aside, there's also the fact that those damned half-flushes can be hard to press. Ever attempt to press the smaller button, only to have your finger nipped as the two buttons get stuck?

DO the buttons on dual-flush toilets annoy you as much as they do me? You know, where one round button is split into two half-moons - one to denote a less water-intensive flush (for a, well, less-intensive bodily excretion), and the other to denote a heavier cleanse?

Because those things confound me on a daily basis; from a usability standpoint, they're not always intuitive.

For one thing, they often look exactly the same, with only vague symbols distinguishing either button: a single droplet for a half flush and two droplets for a full flush; or a half-shaded rectangle versus a fully-shaded one. But this isn't always the clearest visual, since the two buttons are of the same size.

But even when the buttons are sized differently, the message isn't clear. While flush buttons are sometimes carved into two unequal parts - the larger one symbolising a full flush, and the smaller one, a half flush - a fancy asymmetrical waxing crescent moon or yin-yang shape makes things needlessly confusing.

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Different-sized flush buttons are problematic, too. I get that the bigger button is supposed to represent a bigger flush. In reality, though, that button is likely to yield more presses thanks to its larger surface area - ultimately going against the dual-flush toilet's raison d'etre.

(First proposed in 1976 by American industrial designer Victor Papanek, dual-flush toilets were suggested as a means to cut down the amount of water used per flush. Wrote Mr Papanek in his book, Design for the Real World: "Because what one does while sitting on a toilet differs in both quantity and quality, it seemed simple to redesign the apparatus so that one could select whether a great deal or only a minimal amount of water was needed for flushing."

It took a good four years before Caroma, a maker of bathroom products, came up with the first practical implementation of a dual-flush cistern.

Countries like Singapore have since reported great water- and cost savings with dual-flush toilets; just last month, PUB said its plan to replace non-water efficient toilet bowls in older public flats will help to reduce monthly water bills by up to 10 per cent, thanks to a savings of five litres of water for each full flush.)

Visual cues aside, there's also the fact that those damned half-flushes can be hard to press - especially the ones with disc-like buttons that have the half- and full-flushes embedded within the same circular area.

Ever attempt to press the smaller button, only to have your finger nipped as the two buttons get stuck? And God help you if you have thicker fingers that can't quite navigate those measly buttons; I hope you're prepared for a life with one less digit.

As my mother says: "Sudah lah, just press both buttons!" - again, defeating the very water-saving purpose of a dual-flush toilet. A side-note for the curious: no, the pressing of both buttons does not add up to one mega flush; it simply means the bigger button is activated, which is the same as pressing only the full-flush button.

In thinking through these issues - the average person visits the restroom about six times a day, so I've had plenty of time to muse about this - I can't help but feel we need a Donald Norman intervention.

You may know him from the phrase, "Norman Door" - a term given to doors so poorly and unintuitively designed that they require a sign to say "push" or "pull". Indeed, Dr Norman - a cognitive scientist and usability engineer, as well as director of The Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego - has spent his life figuring out why even the smartest among us can feel stumped by products that don't work as they should.

His takeaway? Product design frequently ignores the needs of users, as well as fundamental principles of cognitive psychology. So when we push doors that are meant to be pulled or pull doors that are meant to be pushed, Dr Norman would say the fault lies not with us as users, but with the door's shoddy product design. For example, if a door opens with a pushing motion, it should have a flat plate or horizontal bar right at the spot where the pushing should happen - not a graspable vertical rod that invites a pulling motion.

As he notes in his bestselling book, The Design of Everyday Things: "Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable."

Which brings me back to the perverse design of dual-flush toilet buttons.

I suppose there are many ways to make those buttons better - each with their attendant pros and cons.

For an easy win, we could start by making sure that half- and full-flush buttons are placed further apart. That way, no one would be tempted to press and hold both buttons, since that would undoubtedly require more effort.

And while clearer text might help - "pee" and "poo", or "liquid waste" and "solid waste" for the easily-irked - it wouldn't be a comprehensive solution. What if said toilet is deployed in an international airport that serves mostly non-English-speaking travellers? Toilet bowl manufacturers supplying to different corners of the globe would also have to fabricate several buttons in various languages.

For something more universal, we could perhaps use symbols and/or colour codes: a brown shit emoji for a full flush, and one with yellow droplets for a half-flush?

I jest.

Until some inspired designer comes up with a more elegant solution, here's what I plan to do with my toilet at home: make the half-flush button the tool of choice by raising its profile, literally. Since the metal buttons I press rest upon two other buttons (within the toilet tank) that control which flush is used, I'll open the toilet lid and stick something waterproof on the lower half-flush button. That way, when I replace the toilet lid, the smaller metal button will be raised - making it a breeze to press.

Because who said toilet buttons needed to be flush with each other, anyway?

  • Kelly Tay is an ex-BT journalist who now works in the finance industry. She is contactable at