Case Study - Starbucks Bathroom Codes

A Story About Bathroom Codes

I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Capitola, working on my laptop, when I feel the need to go to the bathroom. I get up, glance around and see that the hallway continues down around the corner.  There aren't signs, but I'm guessing this must be where the bathrooms are.

I walk to the end of the hallway, and turn the corner. I see the bathroom doors. For a split second, I am gratified. I was right! But as abruptly as it comes, it ends.

What are these? The handles have keypads. Great. Looks like I need a key code.  
I turn and walk back to the counter. Crap—there's a line. I edge past the people in line, up to the pastry display, and try to get the attention of one of the baristas.  One walks back into the kitchen.  The others are working the espresso machines past the register. Hmm—no luck. I turn to the barista at the register who's talking to one of the customers. For a moment, I feel like I'm ordering a drink at a club. "Excuse me," I butt in. "What's the code to the bathroom?"

She turns to me: "it's one five nine three five."  I stand there for a moment, repeating the number back to myself, half out loud.  "One five nine three five."  I think I have it, but it takes a moment before I'm confident. I turn and walk away.

I walk back down the hall. "One five nine three five." I have to repeat the number back to myself to keep it from escaping. I approach the lock.  I repeat the number back to myself once more, entering the numbers into the keypad as I go. "One.... five.. nine..... three... five." Momentarily there is suspense.  Did I get it right?  

This time I did.  The light flashes green. 
If only it was this easy
Most of the time, using the bathroom is pretty easy. We take if for granted. As far as design goes—it's not the most glamorous of topics, but most of the time, the bathroom UX is pretty good. Generally, the process would looks something like this:

  (1) Walk to end of corridor to locate bathroom
  (2) Wait (if bathroom is occupied)
  (3) Use bathroom

But consider what happens when a code is introduced:

  (1) Walk to end of corridor to locate bathroom
  (2) Experience micro-disappointment  "oh, I need a code"
  (3) Walk back down corridor
  (4) Cut through line of customers to reach counter
  (5) Get attention of barista  "Excuse me"
  (6) Ask for code  "What's the code for the bathroom"
  (7) Listen to code  "The code is 1-5-9-3-5"
  (8) Confirm code with barista, by repeating it back "1-5-9-3-5"
  (9) Walk back down corridor to bathroom, repeating the code
  (10) Wait (if bathroom is occupied)
  (11) Summon code, by repeating it back to myself "1-5-9-3-5"
  (12) Enter code
  (13) Momentary Suspense
  (14) Receive confirmation / denial
  (15) Use bathroom

Mapped out, this looks over the top. But I suppose that's my point; look how complex they've made it. These are all steps and elements of the bathroom code experience. Collectively—which is to say, spread out over hundreds of customers daily—this is a lot of micro-disappointments, useless codes committed to memory and interrupted coffee orders.  It "solves" one medium-sized problem, but leaves many smaller ones in its place.
The design process in reverse.
Bathroom codes don't just cause problems for me, the sensitive designer. Later, for example, when I got back from the bathroom and was working on my laptop, I watched a poor old lady with a cane hobble all the way down the hall, to the bathroom, only to be forced to make the return journey, this time disappointed. She too, had to to walk up to the counter, and get the attention of the Barista, and commit a 5-digit code to her frail memory.

So how exactly did we get to five-digit bathroom codes? And why do we need them?
Starbucks: upping the ante on hackers with 5-digit codes
Obviously bathroom codes exist because Starbucks doesn't want you abusing the free bathrooms. But even if you just go in to use the restroom, there's a fair chance you'll end up buying something. This would be a net gain for Starbucks. And let's say, for the sake of argument, that you don't. Does it really cost them more than a few pennies? Mixed in with all the paying customers, the marginal cost of your bathroom use is arguably negligable: a flush and a paper towel. 

Obviously, most people are not the real problem. I think the general fear is that the "bad apples" will cause trouble.

Not all Starbucks' have bathroom codes. Maybe in the case of this Capitola Starbucks, too many homeless people were wandering in, making messes and spoiling the atmosphere. I'll admit that the homeless aren't renown for their ambiance. Or their hygience.

Throw in a hooligan or two and a graffiti artist now and then, and you'll end up with a bathroom that has a few more odors in the air, carvings in the mirror, and paper towels on the ground. But I guess this begs the question: why are they in Starbucks? 

In Santa Cruz county, but more generally in the United States, public restrooms (outside of parks and schools) don't really exist. Cities can't afford to build restrooms, or even maintain them, so they don't. Then people (homeless or not) don't have anywhere to pee. Vandals don't have territory to mark. This forces everyone into Starbucks, whether they want coffee or not. 

So depending on if my napkin root cause analysis is correct, you might say that bathroom codes are either the fault of (1) Free riders: people (regular, homeless, vandals) who use bathrooms without paying (2) Starbucks' fault, for being cheap and not providing public restrooms (3) The government's fault, for not funding more public restrooms, or (4) Your own fault, for not giving the government enough money to fund public bathrooms. In other words, there are really any number of interrelated problems, and as we pull ourselves closer to the true cause, we circling back on ourselves.

Starting at a high level, and working down, here is my [purely speculative] take on why we might have 5-digit bathroom codes:

(1) The American psyche believes in self reliance, individual responsibility, low taxes and the magic of free-market capitalism
(2) This leads to public funding shortages, poverty wages, offshoring, social frustration, homelessness and vandalism
(3) These things create a shortage of public restrooms, and an excess of social misery
(4) A shortage of public restrooms means everyone is forced to go to Starbucks, lest they pee and defacate outside
(5) Starbucks becomes a quasi-public coffeeshop, and their bathrooms take more abuse than if they were just a coffeeshop
(6) Bathroom codes are implemented, as cost and ambiance-saving measure

In other words, we are all bad apples. And five-digit bathroom codes are a product of our own design.
And A Few Ideas
I won't pretend I can solve the problem at the level of national psyche; this would be the best solution, as it would rid society of many of its ills: homelessness, poverty, crime, vandalism, free-market capitalism, and restroom shortages.

But I think I might have some ideas about how to tackle the problem at levels 4 and 5—the stages where the public lacks bathrooms, and we're all forced to go to Starbucks. There are a few ways you might go about this:

(1) Have coffee-drinkers bear the cost:
This one involves math. In this solution, we calculate the exact financial loss associated with vandalism and janitorial work—what the occasional trashing of the bathroom costs. Assume that once or twice a year, somebody is gonna sh*t on the floor, or spray paint the walls, and it will involve some capital expenditures.

Then calculate the "ambiance cost" of free riders—which is to say, those unsavory individuals like you and me who pee without paying, as well as homeless people and vandals. Having us shuffle through the shop, straight to the back, might result in some lost business, and degradation of ambiance.

Then factor in the gains to business—those who come in to pee, and end up walking out with coffee. For the sake of our calculations, we will assume that the influx of peeing/paying customers offsets the psychological cost (in lost coffee purchases) of a tarnished ambiance.

Our solution will be automatic and invisible: an ad-hoc restroom tax. Let's do some napkin math:
   Starbucks 2470 41st Street, Soquel CA
   Store hours: 4:30 am – 10:00 pm: 17.5 business hours
   Hourly Coffees served: ~60 (this is low-balling it)
   Daily Bathroom Maintenance: 1 staff hr ~$12 
   Yearly Bathroom Materials Fees: $400 (mirrors, tiles, plumbing)
   Daily Coffees: 17.5 x 60 = 1,050.  
   Daily Maintenance Fee: $13
   Coffee Surcharge: $13/1,050 = $.0123 or 1 penny

A 1 cent bathroom tax. I didn't plan out or tweak this math, and it's probably wrong. But even if it came in five times higher, I still think it's still very reasonable: five cents for bathroom access.  

This kind of fee doesn't even factor in the productivity gains that come from not having your staff play a constant game of bathroom code telephone. And it's still totally reasonable!

Most people would pay an extra five cents for a headache-free bathroom experience, and for occasional restroom privileges when they don't want coffee. Right now it costs me $3.65 for my tall Mocha and a shitty bathroom experience. I'd gladly pay $3.70 for a tall mocha and a lovely bathroom experience.

(2) Make the taxpayers pay
This solution is like the first, only instead of charging the customer, Starbucks charges the local government for some of the costs associated with owning and maintaining a quasi-public restroom. This would involve some pretty straighforward math: calculate the percentage of restroom use come from non-paying customers. Charge the government on an annual basis: users x days x avg cost per use. In this way, the govermnent effectively subsidizes bathroom use, and Starbucks' maintenance costs are more equitably shared with the general public, who abuses their restrooms.

(3) Make the advertisers pay
I think service design that involves too much technology is usually crap, but in this case it might be warranted. The idea is that before you can use the restroom (and the door unlocks), you'll be asked to watch a 10 second advertisement on a screen embedded in the outer side of the restroom door. To retain ambiance, and protect the Jazz music, the ad would be captioned, or maybe be designed to read like a moving advertisement. Starbucks would use this ad revenue to offset the cost of restroom maintenance, and to advertise its products and services (the starbucks app, frappucinos, etc). And although you would pay with ten seconds of your life, you wouldn't be forced to loop back to the counter, or endure the cognitive load of a 5-digit code.

•  •  •  •  • 

I guess the lessons here are twofold: (1) At the end of the day, if you and I want a better bathroom experience at starbucks, we're going to have to pay for it (2) The cost would be very reasonable, and much "cheaper" than a five-digit bathroom code.
Case Study - Starbucks Bathroom Codes

Case Study - Starbucks Bathroom Codes

A fun little tale about Starbucks bathroom codes
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