Why are some doors so difficult?

There’s a place near ResIM’s office with notoriously terrible doors. Don’t get me wrong, I like this place. Some weeks I go there 2–3 times, maybe more. But the doors… Every time I go I feel a sense of mutual hostility.

After roughly 15 years of frustration I finally learned that these doors are what some people call “Norman doors,” named after Don Norman, one of the pioneers of user experience design. The first chapter of his classic Design of Everyday Things talks a lot about doors. There’s also a good video by Vox & 99% Invisible (below). Both are worth your time if you design things or just feel strongly about how things are designed.

Being a UX researcher and usability tester, I wanted to confirm whether other people had the same problem I have with these doors. So I decided to do an informal usability study last September during Country Music Week. The event was a chance to observe “new users” from out of town who hadn’t already learned to use the doors “correctly” (though after speaking to more people it seems a lot of us still struggle).

This was far from a rigorous study, but it only took 15 minutes to convince me that I‘m not the problem, the doors are. It’s a small sample but the need for more data declines when you watch people struggle with something as basic as pushing a door open. Results were basically 50/50 for push vs. pull—not a great success rate.

Here are the results from that 15 minutes I spent watching from a nearby bench:

  • 5 people “correctly” pushed the door open.
  • 5 people “incorrectly” pulled the door handle, then figured out to push.
  • 2 people grabbed the handle and paused — possibly to read the sign or to pull weakly before pushing the door open.
  • 3 people pressed the button that automatically opens the door.

(I should add that vastly more people went through the doors as part of a group or just behind someone else. Counting them would’ve just skewed the results. I didn’t count any of the several dozen people who were near the door while it was already open or in the process of closing.)

Key Lessons

Respect standards and norms.

Most swinging doors on commercial buildings in this city swing out. We’re trained that when we approach a building from the outside, the door opens toward us—unless it revolves, slides, or otherwise opens automatically.

Justine demonstrating correct use of the doors

And then there’s the handle. The outer handle on these doors is designed to be pulled. It’s got a good grip. Good leverage. Handles designed for pushing are usually obvious about it—with a flat plate or a horizontal bar. Basically everything about these doors, except the little sign, tells us to pull.

“Innovate when you know you have a better idea (and everyone you show it to says “Wow!”), but take advantage of conventions when you don’t.” Steve Krug

Don’t expect people to read.

The “Push” sign barely helps. (I vaguely remember the sign being added after the building opened, and thinking, “I guess I’m not the only one who can’t use these doors.”) 

The sign is largely useful for “error recovery.” It keeps us from giving up or breaking things. By the time we notice the sign we’ve started to struggle and feel frustration. It can even make people feel even more annoyed and ashamed. It might as well say, “Push, you dummy.”

Don’t make people think.

To complicate things even more, immediately beside these doors is a nearly-identical set that opens the other way. If you veer right, the doors open in. If you veer a few feet to the left, the doors open out. Can you see the difference in the picture below?

Image of two sets of doors, one that swings out and one that swings in.

Maybe this was done to make things easier for people. I can imagine a thought process that goes something like this:

  • “Most people walk on the right.”
  • “Pushing the door open is slightly easier than pulling.”
  • Ergo, let’s make it easier both ways by making it so the doors on the right are always pushed, whether entering or exiting.”

But logic often backfires when we’re talking about human behaviour. Opening a door isn’t hard for most people. What is hard is learning a new mental model (“bearing right through a ‘main entrance’ = push door”) and trying to remember where and when it applies.

“There’s great inertia in users’ mental models: stuff that people know well tends to stick, even when it’s not helpful. This alone is surely an argument for being conservative and not coming up with new interaction styles.” Jakob Nielsen

Different isn’t always better.

The worst that happens when you stick to conventions is you keep the thing boring. It’s probably ok to bore people for a few seconds while they walk through the door — or log onto your website, or open up your app, etc. The real value is what they see and do and feel and remember when they get in.

Things like doors and login processes are basic or must-have features that don’t increase overall satisfaction on their own. But they can decrease satisfaction when they’re missing or done poorly. This is where the Kano model comes in handy.

“Capabilities that users expect will frustrate those users when they don’t work. However, when they work well, they don’t delight those users. A basic expectation, at best, can reach a neutral satisfaction point where it, in essence, becomes invisible…” Jared Spool

Trying to improve basic features can be a dangerous game, usually with high risks and low rewards. Apple has played this game fairly well over the years, but usually for higher rewards, guided by long-term vision and strategy, not just immediate incremental improvements.

Even if the risks seem relatively low, people do have a tendency to notice and remember negative features more than positive ones. People remember feeling stupid. They remember being laughed at—or feeling laughed at.

That’s why you’re more likely to see a Facebook post calling your doors “the worst” (actual Facebook comment about these doors) than you are to see posts saying “those doors work great!” Especially when they don’t.

Change can be great, but count the stakes and make sure it’s actually an improvement. Make it worth the risk.