Start asking questions!
Today’s business people don’t just need to understand designers better. They need to become designers — Roger Martin
To step into the UX design world, the first thing we can develop in ourselves is to have prepared minds. You need to understand that the biggest part of user experience is what you don’t objectively see but, rather, what you feel. Because as UX designers, you are to advocate for users. If you don’t understand what their pain points, goals, desires are; who does? And in order to successfully build a rapport with your users, you should be able to empathize with them, to view your products through their eyes. You don’t have to be a born artist or a gifted designer, to begin with; but initially, you can start asking questions — begin with most redundant things, like doors.
To push or to pull — it’s a lifetime question
Now, you’ve probably never given much thought to doors. In fact, you’d ask, “Doors? What’s with them?”. Please, bear with me though.
Imagine this, on a sunny day, we pace along with our favorite songs in our ears on a journey to a fancy coffee shop. Swiftly, without pausing, we reach out to push a door that will lead us to delicious cupcakes and a swirly cappuccino then… *THUD* the door doesn’t budge because it ain’t a f-king PUSH door. As we flusteredly look around for any instruction on this door, our confidence cracks, our mood gets disrupted — gone from superb to whatever. All because of a door!!!
Almost everyone of us has experienced a situation where the door didn’t behave as we had expected intuitively. Some could have been in way more embarrassing scenarios — we could be slamming into a glass door without even realizing, then shamefully find ways to get through it. We could have been lost in the most innovative thought that could have opened to an entirely new discovery, but it was shattered due to the hinderance at the badly designed door.
A closer look
Let’s take a step back and do some observations.
Most of the time, instead of having doors open in both directions, most doors are one-way direction trips, meaning either inwards or outwards — as in human language, push or pull. Because we tend to spend as little effort as possible, with our human instinctual behavior to conserve energy whenever we could which is another sophisticated way of saying we are naturally so lazy that it is often the case that we more likely choose to push a door first. And yet, when we see something that fits the grip of our hands, our brain screams “PULL THE LEVER, KRONK!”.
Sometimes, we get confused facing doors that seemingly look like they should be pushed while their labels signal us to pull and vice versa. This is where things get interesting.
We start realizing that no matter how big or small the door is, we interact with it mostly through its handle; except for the automatic doors since they aren’t manhandled (duh!). And there are so many different designs for that — namely lever, knob, grip, latch, etc. Occasionally, we encounter a slight variation of them, however, in the end all of their usability reasonably works in certain cases and also fails in others.
We can ask a bunch of generic questions like:
- What is the exact problem?
- Who are the users?
- Why do some doors open outwards while some open inwards?
- Why do some certain doors have instruction labels (push/pull) on themselves and others don’t?
- What should be good examples of door design?
- Why do the existing designs work/fail?
As we’re getting into the topic, let’s go even deeper by making more specific questions:
- Do users unknowingly expect the different types of door handles in order to behave accordingly?
- In which situations should doors be set to open outwards?
- Would the door’s aesthetics be affected if they have different handle types on either side? (E.g. one for push behavior, another one indicating pull action)
- And so on.
Then, I did a little digging myself and…
My initial investigation concluded that most exterior doors in buildings are set to open outwards to prevent the cold wind blows the doors wide open and gets inside the building during winter time. On another note, the design choice also helps the doors close tighter to their frame, which reduces heat loss. Well, I was wronger than wrong. When the weather gets colder, the pressure built up from the warmer air inside the building will actually try to push its way out as to balance itself, hence, my wrong conclusion.
The correct answer is to prioritize the human escaping flow optimization. Because people need to get out as fast as possible under safety hazards like fire, so when the horde march, there won’t be a situation where the door can’t be opened due to the mass of people trying to push against it.
How do we choose door handles now that we know our typical user behavior? As long as doors are open outwards, we can use the handles with a strong “pull” cue on the outside, that tend to have a vertical long shape and are easy to grasp.
But do we need to use the same type for the other side too? The answer is “it depends”, as many would lean towards the symmetrical aesthetic purpose. In case we want it to be symmetrical, meaning the same type that hints “pull” to be used on the inside, we should put on the “push/pull” labels on both sides to indicate distinguished actions Although it may look beautifully balanced, it is definitely creating bad functionality leading to user frustration as discussed above, that is something we are trying to avoid.
Otherwise, a horizontal bar should be used on the inner side. Because it is an effective solution implying a “push” behavior. I have often seen its frequent use mainly in emergency fire exit doors. Some even push their cue stronger (puns intended) with vertical push plates with nothing to grab.
Although, this solution can’t really be used with glass doors because, you know, aesthetics reason. Thus, there is no really perfect solution, and bad doors are everywhere.
Remember, we are just scratching the surface of the iceberg on this short article. And the same principles can be applied to other things as well. So how we proceed after acknowledging the issue and where we are going next? Stay tune for my next in-depth excavation in this series.
By Nam Nhu – April 8, 2019