May 202012

Last weekend I took my daughter and one of her friends to meet up with some other friends in her class to see The Avengers movie.

Look carefully at the "push" bar

On the way into the theater, I snapped the picture on the right.

I’m not a great photographer, and I shot the picture with her iPhone (since I’d left mine at home… different story). It may not be obvious from the picture what is happening/has happened.

Christie is pushing on the push plate of the glass door. She is actually leaning on it with all her weight.

The door is unlocked. We eventually do go through it.

But the door operates by “pull”.

The Design of Everyday Things

I must have been through this same door many times. You can find it at the closest, biggest and most convenient mall to where I live.

The reason I’m sharing it with you now is that ALL THREE of us walked straight into the door. We might have had a split second to observe the failure of our comrade in front of us… but each of us plowed straight into it anyway.

After the episodic laughter you can assume came next, I realized I’d read about this many times in The Design of Everyday Things.

If you work in the domains referred to as Human Factors, User-Centered Design or User Experience (UX), you’ve probably read the book and know much more about the subject than I do.

As I read it, though, I remember thinking about several times in my life I’d walked into glass doors before or taken some other action for which “walking into a glass door” is a suitable metaphor – accidentally deleting files, tearing a pant leg on the “decorative” rose-shaped cabinet knobs in our kitchen, messing up the pre-programming of a universal remote, or a host of other examples.

Obligations of design

Have you ever walked into a glass door? Have you ever pushed on a pull plate (or the opposite), or pushed the “wrong” side of a door because you didn’t know if it swung left or right?

If so, did you take a moment and consider how silly you must have looked and how foolish that you did it… before realizing that the basic design of the door was misleading, or at least suggestive of an interaction inconsistent with what really needed to happen?

In this, I’m not looking to pass the buck. Designers have choices of materials, structures, operating mechanisms, etc. Why would you design something that will trick people?

Assuming it’s not intentional, we place a lot of obligation on the part of designers to make their designs intuitive and simple – and that accounts for just two of the constraints they have to consider. Other factors might include weight, smooth operation, timing, security… or aesthetics.

Obligations of consumers

In the case of the glass door, I was a user/operator, but the builders of the mall were the consumers of the design. Why would they have bought and installed a door with a push plate that needed to be pulled?

Were they trying to trick people? I think now of that commercial in which the two pied crows laugh at the human for running into the squeaky-clean patio door.


Like designers, consumers of designs have a lot of choices and constraints in their decisions. They may have thought the door looked “brand-right” for the design of the mall (aesthetics). They may have just had a lot of those doors in stock, which they bought at a discount (cost).

Our mission, should we choose to accept it

Where are you designing tricks on people with the solutions you offer them? Have you ever thought about it?

If not, you’re the unaware designer, accidentally pushing your designs on others without realizing they keep walking into glass doors.

Or are you purchasing, procuring or otherwise shipping products to your user community that has the same ultimate effect? Are you the unaware consumer of faulty designs?

All the labor-saving devices...

I think about that every time I hear a gracious end user apologetically describing (often in a self-deprecating way) some issue she or he has had with my team’s software, as if she had made a silly mistake when I can think of a half-dozen ways we might have designed the software differently.

I think about the sometimes-arrogance we can have as designers and engineers when we say that our customers won’t know what they really want until we deliver it to them. In most cases what they want is to “get through the door”, and all the rest is bells and whistles.

Perhaps we can’t expect every customer need. We can’t anticipate all the ways our systems will be used once we set them in motion. It isn’t worth it to simplify or automate every scenario… especially if the result becomes as complicated in its simplicity as the old-school VCR.

But we can adopt a philosophy of care for our customers and the users of our designs, accepting the tradeoffs in our design decisions while we also listen to their complaints and frustrations in a way that we notice opportunities to make things better.

And if this was an interesting post for you, you may also like this drive-up ATM everybody has to walk up to… that is also designed for the visually impaired.

  6 Responses to “The Design of Everyday Things”

  1. The most important word you used was “care.” If you care, a lot of this falls into place. I have observed colleagues who give up too quickly and say “I’ve done all I can. It’s up to them now.” When in fact there are opportunities to help right under their nose. Usually, a lack of time to pursue such opportunities is a factor. So as managers, we need to give people space and slack and show them that we care about them and the quality of what they produce. If we show our staff that we want them to hurry to the next thing, we will get what we deserve.

    • Thanks, David. Another way that NOT caring shows up for me is having an IT backlog that customers can start to think is a black hole. It is a fact that we are all limited in capacity and that we have to prioritize things – even when we find a design flaw that we wish we had caught sooner.

      As you said, it is a problem when we say “I have done all I can do…” Though our capacities are always limited, can we ask for help, can we retain contractors, can we change the game in ways that give capacity back? And if not, how we communicate about our limitations and priorities is a vitally important demonstration of care.

  2. Hi Ken,
    I agree that caring about the end user and how they will interact with you r product is the foundation
    of successful and user friendly products. A major part of that is trying to understand how the mind works “at least most minds” and design products that follow a simple human thought pattern, “natural mapping”.
    I’m a product designer and I always have to think, who is using this? how are they gong to use this item? Does it simply make sense?
    I often test out my designs on my 11 year old, he’s a smart kid but his intuitive nature is amazing.
    Nice piece, Thanks

    • Thank you, Marc. I was just speaking with one of my staff today who said we had a “training issue” with one of our apps, and my reply was that perhaps in some cases we have given people too many options so they are confused, and in other cases we give them too few options and they can’t figure out where to find what they want.

      As soon as you notice this domain, it shows up everywhere.

  3. […] yet insightful, review on the design of everyday things #Design #Usability Link – Trackbacks Posted in User experience (UX) | Permalink. ← 23 Fresh and High […]

Leave a Reply