Opening Doors

August 2009


Our brains work really hard to keep us happy. We go along in our daily lives—talking, walking, eating, reading, driving, operating computers, acting appropriately in a variety of settings—and we don’t consciously think about any of it. As long as things run smoothly, we’re happy. But when we try to open a door and it doesn’t open, or we bump our heads as we get into a car, or a leak-proof container empties itself inside our gym bag, or our finger gets stuck while changing the vacuum cleaner bag—we tend to get cranky. We have to stop, understand what happened, determine how to avoid it in the future, decide how we feel, and then get on with our day. After any such mini-catastrophe, we generally blame an object’s design, and rightly so.


Let’s look more closely at opening a door. As we approach the door, the brain searches for clues as to how the door operates and then directs our muscles to act in accordance. When obvious physical clues are not present, the process fails. Doors, like any object, are designed for both function and aesthetics. Doors must be functional without exception, so aesthetics should be a lower priority than ease of use, but this is often not the case, as we’ve all experienced.


We’ve all seen doors with a horizontal bar spanning the door’s width to indicate “push” but not whether to push on the left side or right side. A door with a knob or handle lets us know which side of the door to operate, but not whether to push or pull.


Designers must strike a compromise between aesthetics and ease of use for the typical user. A major difficulty is that designers are not typical users. Designers have yet to design a car with a functional place to set a purse when the passenger seat is occupied. With the purse relegated to the floor in back, it’s useless at a drive-thru restaurant, a drive-up bank, or even when a piece of gum is needed.


Psychologist Donald Norman has pioneered the field of usability. He knows that good design makes us happy. In his groundbreaking book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, Norman explores how the usability of objects we encounter affects our lives. We’re happy and feel in control when things work properly. Conversely, we feel like a failure when we can’t answer a ringing phone because the phone’s multitude of innovative features obscure its primary intended use.


Objects must be designed in accordance with the mental and physical abilities of humans, with an appropriate compromise between function and aesthetics. As we have all experienced, design flaws abound, but Donald Norman leads the crusade for well-designed objects that work every time and keep us happy.