Bad Design: Instructions for Opening a Door

Multimedia doors

The picture above is of a typical keycard door: tap your keycard (to the right of the door), open the door. Lots of buildings are full of these types of doors. People use them every day, meaning we have knowledge of and experience with them. Yet, when I’ve used this door, I’ve done it incorrectly. More embarrassingly, I’ve used it incorrectly more than once. Even with the highly visible, 1st-grade-reading-level sign directly above the handle, I’ve tried pulling the door several times before finally pushing it. I’ve also witnessed several people trying to pull this door open. So why does this door need a set of instructions? And why do people still use it incorrectly? Because it breaks their expectations.
This door is the main entrance from a hallway to a studio that has a main room and several smaller rooms branching off of it. These types of doors typically open into the hallway, but ones that open into the room are not rare either. This door happens to open into the room, so that’s a little unexpected but not outlandish. However, it also has a handle. Handles allows users to pull on the door, so conscientious designers use handles when users should pull on the door. To make it clear which direction the door opens without instructions, a push bar should have been used because it can only be used one way (by pushing). Mixing a counterintuitive use (door opening into the room) with inappropriate hardware (handle) makes this sign necessary.

Even with the instructions, this door is misused several times a day. This happens because the process of using a door is something that college-aged(+) people do automatically without consciously thinking about it. Their past experiences allow them to open doors on auto-pilot, and they only break out of that auto-pilot when something doesn’t work. It’s only after pulling on the handle (maybe a few times) that they seek instruction.

I would improve this design by making the door open into the hallway instead of into the room. On the opposite side of this door is a sign that says “Pull” because it is counterintuitive that the door opens into the room. If switching the direction is too difficult to implement, then I’d replace the handle with a push bar. If we can’t change the handle, I’d replace the current sign with a sign that just says “Push.” The first two steps don’t contradict normal use, and we are much more used to following “Push” and “Pull” signs than 3-step instructions. When I travel to non-English-speaking countries, I always include “push” and “pull” in the handful of words that I learn to avoid looking foolish.

Connection to learning: Good design reduces (or eliminates) the need for instructions. For this reason, good design requires that the designer recognizes what knowledge the user is bringing to the experience. This principle goes for course and instructional design, too. Vanderbilt’s currently running Coursera course “An Introduction to Evidenced-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching” states that one of the four principles of learning is capitalizing on prior knowledge. Students, especially those in college, are not blank slates; they bring prior knowledge with them. According to the constructivist learning theory, good instructional design encourages students to identify relevant prior knowledge (whether correct or incorrect) and integrate new information with that knowledge. Constructivist techniques commonly ask students what they know about a topic or what they think an answer to a problem is in order to access prior knowledge before explaining new content.

The best designed instructions for assignments also don’t contradict expectations. Have you ever seen instructions that bold, underline, or italicize the word “NOT”? These sorts of attention grabbing measures are only necessary when instructions break expectations. For example, in the Coursera class above, I answered a question incorrectly on the first quiz because I missed the “least” in “least likely” and picked the choice that was most likely. Despite urgent verbal warnings, attention-grabbing visual warnings, and crystal clear instructions, people have difficulty acting counter to their expectations, especially when those expectations are grounded in years of experience.

For more information about the bad design series or more bad design posts, visit the bad design series introduction.


One thought on “Bad Design: Instructions for Opening a Door

  1. Pingback: Bad Design: Series Introduction | Lauren Margulieux

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