The poetry of doors

This is not an article about Jim Morrison. This is about the other sort of door:

door: (n) a hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier at the entrance to a building, room, or vehicle, or in the framework of a cupboard.

More specifically it’s about locking and unlocking doors, and what that might teach us about usability design.

The Songkick office door gets a new lock

We’ve recently upgraded the Songkick front door from a traditional hardware lock to a fancy new electronic entry system. This is great. I no longer have to fumble through my keys, finding the right one, fitting it into the old and gnarly lock, which half the time stuck, while holding a laptop, a latte and a donut in the other hand. Now I have a sleek keyfob which is much smaller and lighter than the key it replaces. I just swipe the fob near the electronic reader and I’m in. No more spilled lattes or dropped donuts. Huzzah.

Ingress, egress, but not egrets

So, getting into to the Songkick office is much improved. What about getting out? Is it just as easy?

Sadly, the answer is “no”.

The lock is there to stop unauthorized people getting into the office and stealing our lovely stuff. Having the door locked is necessary, but it should be as easy as possible for authorized people to get in. The electronic lock is meets these requirements nicely. Mission accomplished.

But, making it hard to leave the office is not a goal. Once I’m inside, getting out should be as easy as possible – especially if there is an emergency.

So does the new Songkick electronic lock makes leaving easy? It does not. Here’s a view of the door from the inside. How would you open the door?

As you approach a door, you’re naturally looking right at it: people tend to look at the object they want to operate in order to figure out how to operate it (well, d’uh). So you’ll look at the door and see the small brass handle next to the window. Here’s our first problem – in fitting the new lock we left the old handle in place, but it doesn’t work anymore. It’s very confusing for people who have used the door before and it trips up new users because it’s placed exactly where you’d expect the mechanism to unlock the door to be.

So here’s Lesson One: don’t leave behind old stuff that doesn’t work any more, it distracts users from the new, working stuff.

Okay, so after some fumbling, we realize that the handle is in fact just there to mock us. How do we open the door?

The wall to the right of the door is covered in stuff. There’s a phone, for example. Don’t worry, you don’t have to call a doorman to get permission to exit, that’s the entry phone for the door downstairs. Below that are two similar sized boxes. If you’re trying to exit, you will end up looking through all these objects to the right and eventually notice the box marked “Press to exit”, with a light switch on it. Really? This is how I open the door? Yes, yes it is.

What is wrong with this arrangement? Here are a few problems:

  • The exit switch is in the wrong place. To open the door I have to hunt for the switch, because its not in the obvious place: on the door. Lesson two: put the control that operates an object on the object itself.
  • The switch is lost in the clutter of signs and switches. It isn’t easy to pick out from the jumble of other non-door related stuff. Everyone needs to open the door, very few need to read Songkick’s fire alarm details, so move the fire alarm and its notice somewhere else and make the switch more visible. Lesson three: make the important, frequently used controls stand out from the clutter.
  • I can only tell that this is the door switch by reading the label. If it weren’t for the words “Press to exit”, I’d have no clue this would unlock the door. The switch is a standard light switch, why would I believe it opens the door and not, say, turn on the lights. Lesson four: Don’t use a control that is associated with one operation for a different operation; its confusing.

But for all these detailed flaws in the choice of switch and its location, there is an even better way to solve this design problem. We don’t need a switch for the door at all. All I should have to do is push the door open: that is a natural and obvious mechanism for opening this door.

So the real design for the door cuts through all the confusion of the current “design” and just lets me do the obvious thing. How much better would that be?

Interestingly, a door that pushes open is better both for experienced users and novice users – in this case both Songkick employees who used the old mechanism and infrequent visitors to our office. People often complain that designers tend to think only about one group or the other, but often simple, thoughtful design can cater well to both groups.

Stop moaning already

There are two counter arguments to all this:

First, maybe it’s hard for the lock mechanism to distinguish between a push to open it from the inside, and a pull from the outside which should not open the door. That’s an engineering problem, not a design one – we should start with the design that works best for users and figure out if there is a plausible engineering solution, not the other way around. Only compromise the design if you really can’t solve the engineering problem. I can guarantee you that is not what’s happened here. I’ve used doors that unlock on a push and are secure in the other direction. It’s really not rocket science.

Second objection: why all this fuss about a door? People can figure it out, you’re overthinking this, it will take you a day or two to learn to press that exit button. Stop sweating the small stuff.

In design, whether of doors or software, the small stuff matters a lot. When people talk about Apple’s products being polished, they mean that Apple pay attention to exactly these sorts of details. Great design is all about making the user experience as simple as possible, but no simpler. This is not the iPad of door mechanisms. This might just be the Maylong M-150 of doors.

Its amazing what you can learn from a door.

Further reading

One of my favorite design books is Don Norman’s classic The Psychology of Everyday Things (later editions were renamed The Design of Everyday Things, which rather spoiled everyone’s habit of referring to the book as POET). Norman looks at how people use everyday objects like teapots and doors and examines how their design can help, or hinder, their use. Its a short, simple, well written book that anyone can enjoy, not just design nerds.

I was lucky enough to work briefly with Don when we were both at Apple in the 1990s. He’s a very smart guy. POET is still one of the best, most accessible books on design. Anyone who builds products, or is interested in learning more about how the objects in our world work, should read it.


The awesome team at Songkick took pity on me and provided this helpful solution:

Songkick rocks!

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