What do ‘Norman Doors’ say about product discoverability and understanding?
Updated: Jul 4
Have you ever embarrassed yourself by pushing a pull door? Have you questioned your capability as a human being to open doors? But have you ever thought, maybe it is not you, it is the door? Maybe, it is the door that gave you mixed signals.
At some point in our lives, I am sure all of us have encountered a Norman Door. The Norman Door is named after Don Norman, the author of The Design of Everyday Things. These doors appear confusing as if they are push/pull when they are the opposite.
Ideally, the design of any door should be an indicator of how it works. The help of signs, symbols, and trial and error should not be required at all. They are a simple product with the primary function of push or pull, open or shut. So then, what makes us push a pull door? To understand this, we need to look at two fundamentals of product design– Discoverability and Understanding.
Discoverability: It is the need or ability to figure out actions that are possible and can be performed on/through the object by looking at it. The curve of a knife’s blade tells you which side you should use to cut. Its design directly talks to your instinct to use it.
Understanding: It reflects how easily a product can be used. It shows the various controls and functions that can be understood and controlled by the user. The same knife does not require a user manual to know how to use it. The understanding of how to use it is inherent in how it is designed.
The Norman Door fails at both of these. It fails at discoverability because the components required to understand its functionality are not visible. So, the design fails to communicate the possible actions. That makes us think, ‘If you need to label something, has it been poorly design
It fails at the understanding level where the ease to use it has diminished due to a gap in the information received by the brain. The door handle says ‘stop and pull me towards you.’ But the ‘push’ sign on the door means the exact opposite. This leads to what is known as design dissonance - it is a phenomenon that occurs when a product sends out cognitive signals counter to the desired function.
It is said that people ignore designs that ignore them. But can you ever ignore doors? There is no escaping the wrath of opening doors unless you choose to leave them open forever. So what should be done then? A designer should attempt to address the needs of the end-user. A design is as successful as the ease with which it can be used. Now, that might not lead to an aesthetically superior product design, but not all designs are about aesthetics. Some of the most successful product designs speak of functionality more than their aesthetics.
Let us take a fire exit door, for example. Its door signage is in green, with a running man escaping through the door. It is a simple design language and shows visible action and direction. The green colour semiotically indicates ‘forward and onward.’ The running man directs one to ‘push’ the door to escape to safety. Thus, the major components of the product that indicate action and directionality must always remain visible to provide clarity. This in no way means a compromise with aesthetics and cleanliness. But a designer should enhance the natural interpretation – the discoverability of a product for its optimum use.
Similarly, a double door with a vertical glass panel and a handle with the sign ‘pull’ leads to design dissonance. The vertical glass panels showing the space beyond means ‘keep coming, go forward.’ The double doors remind us of a thousand popular culture scenes where the protagonist pushes the door open to make a grand entrance. But that thought is brought to an instant halt with the sign that asks us to ‘stop, step back and pull to move forward.’ Instead of drawing on shared knowledge of how such a door functions, the design works against it. This completely alienates the user and never attains its full potential.
“The modern-day Sisyphus is not someone pushing the boulder but someone who is pushing a PULL door.”
Complex product designs require a manual and instructions to understand how to use them. But it is widely understood that something as simple as a door should not ideally require a lot of thought to be used. Sometimes, product design is beyond the dichotomy of function and aesthetics. It might just have to consider the people it will cater to and make sure to not embarrass them by prompting them to push a pull door.
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About the Writers
Sana Paul is an undergraduate architecture student and writer at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, hailing from the cozy streets of Punjab. She has experience working at the India Lost and Found (ILF) by Amit Pasricha, and Rethinking The Future (RTF). She is a contributing writer at Zeyka.
Malika Vaidya is an architect and writer. She is the Co-Founder of Architecture Pulse, a blog that explores the intersection of architecture and society. She is a graduate of the Rachna Sansad’s Academy of Architecture (AoA), Mumbai. She has interned at One Habitat Studio and The Origin.
About the Editor
Vishwa Balani is an English Literature graduate from St. Xavier's College, Ahmedabad and MS University, Baroda. She has been associated with CEPT University for two and a half years now where she has taught writing to students across various courses. Her tryst with language began very early in life and it has continued no matter which field she chooses to work in. She likes experimental writing but also believes in grammar, and the Oxford comma.
About the Illustrator Anonymous