Defeated by Door Design. The ‘Norman Door’ in Goa!

Recently at a swanky Goan pub in Baga called Cavala I had an experience that reminded me of Don Norman’s description of the ‘Norman Door’, that difficult piece of machinery that always defeats me. The humble door.

The door that has handles that look like they should be pulled, while they are required to be pushed. Or the other way around. Or no handles or no signs at all. Norman put is simply – “The design of the door should indicate how to work it without any need for signs, certainly without any need for trial and error.” And then it doesn’t. As Norman puts it in the brilliant The Design of Everyday Things, with the right “affordances” and “signifiers”, marked clearly.

Norman laughs at this in his blog post titled ‘When Bugs Become Features‘: “Amazing, rather than construct the doors properly – with different kinds of handles on each side of the door — they have used the confusion as an excuse to create art — where the art is almost as confusing as the original, but at least is aesthetically pleasing and even a source of conversation.”

Now, as designer Brent Manke puts it, the concept of the ‘Norman Doors’ go far beyond just doors: “The “Norman door” dilemma can be seen in the design of many other everyday items, and even more so in the design of software and website interactions. Interestingly, many people, when they encounter a poorly-designed website or form, blame themselves, saying they’re “not very good with computers”. And while it’s convenient for designers to blame design flaws on a user’s ignorance, designing for humans means we need to strive to make our (to quote Norman) “machines understand humans”, rather than forcing users to understand the machines.”

How often do we face this? Products designed by those who really don’t care about the experience of the user, but are inwardly focused on their own ideas of design, aesthetics, functionality? And I think that happens when designers shift focus to either visually over-simplify (Apple products get panned for this) or functionally over-complicate or over-engineer (that favourite design horror of all – the TV remote!) to satisfy themselves. And forget that the user may either be confused or demotivated to use the product, or just ignore much of the buttons and stick to the basics.

Why can’t design be easy and simple? And beautiful? Without being unnecessarily complicated and difficult (and in many cases, just plain intimidating)? Why shouldn’t design keep the user in mind, not the designer?

Back at Cavala, the washroom door needs to be PULLED outward. Nothing wrong with that, except that there are no signs or “signifiers” pointing that out on the handle, and as a result folks were mostly trying to push it open and failing. Watching from a distance, I realised that this was just plain stupid, and when I had to get up to wash my hands after demolishing a particularly scrumptious crab, it became messier. I had crab gravy literally up to my elbows (delicious Goan spicy recipe, to their credit), and wanted to push the door open with my shoulder. To no avail. So, I had to pull the handle with my greasy hand, and step into the washroom. Not the most sanitary or savoury solution. (Now this is unsolicited feedback, I know. But the guy who went in after me and had to navigate that door would have had a lot of worse things to say, I know that too).

Design and thinking should go together more often. What a pity.

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