Invisible Doors and the Piquant Tang of Minor Humiliation
Our pediatrician moved to an office in a fancy new building. The first time we took the kids for a checkup I was faced with the choice of trying to carry an infant car seat through a set of revolving doors or somehow managing to press, with full hands, the button to open the (rather narrow) powered swinging door to the right of them. You can see the doors in the picture above. I managed to use my elbow to press the button to open the swinging door, but I couldn't help wondering what the building designers were thinking in making it physically challenging to get into a medical center.
Turns out there was a nice wide automatic sliding door that I could have used. It's there to the left of the revolving door. You can tell because there's a tiny little lock on the frame next to it, and a minuscule sticker (behind the tinted glass, visually blended with the metal frame) that says "AUTOMATIC DOOR". There's also a small black sensor over the door, but the way things are arranged you have to tilt your head back to see it so I've left it out of the picture.
When I noticed the sliding door on our second visit, I felt a little silly. After all, if I would have been paying full attention I could, in fact, have worked out that there was a door there. Then I got annoyed. I knew how stupid it was to design invisible doors because I'd read Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things way back when, and I expected building designers to have at least the level of knowledge about doors that I have.
It's not just doors, though. Any time you have a cover-your-behind feature in an application you're going to instill in your users that same feeling of guilt that the building architects caused me to feel. Those transient status messages, those tiny-fonted explanatory paragraphs embedded below text fields, that explanation buried in the online help, all of them make the person writing the application (or designing the door) feel better, but do little to prevent the user from making mistakes. The subject has been beaten to death over the past few years and I don't really have anything new to say except that it might be useful, the next time you encounter a situation like the above, to stop and briefly savor the feeling of minor humiliation. Drink it in. It adds a pleasant piquant note to those dry usability articles, and the memory might give you that little bit of extra motivation to spend ten more minutes coming up with a good design rather than giving in to the urge to just CYA and move on.
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