On Doors

The UX of Everyday Objects

Doors are one of the most common UX experiences most of us have and at first glance probably the simplest. Pull or push and you enter or exit one space into another. If you think about it though you’ll probably find that your experiences with our hinged friends has not always gone smoothly.


The hiccup most of us have encountered is the oft confused indication of whether to push or pull. The most obvious solution that may come to mind is to put a sign on the door indicating what action is required. Let’s use this solution to dissect the problem. When does it work? If you are focused and viewing the door as a problem that needs to be solved you are more likely to recognize a sign. You’re looking for a queue as to what to do. However, because of the doors ubiquity, we are more likely to assume we know the solution and attempt to solve it without looking for cues. If the sign is prominent enough we may take notice but I’m sure a few of you have read pull and immediately pushed. This should illuminate where the focus of our solutions should be: The handle.

The handle is everything. If you are faced with a door that has a vertical bar as a handle what would you do? Most peoples natural instinct is to grab the bar and pull. Very few people will attempt to push something like this. It is one of the clearest indications of a pull because it’s designed to work with our bodies. Stand up and notice how your arms fall. Straight to your side with your palms facing your thigh. If you life your arm, hinging from the elbow, the position of your hand likely will not change. It is perfectly aligned to grab something vertical. It also makes sense as the door opens to have your hand in the vertical position and aligned with the vertical hinge mechanism. Your hand hinges around the door in the same way the door hinges around it’s mountings. Pulling on a horizontal bar is slightly awkward. Your arm tends to scissor and your muscles are working in a way counter to their natural motions.

What about push? To pull we need something to grab on to but the most valuable information we need when pushing is where to put our hand. Most solutions for this involve a flat plate of some sort. Another common solution that we touched upon above, though one I am not as fond of, is the horizontal bar, rail, etc. Why is the plate better? Because it has one function. There is no guess work at all. The horizontal bar is banking on the fact that its harder to use in the wrong way. Harder, yes, but still possible!

Points of Failure

The above two paragraphs sum up the solutions fairly well. So why can we all remember endless incidents of confusion when it comes to doors? Simply put, its not a deal breaker. What I mean by that is the usual process when committing an error and perhaps pull a push door is to immediately push it. You succeed and go on your merry way. By most peoples standards its good enough.

Good enough is not acceptable to me. Especially not with such a simple solution! Doors that do not hinge both ways but have the same handles on each side are servicing aesthetics over function and doing a disservice to the experience. This might not be a big deal if it’s in your home or office and learn by repetition which is the correct way but for something like a shop or restaurant this will not be the case. Let’s look at the latter instance.

Restaurants are a notoriously hard business to run. With something like a 90% failure rate in the first year these businesses live and die by the details. The user experience from start to end must be flawless for your customers to feel good. As most designers know your users/clients/customers won’t remember the 100 things you did right but they will remember the one thing you did wrong. So how does it feel as a customer when my first interaction with your establishment is struggling to get inside? Especially if this creates an awkward interaction with your date, then consider their next experience with the hostess, is there a wait? It all adds up and the first impression is the most important.

Case Study

Kitchen cabinets. Can you guess how they open?

Perka moved into a brand new freshly built office on January 1st and almost immediately the doors and cabinets presented a repetitive irritation. Lets take a look at the cabinets. In the above image how do you think these cabinets would open? Take a guess before you read ahead.

Because the cabinets are designed in pairs you’d assume that the two doors in the photo open from the middle out with the hinges on the left (next to the microwave) and the right. If you reasoned this you’d be wrong although your theory is correct. In this case the microwave counts as the left side of the first cabinets pair. See the image below.

Before I attempted to open the cabinets for the first time I noticed that the light was falling on two of the corners. I was quite impressed! I thought the architects designed this as an affordance to which section of the cabinet to pull! Disappointed does not begin to describe my emotional state.

It’s taken roughly 3 months for me to get used to this configuration and others in the office still grumble about it. As you can see that left cabinet houses the mugs. You do not want to create barriers between people and their morning coffee. Now lets take a look at the doors.

All of the doors in our office are clear glass with a vertical rod on either side. A fine solution for doors that swing both ways. Unfortunately all of the doors here swing only one way. The common interaction is a hard pull, a loud rattle or bong as the metal top smacks into it’s stop and reverberates through the glass. Mild annoyance is the common reaction. On a tense day rage and frustration are not uncommon. One solution that many people adopted was to always look up before entering or exiting a room. By doing this you can see the little door stop mounted to the top of the door frame. An unfortunate side effect is that I began looking up at every door I entered. After finding that the handle manufacturer did not have flat plates to affix to one side the final solution was to affix little circular push/pull signs for the doors. People still get it wrong.


It’s sadly a problem that will never be solved. Because of the simple solution to get around the common errors we will always have ambiguous irksome doors. Even though the solution to create a great experience every time is very simple it’s generally one of the last of a long list of details to be considered during design and construction. The very worst doors actually have a name: “Norman Doors”. Named after famous UX designer Donald Norman who wrote about his experiences with them in “The Design of Everyday Things”.