28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part IX

Door handles should look like door handles.

I used to work at a bar and music venue in Seattle called The Triple Door. I only mention the name here because the three doors after which the place is named have some pretty obvious design flaws–dangerously obvious–and I urge anyone interested in interaction to visit and take a look at the doors in question.

After a short flight of steps down to the lower level, the first obstruction is a set of three large, black doors, which remain closed and locked to keep out those who haven’t been admitted to the theater area. Employees, armed with magnetic keys, always open one of these three doors for the guest, which only further adds to the big problem later on.

Once past the first door, the guest is in a small room with three more doors in front and a large, floor-to-ceiling window to the right, kept impeccably clean. The lights in this room are kept low, and the doors painted black, so not much is visible save for the performance through the window.

The main problem here is the design of the door handles: long, skinny poles connected to the side of each door, also painted black, with no markings to imply their affordance as door handles. Furthermore, as the doors must be pulled to open them, the hinges are on the inside–large, bulky, almost handle-shaped hinges, silver in color, to set them apart from everything else in the room. What’s more, the hinges are placed at the same height one would expect a door handle to be. So guests would frequently attempt to pull or twist these large hinges, obviously to no avail.

Because the first door had been opened for them by an employee, customers would have no idea how these doors should function. Pushing on them does no good, as they open in the other direction. Every night I worked there, frustrated customers would come back through the first set of doors (which do open outward, and can easily be pushed open) and ask for assistance, expressing embarrassment or claiming we forgot to unlock the second set of doors (which have no locks).

Another scenario, which I unfortunately witnessed several times in my short time there, was customers assuming the squeaky clean, floor-to-ceiling pane of glass was merely a walkway–it does face the dining area and theater after all–and would run face-first into the window, often causing bruises, fat lips and, at least once, a pretty big gash on a guest’s forehead.

The problem with the door handles in this cramped, nearly unlit space could be easily fixed, if the poles were fashioned to resemble handles. I made the suggestion of painting thin white lines on the poles, one above and one below where the average hand would reach for a door handle. This would easily imply the affordance of a pullable object. Nobody went for it, which is understandable. I wasn’t there to change anything, just greet guests and show them their seats.

I also suggested putting a vinyl sticker on the window–maybe the restaurant’s logo or a dinner menu–to make it clear just how solid this large piece of glass was. Nothing changed during my time there, but one day I found they’d put an event calendar in the window. I hope no more injuries had to happen to spur the change, but I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Good design turns bad pretty fast when aesthetics intrude on functionality. This establishment was designed with a certain look and feel that sets it apart from all others in Seattle, but at a cost. Along with the door issue, there were no signs pointing guests toward the restrooms–I guess they thought signs detract from the beauty of a bar with a fish tank and mood lighting–and employees must constantly point out what should be obvious to everyone in the room.

During my time there, nobody else seemed to like my suggestions–the guests were more often than not ridiculed for being too drunk or stupid to operate a simple door or find the restroom. No matter how much I explained the problems everyone knew about, how they occurred or how easily they could be fixed, I just wasn’t in the position to be listened to. Aesthetics were the first and foremost priority, and it takes a lot to spur change in such an established system, especially when design flaws instantly become labeled as human error–which is at once overestimating your market’s understanding of the system and underestimating their intelligence.

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