Introductions to user experience design rarely miss an opportunity to talk about Norman doors. I love Norman doors! Well, I don’t love Norman doors, they’re the worst! What I love is the concept of the Norman door. Putting a name to a pattern really scratches an itch, doesn’t it?
The Norman door is basically any door that’s confusing or difficult to use. It was named after (and not by) design guru Don Norman to define this all-too-common design foible.
To determine if a door is “Norman,” ask yourself whether the door makes sense as you approach it. Grade it pass or fail. If you have to guess whether to push or pull, the door fails. If you can’t locate a place to push or pull, the door fails. If you try to push/pull and the door actually slides, the door fails.
Once you know how to spot a Norman door you’ll start seeing them everywhere!
It should be immediately apparent how to interact with the door, there are only a few reasonable options. Of course, there’s the possibility that you come up with a new way to open a door, but that’s what designers call reinventing the wheel. Creative is cool, but usability wins every time. Undoubtedly, this new door would flout very well-established design heuristics — rules of thumb and common understandings of usability. Occasionally, we encounter a slight variation on the basics, but once a design starts failing heuristics assessments it becomes confusing.
We know that doors have two end states, open and closed, and we should know immediately from context whether to push, pull, or slide. Knobs, handles, latches, plates, bars, and rails all give us their own hints at how to use them. This hint, provided by an object’s shape and position, is called an affordance. A doorknob is meant to be gripped by a fist and thus affords both pulling and twisting of the wrist. A steering wheel affords gripping and spinning around a central axis (the steering column). Even scissors only really allow you to grip them one of a few ways and the affordance of “snipping” presents itself.
“I should have pulled that door,” you thought. “It was my fault I pushed.”
Wrong. It’s not your fault! The door “told” you to push even though it’s built to be pulled. You can rest assured you’re not overthinking this. Self-blame is a common sign of bad design. Remember not to blame yourself when you can’t figure out how to perform a “basic” action. How do you know something is poorly designed? You have a hard time using it.
At this point, if we generalize the concept, any product that confuses its user, is difficult to use, or functions counterintuitively is a Norman door of sorts. We also just call this bad design. Norman door = bad UX.
Can you think of any Norman doors — literal or figurative — in your life?