Art & Culture

Wild About Human-Centered Design

Have you ever thought about doors? More specifically, why some doors are intuitively easy to open while others stymie our instincts, leaving us standing like idiots as we try to figure out whether push or pull is the correct action?

The way we interact with a door, or with other objects, relates to a concept known as affordance. In a design context, affordances are the cues offered by an object that guide us towards a particular action. In the case of our doors, a door with a flat panel invites you to push, while one with a bar-style handle suggests that you pull. Where bad design trips us up is when the affordances aren’t clear as is the case with a raised handle on a push door, leaving us frustrated when we have to recalibrate our actions. 

Stickers on a glass door read "Pull" and "Push."
Too many doors offer contradictory cues for users. Robert S. Donovan CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to everyday objects, the best designs are the ones we don’t have to think about. Doors that open when we push them, teapots that pour without dripping, the soda can tab that opens without creating extra garbage. Good design is effortless and often goes unnoticed. If only that were the world we lived in.

Unfortunately, bad design is everywhere. If good design is invisible, bad design is frustrating, like a grain of sand in your shoe. Without much prompting, you can probably come up with your own list of poorly designed objects, from plastic packaging that requires heavy-duty scissors to saw open to USB ports that require at minimum of three attempts to insert your flash drive. There is a thin line between thinking about poorly designed objects and simply generating a list of pet peeves. 

More than being irritating and inefficient, bad design matters. Bad design makes us feel stupid—why can’t I open a door?—and it causes us to attach negative emotions to particular products.

A sign on a red door reads "Pull". The door's handle gives no indications as to its function.
If you have to label your doors, your design probably isn’t working. Clem Onojeghuo clemono2, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Good design is centered on the user, rather than the developer of a product. Known as human-centered design, good design incorporates two characteristics: discoverability and understanding. Simply put, discoverability is the ease with which a new user can determine the uses of an object while understanding is knowing how a product is meant to be used. We’ve all had the frustrating experience of trying to operate a new device with unlabelled buttons, where the product design doesn’t allow for user understanding.

Design is also driven by culture. Colours and symbols have different meanings in different parts of the world, good design in one culture may not be good design in another. 

Although good design is often invisible, in some cases, elegant design fails the discoverability test. Two of the best examples of this are the tabs on the wax paper box that keep the roll from escaping when you pull on the paper and the indicator on your gas gauge that tells which side of the car the gas tank is located. These designs are so subtle that they are revelatory when people learn about them. 

A close up of a car's gas gauge. A small arrow indicates which side of the car the driver will find the gas tank.
The tiny arrow on the gas gauge shows the location of the gas tank. Petar Milošević, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In some cases, intentional bad design can be used to make a point about the simplest of objects. Nothing highlights this better than Katerina Kamprani’s art series The Uncomfortable, which applies bad design to functional objects. 

The next time you pull on a push door, remember, it didn’t have to be this way. If the designer had thought more about function than aesthetics, you would be able to breeze through the door without a second thought, just as human-centered design intended.