The Evolution of Door Usability

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We’ve all been there. You are striding confidently along, your legs propelling you at a decent pace as you continue your journey of the day. Barely pausing, you confidently reach out to push open a door that leads you to the next chapter in your book of the day when… smack. It’s not a push door. It’s a pull door. There is no sign to indicate this and now you’ve broken the illusion that you are a suave and sophisticated individual. You curse the high heavens and wonder aloud why the door chose to thwart you, and why there are so many different ways to open a door now that there is no standard.

This is the big question. Why so many options? Well, the answer to that is quite simply… evolution. Over centuries, doors and their locking mechanisms have evolved and changed with different purposes. Now that people are thinking about usability, people are also thinking about how to better things like doors. Sadly, it takes a while for the rest of the world to catch up, so whereas we are starting to see new standards, it may take a while for them to be implemented in an across the board fashion.

Evolution of Door Knobs and Handles

Push or Pulls Doors

In the beginning, there were merely doors. They started without locking mechanisms, being merely push, pull, fold or slide open. Often there would be a handle fixed to one side with which someone could tug open the door, but even that was another step on the evolutionary scale. If these locked at all, they would generally be locked or secured with a simple latch.

Turning Door Knobs

Turning doorknobs, which operate on a spindle, are a way to keep doors securely closed. They operate by grasping them and turning them to pull back a bolt which secures the door as closed. Then, they become a regular tool for pushing and pulling a door open or closed.

Lever Handles

Lever handles are a step along from turning door knows. The issue with turning door knobs is that if you do not have the ability to grasp something firmly, they can be hard to operate. Levers, however, merely require a little force or weight on them instead of the dexterity required for a turning action. As such, it is easier for people who may be a little weaker or less dexterous to operate a level handle. These are becoming much more standard.

Automatic Doors

Automatic doors usually require motion in front of them to open. This detaches the user from any kind of physical interaction with the door in any way. Your size and strength ceases to matter.
The catch here, though, is that these doors rely on power and sensors, both of which can fail. They are not universally functional and they take energy to power beyond the energy of the person operating them. They are not environmentally friendly and they are vulnerable to malfunction. They are merely much more convenient.

The interaction that we have with doors has altered over time. Now, very little effort is required to operate a door, whereas before, they were much more rudimentary.

The next issue is when simple things like doors require operating instructions. Instead of having doors open in either direction, most doors are a one way trip… either push or pull. Because we as humans are used to expending as little effort as possible, it is often the case that we choose to push a door. Pay attention to it next time you aren’t sure how a door opens. Most of the time you will likely push first. So when a door is a Pull door, we anticipate that it will be labeled as such so that we do not have to waste our time finding things out.
This is another example of the evolution of the usability of a door…. they now have operating instructions.

Over time this item with a simple use has grown to be something that can give people difficulty or ease of use, expend or absorb energy in it’s operation, and make grown men blush with shame. The usability of a door has developed as we have developed in ability and technology.

So what is the next step in the evolution of the door? Have we finally reached capacity? Is this as good as it’s going to get? What do you think?

About the Author

Redd Horrocks

Redd Horrocks hails from South East England. She moved to Atlanta at the age of eighteen and has enjoyed her life here ever since. She has a degree in Communications and Media Studies and now works in Professional Theatre Administration. She is also a Freelance Writer and runs Distilled Rose, a personal finance blog. Redd also contributes to or manages four other blogs with topics ranging from Personal Finance to Vegetarian Cuisine.


  • Will McClellan Reply

    “This is another example of the evolution of the usability of a door…. they now have operating instructions.”

    Well any decently designed door shouldn’t need operating instructions, its intended operation should be instinctive, just ask Don Norman. Bit of a lazy post this in my opinion, could of gone a lot further into human interaction with doors instead of just describing the different types. Good to see posts on topics like this however!

  • Keith Davis Reply

    In most U.S. cities, one can usually assume that a door in a commercial building will be push if you are exiting. If the door was a pull when exiting, people could pile up behind the door preventing it from opening in an emergency. A subtle example of evolution in door usability ;-)

  • Richard Osbaldeston Reply

    Odd this should come up after listening to the Adam&Joe podcast this week where Adam relates a story of how he couldnt work out how to use the London public toilets with the revolving circular doors. Embarrassingly he had to give up and ask some passers by if they knew how to use the toilet and could they show him.

    Apparently on entering your given two buttons marked ‘L’ and ‘C’ – could you guess what they do?

    ‘L’ is lock and must be pressed once the door is closed. ‘C’ is open/close and has a delay so pressing it once, nothing happens so you press it twice (as nothing happens) and it starts closing then opens again. Horrible UX, even for the English speakers.

  • Mike van Hoenselaar Reply

    Im with @Will McClellan.

    It could have gone a lot further. Maybe give some examples / improvements for doors to improve usability.

    Furthermore I would like to have seen something that would make a relation to the web. Makes it more complete in my opinion.

    We have the same problem with images. If not properly designed, it doesn’t have any function. We expect it is push, but nowadays lots of images are pull. You get what I mean ^^.

    Great post though. I like this kind of writing. Take an example from the offline world…

  • Mark Anderson Reply

    Thank you for this post. There are few things that annoy me more than a “pull” door equipped with a “push” bar. Who does that? Pull doors need some sort of handle, a knob, something to grab on to. I voice my lamentations to my wife, but she just laughs at me.

  • Jim R. Wilson Reply

    I believe it’s commonly accepted that the door achieved perfection in 1981 with the commercial release of the DeLorean. :)

    Run for it Marty!

  • Eric Reply

    In The Design of Everyday Things Donald Norman talks a lot about doors and how people expect to interact with them. It is a good book if you like general thoughts on design.

    One good thing about automatic doors is that they take away the human contact from the operation of the door. Those very well designed doorknobs like to spread germs..

    Doorknobs are a prime suspect in the transmission of the cold and flu.

  • John Hyde Reply

    The jargon word is “affordability”: a handle “affords” pulling – a shiny plate “affords” pushing.

    On the web, buttons must afford “pushing” by being as button-like as possible. Links should “afford” clicking by looking very link-like or being obviously part of some site navigation scheme.

    Usability guru Jakob Nielsen walks the talk by having all his links blue and underlined.

  • SuperCars Reply

    Well I think the most long lasting type of door knob is the turning door knob which we still use until now in almost every door in our houses

  • Triptych Reply

    I can’t remember for the life of me where it is, but I once saw a blog post about this. They eventually concluded that a ‘push’ door should have a horizontal bar, and ‘pull’ doors should have vertical bars for opening the door. So as you walk up you instinctively know if the door opens inward or outward.

    Very interesting indeed.

  • Crystal Reply

    I know I don’t read when opening doors. The “Push” or “Pull” signs are only apparent after I’ve embarrassed myself. I like the idea that there should be a different kind of handle for each.
    We should just turn around and leave the store when we can’t figure out how to use these doors, and the door usability experts will fix them for us.

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  • f Reply

    I think the difference in the knob orientation is also a good Idea or any indicator along that line. I also think that the next point in door would be one which Identifies those how approach and pass through them. Which may work well with intelligent buildings.

  • ken Reply

    my favourite is the “locked door” Why do places with multiple doors have to keep one random door locked? inevitable i can always pick the locked door, in a bank of doors accessing some public place, if only one of 18 doors is locked, that for some obtuse reason is the one i’m drawn too. Neither push nor pull! Good post!

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