Good design can be something you don’t notice

I have often thought that a person is much more likely to write a review for a product or a service if it is bad feedback. Maybe it is me being a cynic, but I also think people are more likely to complain about something than congratulate that something for performing its duty. In the same way, I think we are more likely to notice something as being bad design than as good design. I feel that good design can accommodate our wants and needs whilst remaining almost invisible to the observer, but bad design screams and shouts its inaccuracies, making itself hugely noticeable. 

Most products that humans interact with will have an indication of how you are meant to use it. This might be a feature of the products form, such as a clue where you should push or flick open a lid. Don Norman refers to these as ‘signifiers’. Signifiers don’t show you what the product does, but they show you how you should do it. Doors are not a new concept. They have been used for thousands of years, and people will have used thousands during their lifetimes, and yet doors still need signifiers to allow the user to correctly use them. If you walk up to a door that does not have a signifier on it, (many modern glass doors do not) your first attempt using the door will be a trial and error attempt on how the door opens. The obvious signifiers for a door are the words ‘push’ and ‘pull’ on their respective sides. Does this solve the problem though? How many times have you pushed a door with pull on it? I know that I have. Another common signifier is the shape of the handle itself. A push door often has a metal plate on the side of the door that needs pushed, and the pull side will often have a handle that you can pull. As I write this, I am thinking of a door in the James Watt South building in the University that fails to do this and manages to have ‘pull’ handles on both sides of the door. Every time I walk up to it, I try to remember which way it swings, and it infuriates me that it isn’t more obvious. This is a prime example of a “Norman door”, and a piece of bad design that is obvious in its short comings. As I write this, I am on a bus down to Manchester to play rugby, and we have just stopped at Tebay services on the M6. There are two perfect examples there of doors that are in no way intuitive and caused my team mates a lot of hilarity (after I had been boring them with examples of bad doors on the bus.) 

On the other hand, I can also think of a door that performs its function effectively without anybody using in incorrectly, (this is actually untrue, as I remember my uncle’s dog running full tilt into it not realising it was a door.) It is a sliding door between my Grandparents house and conservatory. The door handle looks like an ordinary ‘pull’ handle, but changes angle by 90° as it moves away from the door, implying the direction that you pull it. This is a subtle signifier that allows the user to subconsciously understand the door. Out of interest I asked my family whether they had noticed the shape of the handle when they slid the door open. None of them had. In my opinion, this is an example of great design. The design of the handle is unnoticeable as a signifier, but allows perfect use of the door.

My Grandparents sliding door

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