Dumb People—or Dumb Designs?

Why are we having so much trouble opening doors?

The New Jersey Transit bus is about to pull out of Gate 319 at the Port Authority station. I’m comfortably seated and getting into my book when, from the corner of my eye, I see a young woman inside the terminal frantically beating the glass door, trying to push it open. Now several passengers are looking at her. We holler in unison, “Push the button!” But she can’t hear us from inside the building. She keeps beating the door, her good-natured smile turning anxious. At long last, the driver gets off the bus and opens the door from the outside.

I observe this dance of frustration each time I take that bus to South Jersey. What goes on here? Why should opening a door be an anxiety-producing activity? Consider the facts: Gate 319 is one of the few “accessible” doors at the Port Authority bus terminal. It’s an automated door, activated by pressing a blue tile that’s set, at wheelchair level, into the red tile wall. The trouble is, if you’re not in a wheelchair the blue square is too far down for you to spot easily. When you do see it, you read the small, perplexing print: “Wheel Chair—Operate Door.”

If the Port Authority designers remembered that wheelchairs don’t operate doors but people—in and out of wheelchairs—do, they would have made a better system of access. As it is, they have tried to comply with ADA requirements for people with one disability but seem to have forgotten how everyone else uses doors. They also made the signage minimal, which has been amended with even more signage. Now there’s a profusion of warnings pasted on the door, both inside and out. One sign reads, “Automatic Door Push Plate on Wall to Open.” The word “Caution” appears several times in yellow, as does a graphic of a wheelchair in bold black.

During the many years I’ve been waiting for buses at Gate 319, I’ve often given instructions on how to open that pesky door. But sometimes, when I’m in a less communal mood, I mumble under my breath, “Dummy, push the damn button.” Just as I was about to unleash one of my silent epithets at the hapless young woman, I remembered Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things.

All of us, at one time or another have felt inadequate, stupid, or clueless when faced with our designed environment, Norman says. A set of too similar buttons on a VCR, a hard-to-read navigation device on a dashboard, a shower lever that takes time to decipher—all are bad designs. They may look great, but if our objects and tools make us feel like dummies, we can blame someone other than ourselves: the designer. As Norman likes to remind us, we’re not stupid—the stuff around us is.

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