Critique of doors

I know, it sounds dull. I will keep it short and sweet. This is also a sort of overdone topic ever since The Psychology/Design of Everyday Things.

The basic idea here is that the use of doors should never enter consciousness. We should not do any “thinking” at all about them.
However, this is a difficult premise because people commit errors when using poorly-designed doors. Usually it is in pushing when they should pull or trying to open a locked door. It is the case that most of us don’t want to perform a complex cognitive task to open a door. Does that sound unreasonable?

Below is a picture of some of the worst doors in Northwest Ohio. They are of the entrance of the The Toledo Museum of Art.

Do you push or pull?

These doors have identical pullbars on both sides.

There is no cue of hinges because they aren’t visible. If you look closely at the top, you will see ambiguous knobby projections. These are odd internal pivots that act as hinges for the doors.
And yes, the doors open only out, but because they are identical on both sides, visitors do not have any clue before they try to open them.

Some designer must have thought that it was beautiful to hide the hinge-pivots inside the door. Perhaps that designer just hated museum visitors.

Although I am no expert on the aesthetics of the doors, it seems to be that doors have a single main use–they are meant to be opened. If they don’t do this well, they are not good doors. There is plenty of style inside the museum that does not cause visitor distress. Door style should come second to door function.

Beyond the designs that cause user errors, another issue exists… public restroom doors!

Q. What is a common problem of public restroom door design?

A. They open IN!

This is a terrible thing for restroom doors to do. Washing my hands is the last thing people do in the restroom (at least ideally people actually wash their hands). Many restroom designers have realized that people do not want to touch the same handles, faucets, and towel dispensers that everyone with dirty hands touches. That is why many new public restrooms include hand-sensing automatic faucets other such gadgetry that eliminate unneeded hand-to-object contact.

It is sad that after putting in that much consideration toward my pure and clean hands, the overall design of the restroom fails to leave them clean because upon leaving the restroom I have to open the door inward, therefore ensuring that my hands must touch the same dirty pull bar as every poor slob before me.
Opening the door with a paper towel makes sense, and sometimes people can even “three-point shot” the paper towel into the trash from the doorway. Unfortunately, this does not help in restrooms that have only hot air blower-style hand dryers or restrooms that run out of paper towels.

Anyone who would design a restroom without cleanliness in mind has odd priorities. This is especially true for places where clean hands are essential, like restaurants and medical buildings.

One positive note: I have heard that the value of opening doors outward is now being enforced by new building code. It is not for clean hands, but so people (especially the disabled) can move out of the restroom faster in case of an emergency.

Now if people would admit that doors can not only be physical obstacles, but mental obstacles as well.

*Update 9/11/04* The Clean-Escape is an example of good design that overcomes the inward-opening bathroom door problem. It is a simple bracket that is mounted to the bottom of the door. It that allows a person to use his/her foot to open the door.

PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) Use Study

For over six months, a background application tracked every use I made of my Sony CLIE SJ-22 PDA (PalmOS 4.1, grayscale 320×320 resolution, 16MB internal & 128MB expansion memory). I do not represent an average user, but rather an enthusiast user who tried as broad a spectrum of programs as possible. The PDA was accessible (in pocket) at almost all times every day, was hotsynced daily, and internal and external memory was always kept within 10% of capacity. Like any good enthusiast, I used a lot of third party (enhanced from the default) applications.

Study Results

Overall number of uses: 9539. Overall time of uses: 173 hours. All numbers in the table are estimates. Table ordering is retained in the histograms.
The combined calendar and address book program was used most frequently–it accounted for 43% of total uses and 25% of the total time. It is a good sign a program (or programs) that performs these functions ships standard on all PDAs.
Overall, functions that were performed by programs that shipped with this PDA (address book, calendar, memo pad, calculator, to do list, email) accounted for 64% of the total uses and 35% of total time. Even though this is a large amount of use, this still leaves the majority of time and a very significant percentage of uses in the hands of third-party developers–and distributed across a lot of programs. There is obviously a lot of use that PDA manufacturers do not make available by default to users. The use analysis still leaves important questions about PDA usage unanswered: Are there advantages of PDAs that most users are missing? Are these advantages usable by non-enthusiast users? If so, could PDA manufacturers take advantage of these to make their products more useful (and desirable) to users? The following section addresses some of these issues by categorizing and explaining types of use.

Notes:
A major application was not included in this analysis is the English-language dictionary (it was not recorded by the use logger). This is only a guess, but I think that I probably spent at least as many uses on it as I did on the memopad. The hotsync application, though logged, was not included in the analysis because it reflects computer interface time–not human use.

How can PDA uses be categorized? Can these uses be performed in a paper-based format?

Because analysis of usage data alone cannot give the reason why programs are useful, I categorized PDA programs into three categories based upon the cognitive advantage they offer to users. Besides a cognitive and physical justification for these categories, I analyzed the possible cognitive advantages PDAs have over traditional paper alternatives in these areas:

1) Offloading long-term and short-term memory
Long-term memory is aided by programs (e.g. datebook, address book, memopad) that provide representations of thoughts that are normally expected to be committed to either internal human memory or an external memory agent (like paper). This represents the bulk of my PDA use, and these are the programs that are most likely to be included by default on PDAs. This can also be accomplished well with paper, though it might involve a somewhat hefty planner/organizer.
Short-term memory is aided by programs that provide representations of things that people normally have to commit to human memory. My favorite is Diddlebug–an elegant and simple open-source program. It allows the user to scribble on the PDA screen and then set an alarm to sound after a prescribed time period. The scribble can be anything from text to a picture–thus, any visual short-term memory can be offloaded and forgotten about. When the time comes to remember, the PDA beeps and the scribble is displayed. Certainly, paper cannot function as a time-based reminder–unless that paper is associated with something that keeps track of time.

2) Enabling the use of massive amounts of data
Programs (e.g. Hypertext references, books, newspapers, medical references) can enable users to reference or query large databases of information. Most of my references involved task-specific encyclopedia or dictionary material (e.g. “Who was in that movie?,” “How old is that person?,” or “What is that word in Spanish?”), but there were some non-task-oriented data references as well (books, newspapers). Though massive reference material can be referenced via paper-based tomes, these are being displaced by searchable electronic formats. This advantage is not being exploited as well as it could be most PDA users and even simple dictionaries are not included by default on PDAs.

3) Enabling the use of complex interactive reference tools
Programs (e.g. calculators, unit converters, electronics and astronomical references) can enable users to make use of interactive reference tools. While some (not all) of these functions can be accomplished by operating with paper-based tables, the complexity of use is an issue.

4) Interactive entertainment
Some uses had no purpose but pure entertainment (though I usually turned to the newspaper first for entertainment). The PDA allows for many choices in terms of interactive entertainment (the only entertainment program I used was a “vintage” interactive fiction game I remember playing on an Apple IIe as a child). This offers great advantages over paper, where interactivity is impossible (or at least very limited).

How can this use be applied to the world of PDA manufacturers? An assumption being made here is that PDA manufacturers want PDAs to be used more, with the logic being that increased use will lead to increased sales. I have gone from a non-consumer of PDAs to a consumer of PDAs because I cannot imagine myself getting rid of the item in my life–as long as I have the choice to carry it, I will. It truly is valuable to everyday life. Isn’t it a luxury? Yes. But given the choice, I will make sacrifices to carry a PDA. That, and I associate my mindset to incorporate the item–much like I could live without a phone, I will include its use in my foreseeable life. Many other users have not made this transition when it comes to PDAs–they find them to be of little value and though they may have owned one once, they are not in the market for a new one. If the PDA could have been made a valuable part of their lives, they would have continued to use and buy them.
Making an item so valuable to to one’s life as to be almost indispensable is not a new concept. Many people (myself included) have elected to marry themselves to other conveniences–for instance we consider cars to be nearly indispensable transportation tools (most people have plans to always own one) and mobile phones to be almost indispensable communication tools (most people make sacrifices to always carry one). Along these same lines, I have also chosen to marry myself to my Swiss Army Knife (I am using this term generically–I actually own a Leatherman Micra) because it has valuable physical advantages. I use it enough to personally justify carrying it everywhere. [In addition to utility, a host of physical (size and weight), financial (cost), and social (style and legality) factors influence whether a person consider an item to be worthwhile enough to carry on his body.]

The PDA as a mentally valuable item. Many people carry a Swiss Army Knife because it has a lot of physical uses, but virtually nobody carries the individual component devices of a Swiss Army Knife because they would have a limited scope of uses. The PDA has to be a mental Swiss Army Knife before people will carry it. Although PDAs have a few “killer apps” included by default, PDA software has to be heavily modified to enable other uses. Why do PDA manufacturers only include one or two mental tools in their products? This is the equivalent of Victorinox including a great blade on its Swiss Army Knives but then leaving metal stubs for users to change into whatever else they might want–“simply file the stub into a bottleopener, screwdriver, or file”! Of course, most people would not buy the knife in the first place and only a small percentage of purchasers would actually invest the time to make the modifications. Thus, the knife would sit on the shelf for a great majority of purchasers. By not being carried, the utility of the knife is nil. It is only when people start carrying the knife that it will become a truly indispensable item. There are two principles in play here:

1. Realizable (not potential) utility creates use. Swiss Army Knifes are most likely to be useful when they present the greatest chance of everyday use. Thus, Swiss Army Knives include most tools that are “everyday useful.” This sounds stupidly simple, but it requires a focus on utility that Victorinox has but PDA manufacturers do not. PDAs only have the potential to present great everyday utility, and thus are only potentially very useful. Currently, the potential is only met by users investing resources into including the mental tools (i.e. programs) that they consider useful to their lives. If the PDA reaches a threshold where it is “useful enough to always carry” then the individual user will reach the second principle, that of making the item available at all times. Of course, there are some consumers for whom the usefulness of the default programs alone is considerable, and they don’t modify the software. I can only imagine that this group would grow if the default program base grew as well.
2. Realized utility will cycle into more use as the user considers the PDA to be mentally valuable. PDAs have to be made useful enough to warrant being carried in all situations. Who would want to carry a tool in all situations unless that tool can be used in all situations? This is why most electronic items are not touched until the user anticipates a specific use. PDAs are only truly powerful when they reverse this trend–that is, when they are carried universally–even before the user has a specific use in mind.

What is the take-home message from this case study interpretation? The case study data show that PDA use can offer a diversity of mental advantages to users. By fulfilling the category needs that are outlined above (by installing software), users can find their PDAs to be more useful than they currently do. If individual users find PDAs extremely useful, they will begin to consider them to be indispensably-valuable mental tools. Thus, an effective step that PDA manufacturers can take to reach new users and retain old users is to consider ways they can expose customers to the mental advantages that PDAs offer. This is likely to mean that manufacturers should include (by default) software that allows users to do this.

Problems in implementing this interpretation. One assumption that has been made throughout the above argument is that useful software could be made available to PDA users. Obviously, if programs are very difficult for most consumers to use then then they would not make PDAs more useful–in fact, they could make the device more frustrating and less appealing. PDAs offer a unique interface when compared to most other computing devices, so the process of creating useful software may require a substantial investment into researching the user experience.

Notes on the personal side of PDA use

Up to this point, I have written about the behavior that I engaged in with a PDA–the numbers and reasons. Another important aspect about PDA use is emotional in nature. I use my PDA no fewer than 5 times a day, and I consider the useful of its data to have been life-changing.

It feels good to know. People need references when they are in the everyday world. I often like to read at coffeeshops. When I would read a word I did not know the definition for, I would consider the work I would have to put in to get the definition (write it down, look it up when I get home) to not be worth the trouble, especially considering that the utility of the definition was small (I had already read past that point in the book by the time I left the coffeeshop). However, the work it takes to look up a definition in the PDA is minimal (it is always faster than a paper-based reference for me) and the results are immediate. Thus, the number of words I look up has increased substantially when I compare my life to the time when I had to rely on paper-based references.

The PDA is never nagged. Social requests for information are bound by social etiquette. No one likes being asked for boring information or being asked many times. In contrast, the PDA is not inconvenienced when I ask it for boring information–even if I have to ask for a third time. PDAs are uniquely able to fill this social role because of speed-of-use and because it is present in social situations.

The joy of geekdom. Yes, there is an emotional satisfaction that one gets using a PDA to uncover an obscure bit of information. It is not quite the same as the satisfaction that one gets from recalling information mentally, but it is satisfying nonetheless. A friend of mine has a similar PDA and similar programs. When situations arise socially where we need information, we see whose system is best able to produce the useful information. It is usually through these situations that we come to know about new programs and share them with each other. PDAs certainly have social characteristics.

My mindset changed over time of ownership. The questions I asked about the PDA took this course:

What can it do? (Then I discovered useful programs.)
What do I want it to do? (Then I got experience using in everyday life.)
What can it assist me with?

These questions apply well to PDAs because PDAs have changeable software tools. However, my mindset has also changed over the time of owning a Swiss Army Knife. It has certain things it can do (prescribed functions), which perhaps can be changed to become what I want it to do (e.g. the leather punch makes a great mini-screwdriver), but (eventually) it just assists. Obviously, a knife is less flexible than a PDA, but the logic still applies to some degree.
The PDA is a powerful form of distributed cognition. Popular culture has been influenced by a school of thought that tries to address a physical merger of the human body with technology. This school of thought has produced images of artificial electronic limbs, computing devices implanted into the brain, and the like. To apply the philosophy I write about in Brain Machine Interfaces, the human system is able to accept a variety of these devices right now. The only “letdown” is that instead of having artificial limbs and computers internally integrated with the human body, these items have to be made available externally. In other words, a Swiss Army Knife has to be held in the hand and not become part of the physical hand. Likewise, that also means that the mentally-assisting device has to be made available in the form of a handheld PDA. My personal conceptualization of distributed thinking involves a gray line between the internal and external mental systems anyway–so the future is now. The two main areas for the future are device improvements (networking, hardware, and software) and interface improvements (wearability, viewability, and input).

News

June 16.04
I went to see Don Norman speak about his latest book, Emotional Design, last night. It was a pretty good talk–I was surprised at how different his examples were from a similar speech he gave last year. I enjoy the emphasis on emotional design in general, but I saw two minor potential problems that may arise from emotional design.

May 19.04
After much fiddling and revising, I am finally done with the PDA use study. I did a case study of my PDA use over a six-month time period. The article summarizes the data and I analyze the reasons why PDAs are used and what can be done to improve them. In other news, summer means a lot of reading and a lot of dissertation writing.

Apr. 29.04
The semester is coming to an end and I have collected what I anticipate to be all (or most) of my dissertation data. I will finally be able to finalize some of the articles that I have been working on and post them here. Until then, I changed my article on the Maytag Skybox, partially due to the fact that the previous version of the article was hastily-written and partially because I have been influenced by reading the book Emotional Design. Also, I am almost ready to post an article on PDA use that includes a case study.

Apr.13.04
I am committing to updating this website more often, even though this site has competition from a million other things in my life, including a time-intensive dissertation. The latest Alertbox (Useit.com) has an informal review of an interesting social study “Why mobile phones are annoying.” Although the study does not answer all of the questions that it raises, it is useful nonetheless. Nielsen ranted about the difference between face-to-face and mobile phone conversations in terms of noticability, intrusiveness, and annoyance. However he ignored the story of the data he posted (some of which appeared to be reported incorrectly, but that is another story), and strongly interpreted it:
“What is certain is that the research documents the fact that mobile phones are annoying […]”
However, people rated mobile phone conversations as less annoying and less intrusive than neutral in terms of both having had an “annoying” volume of conversation and as being “intrusive.” The mean rating was barely above this neutral mark in terms of being “noticeable.” In other words, people hardly thought the mobile phone conversations were annoying at all–just less non-annoying than face-to-face conversations. Regardless of the interpretation issue, the original study brings up good video porno¬†queries: Are mobile conversations annoying for casual eavedroppers (because half of the conversation is inaudible)? How can social protocol and mobile phone design be changed to provide a better “bystander” experience?