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The Accessible Door

Why designing for accessibility improves everyone's user experience.

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Designers need to adopt an open-minded approach and expand their horizons when building solutions that integrate the needs of a diverse range of individuals.

Defining doors

This blog post is very fundamental and serves as a metaphor for accessible design. So before we begin, I would like to take a step back and talk about definitions.

Let's use Merriam Websters' definition of a door to get started.

a usually swinging or sliding barrier by which an entry is closed and opened

Ok, let us keep in mind that doors are defined as "barriers" and look at another definition. I found a Quora thread about the importance of doors and Quora's AI bot, "Sage" came up with a nice explanation about why we need doors in human life:

Doors are an important aspect of human architecture, as they provide security, privacy, and protection from the elements. They are also used to control the flow of people and air in and out of a space. They are still necessary in modern times, as they continue to serve these functions. Additionally, doors also play a role in energy efficiency, as they can help to keep a building insulated. Overall, doors are an essential part of human architecture and continue to be necessary in modern times.

Awesome. None of this might be a surprise to you. I just wanted to get a few things out of the way before we dig into the design part.

Designing doors

Doors are objects that are so universal to human life that we hardly ever consider that there are actually people who design them. Everyone of us is using doors and everyone of us has been in situations where a door didn't work the way we expected. Some doors need to be pushed open, other doors need to be pulled open, sometimes doors even need to be slid open. Some doors need to be opened on the right side, others on the left. Doors can be very confusing.

Now why should you care? What's all this talk about doors? Wasn't this blog supposed to be about UX Design & Web Accessibility? We'll get there ๐Ÿ™‚

Every aspiring UX Design student will at one point or another learn about Don Norman, an absolute legend in the field. After all, he is the person who established the term "user experience" because he wanted "to cover all aspects of the personโ€™s experience with the system including industrial design graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual". In his book, "The Design of Everyday Things" he talks about the foundation of product design as well as his personal experience with using doors.

Norman doors

Don Norman's stories about unusable doors became so popular that a new term about problematic doors came to be: "Norman doors". His stories about confusing doors were relatable enough that he used them to teach us about design.

He states two fundamental principles about good product design:

  1. Discoverability: is it possible to figure out which actions are possible and how to use them?
  2. Understanding: what is the product all about? what do all the different controls mean?

Doors often fail to accomplish the principle of discoverability. Relevant components that are required to use doors need to be evident and communicate the appropriate message. Which actions are possible?

What could be the suitable message that communicates a door needs to be pushed open? A vertical plate on the side of the door could signal to the user that pushing is required. No other actions seem possible, so pushing on the plate would be the logical thing to do.

Accessible doors

Generations of product designers, interaction designers, industrial designers and UX designers have shaped their craft by studying Don Norman's book "The Design of Everyday Things". The principles of discoverability & understanding apply to everything we design, no matter if it's doors, coffee mugs, microwaves or checkboxes in a web form.

But we haven't talked about the elephant in the room yet, the reason you probably started to read this blog post in the first place: accessibility. You might wonder, don't all doors need to be accessible for them to be classified as doors? It is true, the primary purpose of doors is to enable access. But what I am referring to here is accessible design. Design that works for everyone of us, no matter the abilities, no matter the circumstances.

Think about how all the badly designed doors of today affect our lives. We might bump into doors that need to be pulled when we expect them to be pushed. We might get trapped in revolving doors. We might take a while to figure out how to use a certain door and slightly embarrass ourselves, even though we should never take the blame, we should blame bad design. But overall: we will be fine, right?

The truth is, bad design affects all of us. Able-bodied people will usually figure out one way or another how to cope with bad design. It might take them longer than if they were exposed to good design. But they will manage. Disabled people however, usually won't.

At this point, I would like to quote my fellow co-worker, Tomas Caspers who likes to say the following (linked article only available in German):

"Disability is the inability to deal with bad design."

Now, imagine if all the door designers in the world got together at the world door design conference (I would love if that was actually a thing). Imagine that they would all agree on Norman's principles of product design and redesign all the doors in the world and as a consequence dispose of all Norman doors. That would make the world a better place, right?

It would, if they included as many people as possible with diverse abilities in the design process. If we manage to create accessible doors, we can create a world that doesn't just work for able-bodied people. We can create a world that also works for people with permanent disabilities, people with temporary disabilities and people with situational disabilities.

Here is a list of door users who would benefit e.g. from automatic doors that are equipped with motion detectors:

  • a person in a wheelchair
  • a person pushing a baby stroller
  • a person with a lot of luggage
  • a delivery person who has their hands full
  • a person with crutches
  • a person with a bike
  • a blind person
  • ...

It's obvious that designing accessible doors improve's everyone's experience.

Allow me to provide similar examples for accessible design in the web context:

  • subtitles support auditory-impaired people but also people trying to watch a video in the subway with a lot of background noise
  • tables of contents support blind people or people with cognitive disabilities with navigation but also help others who want to get a quick overview of a long article
  • keyboard accessibility supports people who have troubles using a mouse but also help users who have one arm in a cast
  • easy language supports people with cognitive disabilities but also people who aren't native speakers and overall the general audience, because everyone loves easy language
  • ...

If you want equal access for everyone, it's high time to design accessible doors. I hope the message comes across: I don't plan to change professions and become a door designer.

This amazing metaphor of using doors to explain accessible design can help shift people's mindsets. Norman doors helped us to better understand the essentials of product design and learn about usability. I hope to achieve similar results by complementing his concept and teach people about accessibility.

Let's build accessible doors for everyone! ๐Ÿ’–

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