What Door Design Can Show Us About Website Usability

Let’s take a minute to talk about doors. Doors don’t seem very complicated to use, right? You push, you pull, sometimes you slide. Largely, doors serve as a means to an end, enabling you to get from point A to point B.

You’ve probably never given much thought to doors. In fact, you’re probably starting to wonder why I’m even talking about them in the first place. Bear with me though.

Some doors are confusing. Maybe a door looks like it should be pushed, when really it should be pulled. Or maybe it differs in design from all the other doors in the vicinity, leaving you confused about how to open it.

While doors may seem like an abstract or even irrelevant topic, they are actually central to the discussion of User Experience (UX).

Donald Norman, one of the most influential figures in the study of usability, an advocate of user-centric design, and the man who first coined the term User Experience, dedicated a large portion of his iconic book The Design of Everyday Things, to doors.

Badly designed door, bad user experience

In it, he explains how a poorly designed door (a so-called “Norman Door”) is one where the design elements give users the wrong usability signals, so much so that special signage is required to clarify how the door works. Without the sign, a user would be left guessing if they should push, pull or slide open the door.

“There are a couple really basic principles of design,” says Norman in a great video from Vox called It’s not you. Bad doors are everywhere. “One of them is called ‘discoverability’. This is to say, when I look at something, I should be able to discover what operations I can do.”

On this basis, a well-designed door is one that you know how to operate, just by looking at it.

This principle applies to a lot more than just doors.

Moving away from the physical world and into the digital realm, “usability” and “discoverability” are as important on a website as they are in a door.

What is usability?

According to usability expert Jakob Nielsen, “usability is a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. The word ‘usability’ also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process”.

The study of web usability has become increasingly popular in recent years, as many companies and brands have begun to realize the importance of having a well-functioning and easy-to-use website.

Usability and web design

The crux of a good website is a clear and engaging user experience that both new and returning visitors can easily maneuver. An effective website provides users with clearly defined journeys, leading them through your site to one of your desired outcomes.

Just like with doors, a well-designed website is one that users know how to operate, just by looking at it.

In The Design of Everyday Things, Norman emphasizes that having a good understanding of human psychology (or in web speak, “user behavior”) when designing a product (or in this case, website) is crucial to creating a good user-centric design, and thus a good user experience. He argues that the fault in poor design often lies in ignoring the needs and psychology of people.

“The design of technology to fit human needs and capabilities is determined by the psychology of people. Yes, technologies may change, but people stay the same.”

You think your website has a good UX, but do you know your website has a good UX?

Although the first step in creating a user-centric (or human-centric, as Norman prefers to call it) website is to understand your users, it largely does not matter if you think your users will understand how to get through your website, if users do not actually know how to get through your website. The only way to know what they will and will not understand is through testing.

There are various tools on the market that allow you to test your website’s UX by enabling you watch or monitor how users actually behave on your site. In this article, I’ll touch on two.

The first is tool is called session recording, where you can watch videos of users’ interactions on your site. These automatically generated videos enable you to see recreations of mouse movements and scroll and clicks on your website.

Once you gather a large enough sample size of videos, you can start filtering them by location, demographic, or device. A benefit of using a session recording tool rather than doing individual usability testing is that users never know they are being recorded, so they act as they normally would. Substantial research has documented that people often behave differently when they know they’re being observed.

Another useful tool for testing or improving your UX is called heat mapping. A heat map is essentially a picture that shows you the “hot” or “cold” areas of your website, highlighting where users engage most, and, conversely, which parts they overlook.

Here is an example of AB Tasty’s heat mapping tool used on e-commerce brand MODZ’s website:

Heat mapping enables you to see what elements of your website users most frequently click and can help you identify issues with your UX, or highlight potential breaks in your user or customer journeys.

Through use of session recording and heat mapping tools, you’ll get a very detailed picture of how your users behave on your website, and thus a better understanding of whether you have an effective and user-centric website design.

The takeaway: don’t let your website be a Norman door

Think of your website like a door. If a user can’t figure out how to operate (or in this case, navigate) it just by looking, your UX probably isn’t very good. Through use of tools like session recording or heat mapping, you can easily discover if your website is effective in guiding people to do what you want them to do. The same principle of “discoverability” in product design applies to web — when a user looks at your website, they should be able to discover what operations it can do.

Don’t let your website be one of those doors that people push, when really they should pull.

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