A good handle tells you on a very low-level how it’s supposed to be used. You hardly know it’s there as you glide through the door, effortlessly. A good handle is shaped in a way that matches how you should grasp it. Based upon its appearance, it tells you whether to turn it, push it, pull it, grab it, or twist it. Cognitive scientists call this concept having an affordance. Affordances work on the perceptual level, harnessing what we’ve learned about the everyday world to seamlessly teach us how to use unfamiliar things.
Poorly designed handles, on the other hand, do make it to your central focus. You push where you’re supposed to pull. Printed signs need to be prepared to prevent errors. Think about this: a well-designed handle should never need written directions – it speaks for itself. Don Norman has written extensively about door handles, and design, and cognition, in his book, The Design of Everyday Things (Doubleday, 1990). It’s a marvelously insightful book, and it forever changed the way I look at the mundane.
I wonder if we’d do better if we considered the fact that most users don’t regard and admire our icons, our dashboard, and UI background images like Picassos and Monets. Users don’t eagerly watch their email inbox for our corporate newsletters. They want a straightforward tool that invites interaction on their own terms, but mostly gets out of the way so they can do what they really want to with their computer.