Saturday, June 5, 2010

Software Should Be Designed Like a Good Door Handle

I currently work for a company that makes security software. Day in, day out, we are talking about what users want from security software. What they want to see, what they want to do, how they want to interact with it. I often fear we tend to drink too much of our own Kool Aid. I think security software, as is the case with most software, is like a well-designed door handle. We just need to get out of the user’s way.

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.

Well-designed handle or not? It's just plain creepy

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.

Gary Larsen's take on door handles - (laugh, but don't blame the user)

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.