Illustration of people holding hands across continents.

Tech Notes

Have you ever pulled on a door handle expecting the door to open, only to find out you needed to push? Usually these doors are in a public space, have an ambiguous bar, and are never clear if you need to push or pull. If you are lucky, worn letters or braille of “Push” or “Pull” might be marked on the handle. After much struggle, everyone eventually sheepishly opens the door. People sometimes feel as if they should have remembered how the door opens, which is not the case. The door itself is the issue: it is not apparent how the door works, but the way the door opens should be intuitive.

These ambiguous knobs and door handles typify lackluster design choices, and they are called “Norman doors,” identified by Don Norman in his research and described in the book The Design of Everyday Things.

“Norman doors” exist all over the virtual software world too. A “Norman door” in software usually takes the form of an anti-pattern or a convention that continues, despite other preferable options. One software “Norman door” that comes to mind is link text without context- the notorious “Read More” or “Click Here” link. Most digital writers have built this “Norman door” at least once. It is conventional, just like the “Norman door”, but not a good practice. The better practice is to have a few brief words in the link text that lets users know where the link goes. For example, it would be better to have the link say “View Features.” Both physical-world design and digital design should be intentional.

Curb-cuts and Inclusivity

Inclusive, thoughtful design is a cure for “Norman doors.” Take Curb-cuts, for example, the areas around crosswalks, store entry ways, and other critical crossing areas where the curb transitions from street-level to the higher sidewalk or curb through a smooth ramp. Curb-cuts facilitate inclusion and safety through people-first design. Wheelchair users can safely navigate between the street and curb with correctly implemented curb-cuts, while eliminating trip-hazards and also improving safety for stroller or cart users to avoid dangerous or impossible maneuvering by naturally encouraging all pedestrians to cross at designated areas. One simple, good design choice directly improves public spaces.

Good Design Choices

Now, consider “Norman doors” in comparison to curb-cuts. Do “Norman doors” really benefit anyone? It is unlikely this style of door even benefits the handle fabricator. It is an example of a design that everyone agrees is not great, yet these doors persist. Curb-cuts, on the other hand, exemplify a good design decision that is intentional and inclusive. Making intentional design choices is critical to avoid things “just happening.”

Inclusive and intentional design is good design. It means doing things correctly or the right way. It does not mean settling for “Norman doors” that sort-of get the job done. Having respect for the work and thinking about how all users interact with the world is a good way to begin. When we see a “Norman door” in our work, we should fix it. It is not helpful to anyone to ignore or accept it. In fact, a “Norman door” can even be a barrier to entry, particularly for people with a disability or who use assistive technology, which elevates the issue from a minor annoyance to an exclusive blocker.

Just as our public spaces should be inclusive so everyone can join in and participate safely and freely, our digital spaces are just as important- digital inclusive design should always be a requirement.

How do we avoid “Norman doors” during development?

  • Think about how the component should be used. Imagine that this is a user’s first encounter with the component. Elements should tell a story on how to use them. What “story” does the component tell from observing it?

    • For a door, a flat panel may tell the “story” that a push is expected and a bar may help indicate a pull. Even further than that, an automatic door is a great accessible, inclusive design choice that is inviting for everyone.
    • For an HTML component, it may be using the right component for the right job. For example, a checkbox group is usually preferable to a multi-select dropdown. Multi-select dropdown boxes require dexterity, knowledge that the component can accept multiple choices, and are generally unintuitive. A checkbox group is much more intuitive when a multi-select is expected. If you cannot tell the right “story” with the component, make the necessary changes.
  • Think about all potential users. This means anyone and everyone that could encounter the component. Users have a variety of experiences, expectations, and ways of interacting with the world. Make sure everyone is included and has a chance to come in.

    • For example, one way to begin ensuring everyone has access to your form fields in HTML is to ensure labels are property associated with the field. Thoughtfulness often leads to good outcomes. Form fields and form labels need programmatic association for a good reason.
  • Take pride in what you do. If the component can be done better, take responsibility to make it better. Do not live with the “Norman door”, instead, fix it and elevate it to an inclusive helpful feature.

    • If you notice the commonplace “Read Now” link in your work or similar vague components, take the extra steps to adjust the link text to be more meaningful. These types of less-than-preferable conventions can be changed. Take the initiative to make the correction.
  • Advocate for good inclusive design. This should be a high priority. Users notice good design, just like they remember being flustered with the “Norman door.” Everyone should have a good experience, and users reward such experiences with loyalty.

    • Let your colleagues know when you spot a “Norman door.” Be an advocate for accessibility and inclusivity. Help others understand why “Read Now” links and other similar components are not a great practice. Advocate for spending time to make inclusive and accessible designs from the beginning- it will save the product development time in the long run.

About AFB Talent Lab

The AFB Talent Lab provides accessibility consulting services in conjunction with internship and apprenticeship programs designed to train a new generation of tech workers in digital inclusion, accessibility, and project management. To learn more about our client services or training programs, please visit our website at www.afb.org/talentlab.