The Elevator Door Button

By William Bezanson


Don’t you just hate those two buttons on an elevator control panel, for opening and closing the door?  They are typically marked with some obscure graphical symbols somehow suggesting an opening door and a closing door.  You have to think for a moment to determine which means Open and which means Close.  And they are typically down at about knee-level, so you must crouch down, peer into the dark, and make your guess for Open or Close. 

And you are typically in a rush to find the Open button, not the Close one.  Someone calls out to you, “Hold that elevator!” from down the hall, as he or she rushes to catch the car.  You bend down and frantically try to determine which button is the correct one, and you often hit the wrong button, causing the door to close, and you shout out “Sorry!” through the closing crack in the door, with some embarrassment and frustration.

Moan!  Things should not be so hard to use!

This article suggests that the first two design goals of any mechanism should be ease of use and correct user performance first time.  Clearly, just about all elevator user consoles were not designed with those two goals in mind.

So what does that have to do with spirituality, or OM living, or metaphysics?  Why is it here, in this e-magazine? 

When you think about it, ease of use of anything, and correct user performance first time, both contribute to a calmer life.  For elevators, you bypass any frustration of having to second-guess the console designer.  You efficiently help a frantic hall runner, trying to catch that specific elevator car.  And you feel an attunement with the machine, other people, your inner self, and Life.  All those things contribute a sense of harmony to that real part of you, your Spirit and your spirituality. 

If you look at how people use elevator door buttons, they always want to close the door if it is currently open or opening, and to open the door if it is currently closed or closing.  In other words, they always want the door to do the opposite of what it is currently doing.  That does not need two buttons.  One button will suffice.  Nobody would design a light switch mechanism with two switches—one to turn the light bulb on and another to turn it off.  The switch simply toggles the light’s current state, i.e., it changes it into the opposite state.  Similarly for an elevator door—one button, say, marked DOOR, would suffice.  Pressing the DOOR button would cause the door to switch to its opposite state:  opening if it is currently closed or closing, and closing if it is currently open or opening.  Pressing and holding the button would keep the door in its current state.

One button, clearly marked DOOR, up at eye level, clearly illuminated.  How simple!

And if we insisted on multi-lingual signs, a simple graphic icon depicting an elevator door opening would serve adequately. 

We can do other nice things with elevator console buttons; i.e., nice from a user perspective.  Consider that one of the charming features of human beings is that they make mistakes.  Why don’t we design systems to help users gracefully recover from such mistakes?  Well, one of the most common mistakes is pressing the wrong floor button.  Isn’t it annoying when you do that?  Embarrassing, too.  A simple fix is to have each floor button toggle its state.  For example, if you had pressed button 15 wrongly, having meant to press number 17, you would need simply to press 15 again to cancel your earlier mistaken selection.  Then you could press the correct button.  Most elevator console door buttons don’t work that way currently, but I believe that they should do so.

It’s like using an eraser to correct a mistake.  And it enhances your spirituality through calmness, through a conversation opener with fellow passengers, and through a sense of efficient handling of a potential time-wasting mistake.  Further, if someone really had wanted your mistaken floor to be selected, a pleasant human dialogue could resolve the dilemma and contribute to some conversation, breaking the silence, and easing tensions in the car.

What we are talking about here is designing for great user experience first, and then secondarily designing for ease of installation, maintainability, cost, and so on.  After all, it is users that really count.  And if you help the users become more relaxed, more serene, more spiritually attuned, then the whole environment improves:  the building owner’s reputation, the harmony among people who work in that building, and perhaps even the confidence of your colleagues who also use that elevator regularly.

Looking at the big picture, we can surmise that readers of OMTimes might make great additions to the design teams of many products and services that we take for granted.  Such readers could bring an element of spiritual calmness to design teams, as well as a sympathetic user perspective, a compassionate tolerance for user mistakes, and a proactive anticipation of user habits and needs.  Thus, if we had more OMTimes readers on design teams, we might have more single-queue-multi-server service points (much like modern banks and airline counters), and more products with a minimum number of controls (such as TV remote controllers with only one or two user controls for the 80% of users who use them for simple operations, and for the other 20% the full set of controls hidden under a flip-open cover), and more computer systems that work first time out of the box (these would be excellent for the 80% of users who just want to do their jobs, whereas the 20% of users who want to tinker and change modules or software, another brand of computer may be appropriate).

So, dear reader, your role in life may be not only to meditate and chant to a higher personal plane, but perhaps also to contribute to humanity’s usage of systems and services so that more harmony manifests in the world, as well as more spiritual calmness, more healthy attitudes, and more peaceful relationships.  Even if you are not formally on a design team (which is debatable, since we are all co-creators with God of our World), you can still contribute effectively to user experiences, such as by feedback to organizations, buying from companies that exhibit good design principles, and spreading the word about good design.  You could even consider the elevator door button to be a metaphor for your life, and with that in mind you could design simpler, more elegant ways of analyzing life choices and making decisions.  Ultimately, through cascading influences, such a macroscopic attitude will contribute to your personal and the global transformation to greater health and harmony.

This article is about user-centered design and effective user experiences.  More importantly, it is also about adopting a higher-level view of designing systems and services, and about aiming higher in ways of healing humanity and making the world a better place.



William Bezanson writes a regular Blog column for OMTimes, and books on systems design for usability and on world stewardship.  His latest book is I Believe:  A Rosicrucian Looks at Christianity and Spirituality.  A retired engineer, he lives with his wife in Ottawa, Canada. His website is .



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