Oct 8, 2009

On Humans and Handles - Addendum

First, not recognizing that my last post would be viewed by so many important IHIers, thank you all for your kind and generous praise! This has been an incredible week.

I wanted to expand on my previous point regarding the solitary design flaw in the office - the front exit door handle.

We've all seen the far side cartoon depicting the Midvale School for the Gifted (a classic!). I believe this cartoon derives its humor from two sources 1) Making the viewer feel superior, a theme of most jokes, and part of the funniest joke in the world (NB: As determined by scientists; British ones, to boot - sorry Andy), and 2) Reminding the viewer of a mistake that feels universal to the human condition.

How many times have you walked up to a door, attempted to pull it open, only to find that this was a "push" door? In my case, more times than I can count. Does this replay of the Midvale scene mean I’m, ahem, less than "gifted?"

In fact, no. The door handle problem represents a conflict between our automatic mental processes - the fast, decisive parts of our brains that allow us to catch a falling cell phone, or supply an effortless "you're welcome" when needed - and the slower, rational processes that think their way to an answer.

To the automatic brain, a vertical bar means “pull,” while the rational brain wonders, “don’t most exit doors push outward? Except in houses. Hmm. . . “ But by then, the mistake has been made.

An observer might laugh, but why? Isn’t it better to be frugal with one’s brainpower, committing it to loftier challenges than those presented by a handle? Even though I committed the mistake, it's not me who is wrong – it's the door.

To me, the push-pull problem is a favorite example of the predictability of human error. As with even the gravest medical mistakes, pulling the door is bound to make sense to someone on occasion. How do we prevent the embarrassment and wasted time resulting from door misuse?

We could put a sign up: "Note, push the door; thank you for your cooperation." We could penalize those who attempt to pull the door, and promote those who push it. We could host an annual seminar to remind everyone to always push the door (slogan: "be pushy about going home from work!"). We could even station an assistant (IHI Egress Coordinator) near the door to make sure we exited properly.

Or, we can admit that as long as humans are the ones grasping the handles, some will pull them, and try to fix all the world’s doors.

-Dan H.

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