The Problem of a Locked Door

~ Nov/08/2012 By : The Old State ~
Last evening I attended a private social gathering at an independent movie theater. This gathering happened to coincide with a special movie premiere the theater was hosting. The problem present was crowd control to separate the two events. The solution was to block off a section of the downstairs lobby area for the private gathering and funnel the movie premiere attendants away using various means of crowd control, i.e. stanchions, people wranglers, and a locked door. I'd like to focus on the locked door because I noticed some interesting developments regarding this.

The locked door was actually two adjacent glass doors that had quickly created signs posted on them that read "Private Event. Use other door" and "Private Event" respectively. I've included a crude example of how this locked door situation looked. Now that you can visualize the situation I would like to talk about my experience with the locked door.

I arrived early to the event and because my intent for visiting the theater was for the private event as soon as I saw the sign on the door that read "Private Event. Use other door." I immediately assumed this door had been designated as the entrance for the private event and that anyone not attending needed to use the other door. Come to find out the door was locked so I had to enter using the other door. This is a small inconvenience but if you consider that the door is glass and that patrons can see your failed attempt at opening the locked door then you add on self-imposed embarrassment and a small inconvenience can become a larger emotional problem. Not all people will feel that way but any that do will understand.

This got me thinking about a clearer way to convey to the theater patron that this door is in fact locked and to enter you will need to enter through the doors located to the right. If you re-read that statement I think you will find the solution to the problem. Miscommunication. "Private Event. Use other door," did not mean "This door is locked. To enter please enter through the doors located to the right." At least to me it did not. There is something to be said for removing ambiguity for instructions. I find that clearly and plainly stated intent cuts through confusion and provides better understanding all around. A solution to the initial problem may have been to change the posted sign to read, "Door locked from outside. Please use the doors to your right." You can add pizzazz to that statement but retaining the practical upfront no nonsense explanation of the situation at hand is imperative if you want people to follow the instructions.

Part two is a little more about information layout than conveying information. I noticed that as a result of us being humans that when we post signs on clear surfaces we post them at eye level. It makes perfect sense to do that but what I noticed is that not all people are looking straight ahead when they approached the locked door. Quite a few of them were looking down, some of them at the ground and some at mobile devices. Their approach to the door was not a typically approach. Which presents an interesting problem. In my observations I noticed that when someone approaches a door without a preconceived plan of how their interaction with the door will go that they need to quickly gather information to determine their next course of action. This typically involves trying their default action of "grab handle and pull" and if that doesn't work then they step back to assess the situation which in my case at least involves a quick visual scan of the obstacle. I am looking for anything out of the ordinary that might indicate to me why my default action of "grab handle and pull" did not yield the intended result. Fixing this in my mind is as simple as providing a visual indicator of the state of the door near the door's operating mechanism (the handle.) This type of thinking can be seen on portable sanitation stations where the container will display green above the handle if the container is currently unoccupied or red if it is. If you want to get technical is displays green if the lock has not been set and red if it has. I'm not advocating that every door should have a red/green display for locked/unlocked. What I am suggesting is that if a piece of paper that read "Locked" had been taped next to the door handle then people would more quickly understand this door is locked and look for alternate means of entry.

The problem of the locked door is a simple one but it did cause me to think about how we interact with everyday objects and how those interactions can be improved.

What are some situations you've encountered that you think you could better orchestrate using principles of information architecture?
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