Apple HQ, Norman doors

Apple spent $5bn on their new HQ and ended up with an issue forewarned in 1998 by a cognitive scientist, the eponymous Norman. The result : emergency services had to called to Apple Park in California when workers walked into some fancy glass doors/windows and injured themselves, multiple times in the first month itself.


Apple Park

The designer of the building specially treated glass to achieve exact level of transparency and whiteness and further ‘helped’ the users by keeping perfectly flat thresholds on doorways, so they won’t be distracted from work while walking in. Too bad he wasn’t thinking/testing as a user, ending up providing another example of sub-optimal usability, another Norman door.

Norman who? A cognitive scientist, Donald Norman put together a seminal book with Design Of Everyday Things in 1988. The book explained how pretty, elegant design can be frustrating to the end users if it lacks affordances and/or fails to use mapping,  constraints etc to guide the user in using the object without thinking about it. Ironically, those who’ve read his book associate his name with the poorly designed items – Norman doors, Norman switches, Norman controls – you get the picture. Mind you the publicity probably helped the sale of his books, so I don’t feel too bad for him.

If you haven’t yet googled it, affordances refer to the fundamental properties (perceived & actual) of a thing that determine how it could possibly be used e.g. a chair ‘affords’ to sit.

In the very first chapter of his book, Norman talks about someone who got trapped for a few seconds in the multiple revolving doorways of a building. He couldn’t work out which side to push due to the ‘elegant’ design of the doors that removed the lines around the hinges – so no way to tell which side to push!

A similar no lines & no affordances (like a bar/handle to push) design has caused the lack of visibility & injuries at Apple Park; now being tackled with yellow sticky notes or rectangular stickers. The latter have been done previously in some of Apple’s glass-doored stores too;  hopefully it’s not the same designer! 😄

The thing is, these sort of issues crop up in a lot of times in normal life, with people being blamed for clumsiness, rather than the inadequate design. Consider how the newspaper link at the top reports this issue (emphasis mine): “Despite warnings from a building inspector that people would not be able to tell where the door ends and the wall begins, at least three Apple employees walked or ran into the glass….”. Almost feels like the people would’ve been ok if they’d listened to the warning!

I myself encountered a Norman item and blamed myself initially. My car’s actually quite well designed in several aspects but the reverse notch of the gear stick leaves a little something to be desired:


Can you guess the issue? A couple of times when I was late in catching the light turning green while idling at traffic lights, I ended up moving the stick fast to the left and then forward, resulting in the car in the reverse gear rather than the first, fun times!

A simple design choice of putting the reverse gear pointing to the rear would’ve been directionally correct and nearly impossible to be selected by mistake, instead of providing another ‘Norman’ moment.

The DOET book is actually quite useful for designing software and websites and on most good reading lists for software developers. I’ll put together a synopsis here when I start doing book reviews.