Missing standardization: Elevator buttons

A theme of the digitized economy is the importance of standards. But sometimes I am puzzled by missing standards. Today I’d like to hone in on the ‘open door’ button on the elevator.

You know the scenario. The door is closing and someone is just running up to get in. Now the appropriate social response (which I will admit is not necessarily the individual self-interested response — that’s why its social) is to reach for the ‘open door’ button in order to open the door.

We know what happens next, you are presented with two buttons — one open and one for closing. And they are not conveniently labelled open or close but something like that depicted here. It isn’t obvious which one to press. I bet you had to stare to see which one was ‘open.’ There is no trigger response unless you are particularly familiar with the elevator in question. So half the time you either pause or hit the wrong button exhibiting an apologetic tilt of the head as the door closes.

This is ridiculous. It isn’t like the elevator people have had no thoughts about buttons. Below is a nice red button that indicates emergency. It is clear. Above are the floor bottons where they have put a friendly star in to indicate the likely focal floor. And the braille on the buttons actually writes ‘open’ and ‘close’ which is very clear except that a person using that likely didn’t see the outsider trying to get in!

It would not be hard to change this and not costly at all in the scheme of things. How about something clear like the words ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ or maybe just ‘O’ and ‘C’ or maybe just a big O on the one button and nothing on the closed button because apparently that doesn’t close anything anyhow.

You may wonder why I decided to launch my rant on ‘open door’ button design today. This morning we had lecture from Danny Kahneman on his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow. He described how people use cues to think fast. It seems to me that when it comes to opening an elevator door we need to think fast and basically the design offers no cues. Over at Strategyprofs, Mike Ryall raises another business puzzle inspired by that talk.


9 Replies to “Missing standardization: Elevator buttons”

  1. I like the current design. It allows for lack of common knowledge. I can convincingly pretend to accidentally push the close door button. I can do the self interested thing while pretending to intend to do the socially acceptable response.

  2. An excellent point.

    I am reminded also of the universal “save” button icon of the floppy disk–an anachronism, and a symbol that is rapidly losing its real-world meaning to new users (ask a 10-year-old if they’ve ever seen one in real life). When I discuss my distaste for the floppy-disk-means-save paradigm with techie friends, I’m often met with, “Well, sure, but what would be better?” to which I always reply, “How about a button that says “SAVE”?

    1. Cheers. Figuring out which button is open has always been tricky for me. It’s 50/50 whether I press the right one. So are more than 50% of elevator closed buttons disabled, such that my best play is pressing both?…

  3. Do you really think O and C are better? I’d find that bamboozling. And what about people who don’t speak english? It’d be like going a restaurant toilet in foreign country – an uncomfortable gamble.
    Ditto a “SAVE” button – verbalising it is a step backwards. Now I’m not saying that there isn’t a better alternative to a disk but not sure what it is.

  4. Even if the ‘close’ button actually worked, why have two buttons? Surely what is needed is a toggle button. Press it when the door is closed or closing, it opens. Press it when it when the door is open (or opening?) and it closes (or gets more willing to close pr whatever the close command should do.)

    As for the label: ‘door’. Or just an anachronistic picture of a door with a knob!

  5. I have strangely thought of this before and I think the standard (from my limited observations in Sydney office towers) is that the open door button is always closest to the door, while the close is furthest away from the door.
    What I’m confused about is why the ground floor is so special that it gets a star.

  6. There is a standard in Canada for these buttons and the pictured buttons follow that standard. Maybe it’s not 100% obvious which button is which but most people can figure it out. And since Canada is bilingual, it helps to have iconic buttons.

    Anyway just stick your arm out to trip the door crush sensors and the door will open. No need to overthink it 🙂

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