Darn this Door!: “Norman Doors” and the Frustration of Form over Function

Let’s talk about doors.

In 2007 I purchased a Honda Element after falling in love with the versatility of their design. They are the Transformer of vehicles—incredibly spacious, each seat folds completely flat for sleeping purposes, the back seats fold up to the sides for hauling or can easily be removed by one person for even more room, the plastic floors and water resistant upholstery is convenient for mess, and they offer countless aftermarket parts for just about any situation. Needless to say, the Element is the ultimate travel car. The plan was to drive mine until it parishes to the great junkyard in the sky (fingers crossed that doesn’t happen any time soon) and then purchase a new one. Much to my disappointment, Honda discontinued the Element in 2011. 😭

Even with a superb design that prompted a number of their owners to start Element clubs, the little dreamy box on wheels has one major design flaw…the clamshell doors are absolutely awful. When traveling alone in my “I love my car” bliss, I rarely think about the blunder, however, taking passengers in the back seat is a completely different story. They can’t just jump into the car as the front seat passenger needs to unbuckle themselves, open their door, and then reach into the door jam to open the rear door for the very confused person to enter the back. Oh and then wait…you can’t close the front door first. You must close the back door and then the front door shuts on top of it. Mess this process up and all you get is a SLAM with the doors bouncing back at you in anger.

Even trickier is navigating the clamshell door system in a lot with cars parked on either side of you. Imagine having to open the front door first then the back while attempting not to bump the car parked next to you, at which point your backseat driver has about a foot of space to squeeze through the precariously opened doors, then you are both required to cuddle up to each other to shut the back door at which time the backseat driver is able to escape the contraption, leaving you to finally close the front door and be on your merry way. One of you is surely left with dirt on your clothing from either rubbing against the car next to you or my own notoriously dirty vehicle. To say this is a learned skill for an Element owner to accomplish is an understatement.

So how did such an otherwise fabulously designed vehicle fail so miserably when it came to the door system? I really can’t say but apparently they are not the only ones who threw function out the (ahem) door when creating a product used by people every day. As it turns out, they even have a term for them. “Norman Doors” are defined as “doors with design elements that give you the wrong usability signals to the point that special signage is needed to clarify how they work. Without signs, a user is left guessing about whether to push or pull, creating needless frustration.” (see 99percentinvisible.org) Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, is the Norman behind the term and offers his insight on poor functionality in the hilarious video below. Take a look, and next time you are frustrated with the simple act of entering a room (or a car), know that you are likely not to blame.