Still Life

A Series of Mental Snapshots

Why do doors with handles push in!?

Posted by Steve on September 14, 2008

Or more elegantly put, what a door with two handle affords (An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action – Wikipedia).

This has to do with an annoyance I have had for quite a while and that is, why are there doors with handles on both sides? Think to yourself, how many doors have push/pull signs? In my opinion much too many considering if a simple design change was implemented they could be done away with and there would never be any question which way a door goes

Currently those doors that have handles on either side afford for a user to either push or pull. If all doors were designed such that one side had a handle on one side did not, it would be very simple because it would be known that the handle is the pull side, and the other is the push side!

Because of this poor design I have actually created my own heuristics to avoid embarrassingly walking into a door (and yes I definitely have walked into one of these doors). If I am uncertain whether it is push or pull, I’ll put my hand on the handle and push in slightly (it is only noticeable if you know what I am doing) and if the door does not budge, I proceed to pull it. I personally think it is a little ridiculous that I have had to come up with a best practice to open a door!

This may be a rather trivial example, but these type of affordance problems can be seen anywhere, whether physical or in software/the web. A (contrived) web example could be a text box that you cannot type in that has a white background. A white background usually indicates that the text box can be typed in, and if the user attempts to type in it and they cannot they will be surprised. Despite the contrived nature of the above the example, it was meant to get you thinking about the software that you use and design affords. It is important in design to always be aware of what a given design affords, if there is any question about what it affords, I can guarantee you that someone is having trouble using it.

So go ahead look around at any physical or software design and think about what it affords, you may be surprised at what you discover.



4 Responses to “Why do doors with handles push in!?”

  1. Green2 said

    Cool coincidence… two posts i read today have a common theme. This post and this article. Both were somewhat concerned with doors and usability.

  2. Jens said


    I think you forgot something…

    So, you have a door with a handle on the inside and no handle on the outside. On the outside is a sign which says push whereas the inside batch says pull. Alright, if I understand you right, this is the way you want it.
    Say, somone comes and opens the door from the outside, he’ll push it and then leave it open. Now I’ll tell this someone to go out and close the door behind him. How is he going to do that without either squeezing his fingers or slamming the door? You’ll need the handle to pull the door until the lock snaps. If there is a door closer installed it might be different but the door I’m talking about doesn’t have one, it’s my door 🙂

    If one action doesn’t justify the presence for something, ask yourself if another action does… Very often you’ll find a reason why it is the way it is and in other cases… well, there I totally agree with you.

    BR, Jens

  3. Steve said


    That is a very good point. I guess I recently have not encountered a door like that. That being said, that door can have two handles, but there are tons of other doors that have handles on both sides that don’t need them.

    I do think it is a good exercise to think of the counter example though, keeps the mind sharp!


  4. ersorcio said

    Here is an example of an affordance on a door to push, when the same door has signage that instructs to pull instead…

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