Hold the elevator!

Go to a conference on human factors or human-computer interaction, and I bet you’ll find that the most common elevator topic is the design of the button panel in the conference hotel’s elevators.

The Web is full of thoughts on elevator buttons. A Google search on the phrase “elevator buttons” returns “about 49,000″ hits. Although some are photos, many are thoughts or conversations on how to improve the design.

I have a specific concern, and an idea for addressing it. Others have expressed my concern, but I have never seen my idea described anywhere. Pardon me while I ramble a little…

Unless you are a total stranger to elevators (hard to imagine, since you’re reading a blog), you’ve doubtless had the experience of being in an elevator whose doors were about to close, and hearing someone in the hallway shout, “Hold the elevator!”

You fumble at the panel. Which one is the dadblasted “door open” button?! By the time you’ve figured it out, the doors have closed. (I’ve taken to waving my arm between the doors to trip the electric eye. I did it with my leg on the Orlando Airport shuttle-train once, and impressed an elderly couple who were clearly more intimidated by technology than I am. )

I’ve found a few sites that mention the problem. I have yet to find one that has the solution I favor. Let me mention a few ideas, and then I’ll get to my own.

A guy named Dave has a “million-dollar idea ” to approach this problem — he revises the pictures on the door-open and door-close buttons.

John Bartholdi, of Georgia Tech, has a page on elevator button panels . He discusses many of the good and bad features of these panels, but he doesn’t mention my perfect idea.

Geof Huth blogs about the pictures on the open and close buttons and raises a very valid issue: Do they indicate the movement of the doors or the current state? “The problem I perceive,” he writes, “is that the ‘close door’ symbol looks open to me.” (It does to me too.) Several people have commented on Geof’s post, but no one has mentioned my very simple idea.

You get the picture.

So what would solve the problem and help you hold that elevator for your colleague or fellow traveler? Simple — make the “door open” button larger than the others! That way you wouldn’t have to peer closely at the open and close buttons to identify which was which; you wouldn’t have to decipher the symbols; you wouldn’t have to think much at all. You’d just push and hold the button that grabbed your attention.

So I’ve taken to promoting this idea every time I have to hold the elevator for someone. Everyone agrees that it’s a good idea. (Or maybe they’re just being nice. Who can tell in an elevator?) I wonder how long it’ll take before it catches on. (Maybe I should write ISO… hahaha.)

I did once encounter a guy who told me of the time he needed a quick-find door close button. He was riding up to his office, minding his own business, when two cops entered the elevator behind him, guns drawn, and jumped off at the third floor. He had never before, he told me, wanted so badly to see those doors close ASAP!

I submit, however, that the cops should have thrown him out of the elevator before going in search of their crook.

Anyhow, here are a couple of drawings I dashed off in PowerPoint. Nothing fancy, and the arrangement may not be perfect. Perhaps the “door open” button doesn’t need to be as much larger as I’ve shown it. But I think you can see how it makes the critical button easy to find and press in a hurry.

elevator buttons as they're usually seen
Elevator buttons
as they’re usually seen
elevator buttons with a large 'door open' button
Elevator buttons
with a large “door open” button

Larry King has recently posted a picture of a larger door-open button . It doesn’t satisfy me completely, but it’s a start.

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