Technology for the sake of technology, created without full consideration creates more problems than it aims to solve. This point can be illustrated by two stories about cars. My girlfriend drives a 2000 Honda Odyssey van (fig. 1), and another friend drives a 2011 Cadillac CTS (fig. 2). Both cars have a version of electronically latching doors, but with different designs and results.
I can’t count the number of times a passenger has improperly used the Odyssey’s automatic sliding doors. The exterior door handles are the same as those on manual van doors. On a manual door, you would pull the handle and then slide the door towards the back of the van, laterally in the direction of the door handle. On the electronic door, you pull the handle, and the door slides back automatically. The handles on the inside of the door are turned 90 degrees, so that you grasp the handle with your hand and pull and turn it in the direction the door opens.
In addition to the electronic latching problem (more on that in a second), the exterior door handle is just poor design. On the electronic door, the outside handle requires pulling only towards yourself, in a direction perpendicular to the way the door is supposed to go. Its counterintuitive, pulling in a direction totally unrelated to the way the door functions. The inside door handle is at least shaped in such a way that you can only pull it in the direction the door operates, laterally forwards and backwards in relation to the car. (Don Norman discusses door handles more in depth in his book The Design of Everyday Things, which I highly recommend.)
Besides the poor design of the handle in terms of understanding, there is the functionality issue of the electronic latching. The Honda’s doors are automatic, but the design does not convey this. It looks exactly the same as any manual van door. To properly open and close the door, the passenger needs to give a quick pull of the handle towards the him/herself, and then let go. The door then automatically (but slowly) slides back into place and latches. The most likely motivations for this type of door are for safety, most likely to prevent children from using the door recklessly, and perhaps because of the prevalent contemporary allure to consumers of modern and electronic things vs. old and manual. Fair reasons, but the implementation of the idea doesn’t provide proper cues to the passenger that the door is automatic; it looks exactly like any other (non-automatic) minivan door handle, and this causes people to misuse it all the time. Technology without consideration causes more problems than it solves. Maybe the automatic latch does solve some “issues,” but it creates a host of new ones.
Most people are familiar with how manual sliding doors on a van work. Besides being familiar, the shape of the door and handle gives passengers cues as to how to operate the door without any previous knowledge. Someone with no previous experience should understand how to open the door. By making the sliding door automatic without changing any visual cues, passengers have no idea that the door is automatic. They constantly try to pull the door both open and shut, but it feels stuck because the motor won’t let the door slide freely. The result is that they just continue to pull harder on the door thinking that it’s stuck or broken and not realizing that they’re just misusing it. Sometimes this results with the door jamming and beeping, stuck in some position neither open nor closed until the driver automatically opens or shuts it using the driver’s controls (a seriously irritating result). I don’t have any firsthand experience with doors like this being permanently broken because passengers continually try to pull it closed, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were out there (try googling ‘honda odyssey door’). On multiple occasions my girlfriend has had to shut the door using the driver controls when it jams because of people trying to pull it shut, and she has to explain to passengers all the time that they need to just let go of the door. Doors should not need an explanation.
The door handles on my friend’s CTS are much different. The exterior door handle appears to be the door itself, and there is a cut out of the body of the car at the top of the door so you can put your hand in and pull the door out (fig. 2). The interior door handle is a similar shape to the outside handle of the Honda Odyssey, like a luggage handle at the end of the armrest (fig. 3). These doors are not automatic like the Honda, but they do latch electronically like the Honda. To open the CTS’s door, you have to press a button that unlatches the door, then pull or push to open it. The implementation on the CTS is only marginally better than the Odyssey though. When your hand grasps the handle (on both interior and exterior) you can feel a physical button that unlatches the door. If you were to grasp the outside handle and pull (not knowing there was a button) the pressure of your hand would press the button anyways. This door handle design is fine, the only problem may be if a passenger overlooks it and searches for something more recognizable as a door handle. Aesthetically though it is quite nice as it doesn’t compromise the slick angles of the car.
The interior door handle for the CTSV is slightly more problematic in that it doesn’t resemble a normal door handle, but seems like part of the armrest. The button is clearly visible, but does not give any visual cues to indicate that it unlatches the door. Passengers (myself included) are left confused and have to ask how to open the door. One positive aspect of this design is that it is ergonomic. With your arm on the armrest your hand falls on the handle and the button is under your thumb. It is in a familiar and comfortable place, but the shape still does not provide enough information to show that the button unlatches the door.
Some of the ideas found in the CTS’s implementation of the electronic door could be used to help the Honda Odyssey. By using a button in the familiar place of the door handle, passengers would be more likely to assume the function of the button and also to prevent unnecessary pulling or pushing of the door. The buttons would help passengers to not improperly use the door, but may still confuse them if having never used electronic doors before.
These anecdotes hopefully show that cultural context, visual cues, ergonomic affordances, and especially functionality must be taken into account when designing anything. Honda changed the functionality of the door handle without making it apparent to users, which caused problems. While ergonomically appropriate, lack of visual cues caused passengers to ask how to open the door of the CTS. Proper implementation of a feature is as important as the feature itself.