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As far as I know, in US, grip-and-turn style door knobs are still the most popular, as opposed to lever-style handles, which dominate in the rest of the world.

Is there some UX advantage to door knobs that I am not aware of, which is the reason for keeping them around?

Edit:

To clarify the difference, this is the grip-and-turn door knob:

door knob

And this is lever-handle style:

door lever

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Do you have any source concerning the "dominate in the rest of the world" part? I'm pretty used to "grip-and-turn" door knobs in France too. –  Arlaud Pierre May 26 at 9:48
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They make for excellent plot devices in low budget horror films since it is hard to open them with your hands covered in blood –  PlasmaHH May 26 at 10:17
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In the US, grip and turn knobs are used in virtually all homes, while lever style are often seen in offices. So we are very familiar with both types. –  Michael Hampton May 26 at 15:49
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FYI, I had to replace my lever style bedroom door knob with a grip and turn version because the cat figured out how to jump up, pull the lever and bust into the room. He liked to come in mostly at times when the door was closed for a reason. –  Itumac May 27 at 17:38
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Ever tried to open a door knob with wet hands? –  benPearce May 27 at 22:29

13 Answers 13

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Door knobs are standard in US homes for the same reason that exterior doors open inwards* -- it's "always been done that way". People grow up used to knobs, and specify knobs on new work, and thus this inferior mechanism is perpetuated. For some buildings (not private homes), some building codes now require lever mechanisms so that the handicapped can operate them more easily. In most buildings with high occupancy (schools, commercial space), outward-opening doors with crash bars are required. These codes came after some tragic fires, where people piled up against inward-opening doors.

I don't see lever mechanisms and outward-opening doors becoming common in US homebuilding, unless codes are amended to require them. Considering how much pushback there has been over incandescent lightbulbs, I don't see that happening any time soon. Maybe if there is some sort of "handicap accessible" certification that would make a home easier to sell, that would encourage the change.

* originally in colonial homes, doors that opened inwards could be barricaded from the inside to prevent hostile attackers from breaking down the door. The tradition has continued to this day.

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More on why doors open inward in homes here: home.howstuffworks.com/home-improvement/remodeling/…. –  tajmo May 28 at 16:58
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I'd be curious to see a citation on the last bit about colonial homes. It seems like it would have to do with any hostile person, not just Native Americans, and would go back further than colonial times. –  tajmo May 28 at 17:05
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Looking around for a citation, I saw suggestions that 1) in snowy areas an outward-opening door could trap you inside (and code thus requires inward-opening in some areas), 2) hinges on the outside can have their pins driven out by a burglar, 3) the wind can catch an outward-opening door and damage it. But I do remember being told long ago about being able to barricade an inward-opening door. I will try to find an acceptable citation. –  Phil Perry May 28 at 17:22
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In the US, lever handles are usually a recommendation by the ADA. Crash bars (when present) are usually a requirement by the OSHA. –  Brian S May 28 at 19:59
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@BrianKnoblauch: Actually, levers are helpful with hands full. With hands full, a door with a door knob is impossible to open or close, but that's well possible with a lever, just using one's elbow, for example. –  O. R. Mapper May 31 at 16:48

Vancouver has banned doorknobs through its building code. The motive is for greater accessibility. And I can think of several reasons why levers offer a lot more affordance. Elbows, forearms, feet, items gripped in a hand, butts can all be used to open doors with handle knobs... but that is or will be discussed. I recommend this fascinating article on the topic.

Vancouver’s ban on the humble doorknob likely to be a trendsetter

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Building codes give uniformity, but do not necessarily give the best user experience. For years in the UK, everyone understood that all taps were lefty-loosey, righty-tighty. Then the European union decreed that hot taps should be the reverse: i.e. turn clockwise to open. The result is a lot of confusion (people often don't look at the colour of a tap) and a lot of hot taps wrenched off their respective sinks. No wonder every modern bathroom in continental Europe now has a mixer tap with a single handle for both hot and cold (lift for on, right/left for temperature.) –  steveverrill May 27 at 20:05
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@steveverrill: Are you sure that the mixer tap has become widespread in response to said regulation? I'd have thought that was simply because mixer taps are superior in that they allow for a direct control of both water pressure and temperatures independently of each other. –  O. R. Mapper May 27 at 23:30
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This answers the opposite question, though. –  200_success May 28 at 6:51
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@steveverrill [citation needed]. I've never noticed any such issue with bathroom taps and I can't find anything online. It's hard to believe that the EU could legislate about which direction bathroom taps should turn without the Daily Mail screaming about it, for example. This sounds a lot like a euromyth. –  David Richerby May 31 at 22:31
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I could not find any EU legislation on this either, but an explanation which is a lot more plausible: baddesigns.com/faucet2.html Basically that you can get the same faucet with either screw-taps or lever-taps, and the lever-taps require opposite directions. –  semi-extrinsic Jun 2 at 12:47

If I were to run a heuristic analysis of buildings, I'd find that most users are familiar with doorknobs, and while they might express a preference for levers, it doesn't factor into their decision to enter a building.

Additionally, I would likely find that mortise locks require a heavier door and cost several times more to purchase/install.

Thus, I would conclude that doorknobs provide an increased ROI on the margin vs. door levers with a minimal impact on engagement, in spite of their their inherent disadvantages.

This wouldn't be the best decision for the user, but it's the sort of compromise we make on a daily basis in business.

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Most users in America are familiar with doorknobs - as discussed extensively elsewhere on this page, this is a cultural phenomenon, and the network effect would point in precisely the opposite direction in, say, the UK. –  IMSoP May 27 at 23:13
    
The way my last landlord explained it, the use of mortise configurations in the UK has to do with the age of the architecture. Old doors won't take modern deadbolts in a secure way, and as a result you have your own default setup. This came up because mortise locks were a trend in San Francisco during the 1990s. As a result, in many commercial spaces, we're now stuck with a configuration requirement that costs $2000 to replace instead of $400. –  Imperative May 28 at 8:08

This is anecdotal, but:

In the building in which I currently live, we used to have several doors with lever-style handles. They were actually removed and replaced with doorknobs, because people kept putting too much pressure on the levers and breaking the mechanisms.

From this I infer that levers might not be a good choice for very high-traffic doors. A broken mechanism is the least usable one of all - and obviously the expense plays a part as well, for whomever has to pay to replace it.

Although it doesn't seem very practical for inside houses/apartments, many office and condo/apartment buildings use "panic bars" and sometimes thumbpiece mechanisms instead, for highly-trafficked doors; less frustrating than doorknobs, but still difficult to break accidentally. So it's not entirely a competition between doorknobs and levers - there are other options available.

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I'm from the UK, live in Spain, and I certainly noticed a lot more grip and turn knobs when I was in the USA. One advantage is that they often have a lock built in (either a key lock for a front door, or a push button for a bathroom.)

This makes the appearance neater and the installation easier than the typical European handle, which must have a separate lock. The USA is a country of low material costs and high labour costs, so the convenience of installation may be relevant.

Other advantages: things don't get caught on them as readily (I've torn a shirt or two in my time.) And certainly they're a lot less likely to injure you should you ever fall on one or scrape against it. This is definitely an advantage for boisterous children who may have their heads at doorknob height. The point about being harder for children to open can be either good or bad.

EDIT: There are other ways to protect children from door handles. Thanks to @Mew for the link: japantoday.com/images/size/x/2012/05/handles.jpg

enter image description here

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While your explanations sounds reasonable, less of a chance for things getting "caught" is, at the same time, a disadvantage: How do you open and close a door with a doorknob when you are carrying something in both hands (say, a filled glass and a plate with food)? For lever style grips, both opening and closing is still easily possible with one's elbow. –  O. R. Mapper May 26 at 20:56
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Upon reading your answer, it just sounded a bit one-sided, but you're right about the question asking only about advantages. As for your explanation on that being specific to the USA, though, I am not convinced about that. "Low material costs and high labour costs" could be said about various European countries just as well. For example, I hear in the USA, there are even employees packing stuff into bags at supermarkets, which is something completely unknown in most European countries exactly because the labour cost is way too high for such tasks. –  O. R. Mapper May 26 at 21:08
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I don't buy the "cheaper to install" part. Both styles IMO take the same amount of work to install. Both styles require doors with prepared slots for the lock and lever (or knob). Then all you have to do is mount the lock and lever. –  Mladen Jablanović May 27 at 16:38
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Note: there exist lever handles with a "knob" lock; you're not limited to having a separate locking mechanism. Most of the ones I've personally seen were privacy locks rather than security locks, but merely having a lever handle does not preclude the incorporation of a lock. –  Brian S May 27 at 17:13
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See this: japantoday.com/images/size/x/2012/05/handles.jpg –  Mew May 28 at 4:28

Doors are either left-handed or right-handed, depending on which way they open. Doorknobs can be installed on either side of the door.

Handles are normally designed for either the right or left side of the door (i.e. you need a left/right pair for each door, one on this side of the door, the other on the other side of the door). (This appears to be a topic of confusion, and it seems that this confusion is wide-spread.... There happens to be a door-handle company that has run in to this, and they have put together a detailed description/diagram of the problem.... Unfortunately, Wikipedia disagrees about door handing .... i.e. there is lots of confusion. The point remains though, that the handles (often) have a 'handing')

You will likely find that less material is needed for a doorknob as well, so they are cheaper. The handle on a handle provides leverage, which means it takes less weight/force to operate the latch mechanism (and less force to overload the mechanism too), so a Handle's mechanism needs to be stronger to support the same forces a doorknob would be exposed to. Also, just the shape of the lever means there is more metal..... A knob would have much less raw-material than a handle.

If you expand the UX scope to include the sticker-shock when you purchase one, then knobs have a better UX ;-) (and, also probably a smaller 'carbon footprint', environmental cost....)

Here's a google-search images for 'door handle'.

Note how almost all the handles are specifically shaped.

enter image description here

Those that are not specifically shaped, often have a base-plate that makes the mounting different for different door-sides.

enter image description here

Only a few of the handles have a round/ambidextrous handle and mounting plate.

enter image description here

Out of interest, door handles normally have a 'stop' built in to the handle which limits the handle's travel to avoid stressing the actual bolt mechanism in the door (on the other hand, knobs don't have that leverage, so they let the mechanism in the door be the 'stop'). This mechanical stop requires the handle to be securely fastened to the door, so handles (with their additional leverage) need a stronger mounting (the mechanical stop in the handle also often prevents you from being able to reverse the handle on the mounting plate).

With the ambidextrous mounting plates on some of the handles, you would probably use a stronger door/lock in order to support the leverage on the handle, which transfers the cost to be elsewhere....

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While levers that are attached to their baseplate can't be swapped, if you can swap the interior and exterior handles, then the lever becomes usable in either direction. Try this simple thing to see how it works. Put out your pinkies towards each other and use your thumbs as the levers. Touch your pinkies and point your hands one way, now switch which hand is closest to you and you can see that the lever now points in the opposite direction and could fit a door opening in the other direction. –  AJ Henderson May 26 at 14:41
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Here's a video that shows it too. kwikset.com/Customer-Support/Product-FAQs/faq/… –  AJ Henderson May 26 at 14:42
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I don't remember last time using door knobs, could they operate turning both ways (meaning, could I open the door turning the knob either way)? If not, they are not ambidextrous. Also, most of the door handles I used can be mounted either side of the door. –  Mladen Jablanović May 26 at 14:58
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@rolfl yes, but all this talk about ambedexterousness is confusing the issue. Just clarifying that it is the door mounting that creates the "handedness" of the door, and it is completely unrelated to the design of the handle. Doors with knob handles that open "right handedly" are not better for lefties than doors with levers. In fact I would say it is the other way around. Pushing the lever handle down with your left hand on a right handed opening door is way easier than turning a knob handle on a right handed door. Try it and see for yourself :) –  Franchesca May 26 at 16:00
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I don't quite see the issue about the "specifically shaped" levers that cannot be detached from their baseplate. Normally, in particular for interior doors between rooms, the same type of levers is used on both sides of the door. Consequently, you don't buy single levers, but a pair of (mirrored) levers. That way, it doesn't even matter on which "side" of the door the levers will be placed; the pair will always fit. –  O. R. Mapper May 26 at 20:52

Since you mentioned the US, I feel it's important to bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Among many other things, the ADA has this to say on the subject:

Advisory 404.2.7 Door and Gate Hardware. Door hardware that can be operated with a closed fist or a loose grip accommodates the greatest range of users. Hardware that requires simultaneous hand and finger movements require greater dexterity and coordination, and is not recommended.

In other words, the ADA recommends against door knobs, but does not require lever handles.

Do note that the ADA does not apply to all doors in the country (private residences which are not also used for business purposes do not need to adhere to the ADA, for example), and the ADA only applies to things built (or modified) after the ADA went into effect (July 1992), so an old building that hasn't been updated wouldn't necessarily be subject to the ADA standards.

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doors that are secured with rfid tags and automagically open meet these criteria also. –  BigHomie May 28 at 20:20
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… which raises the question, Why are doorknobs still being produced? –  200_success May 30 at 12:41

This is a classic case where the decision-makers are not the users.

Doorknobs tend to be installed by home builders, whose goals are minimizing cost and minimizing cost and also minimizing cost. Round door knobs are cheap, plentiful, and understood to be an acceptable solution. For internal doors, this makes them the norm.

Lever-style doorknobs are much more expensive, and can be trickier to be install. It doesn't matter if a doorknob is slightly out of level, but it's very obvious with a handle-style.

There is also a huge installed base out there--billions of doors which are set up for round doorknobs. Retrofitting a lever-style door opener may require replacing the door and/or modifying the striker plate side. Inertia and cost wins.

In industrial installs and new construction, you frequently see lever-style doors. As well as some ergonomic benefits, they have the advantage of generally being more durable. A business is responsible for maintenance of its property in a way that a home builder is not.

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Can you just clarify "trickier to install", I don't get that part. Out of level in which way? Thanks! –  Mladen Jablanović May 27 at 16:34
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When installing a knob, it can be "twisted" with respect to level and you won't notice--the only sign is that the screw holes (mostly hidden by the knob) may not be perfectly aligned. With a handle, the entire handle will be tilted to the left or right. A professional installer will have a jig that makes this easier...which costs money and takes extra training. –  Alex Feinman May 27 at 18:01
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Interesting you say they're more common on internal doors. Here in Ireland, I don't think I've ever seen them on internal doors. –  TRiG May 27 at 19:10
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@TRiG I'm Irish and I've noticed that older houses in Ireland usually have knobs instead of levers. I have a few friends who live in old Victorian houses in Bray, Wicklow, and they all have round doorknobs. My house is much newer than theirs and we have levers. I only live a short distance from them too. –  Daft May 28 at 10:40
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Supporting the price factor: on homedepot.com right now, plain Jane door knobs are $8 to $20; levers are pretty consistently $20 for basic models. –  Jon of All Trades May 29 at 3:20

Although ergonomics probably have very little to do with it, doorknobs do have an ergonomic advantage.

A doorknob can be grasped at any angle, whereas a horizontal lever must be grasped palm down (or up, if you prefer) which isn't a natural position. The natural position of the hand is palm inwards, slightly down.

Also, a doorknob is usually pretty spherical, which also happens to be the natural position of the fingers. Levers come in quite a few shapes, most of them designed for style and not for ergonomics. Sometimes an awkward pose of the hand is required to grasp it properly.

That said, levers generally don't require grasping to open, and the differences are pretty unimportant.

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There is also the opposite problem when the knob is (often) too close to the edge of the door and one can't turn the knob or close the door without trapping your thumb in the jamb. This is very inconvenient and painful. –  nicodemus13 May 27 at 12:27
    
@nicodemus13 Wow, I've never experienced that. –  Kendall Frey May 27 at 12:38
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A horizontal lever does not have to be grasped at all. It just needs to be pressed, which is possible in any position of the hand, and even with other parts of the body or objects than a hand. –  O. R. Mapper May 31 at 16:44

There's really nothing wrong with the functionality (UX) of round door knobs for most people and from an mechanical engineering standpoint they allow less leverage to be applied to the door. This allows a less expensive knob assembly and door. All in all, they're less expensive than lever handles.

And lever handles are more likely to injure a child if they fall against them.

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There's a lot wrong with them, actually. Soapy hands, holding groceries, etc. –  DA01 May 27 at 15:32
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@DA01, people with severe arthritis... –  Brian S May 27 at 20:09
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See this: japantoday.com/images/size/x/2012/05/handles.jpg –  Mew May 28 at 4:25
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What about hygiene? I prefer not to touch door knobs/handles on toilet doors. With knobs that isn’t even remotely a possibility. You can just use your elbow for opening a toilet door with a handle (yes, even if it opens to the outside: you put your elbow behind the handle and pull ;) ). –  Vincent May 30 at 14:41

Doorknobs provide a worse UX for bears, which can be a useful feature for humans who want to keep bears out.

...elderly and disabled people find it easier to operate doors with handles. But so do bears. In British Columbia, bears have been known to scavenge for food inside cars—whose doors have handles, knob advocates point out. Pitkin County, Colorado, in the United States, has banned door levers on buildings for this very reason. One newspaper columnist in the pro-knob camp has noted that the velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” were able to open doors by their handles.

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ah, the bear factor! Always an important UX metric to consider! –  DA01 May 27 at 15:31
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Actually, a determined bear will just pry open the whole car door. No handles or knobs needed. It's just a poor user experience for the bear, that's all. –  200_success May 28 at 7:44
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So basically they're like pill bottles: deliberately make it difficult to open so beings without the necessary understanding of the tool involved can't get in. –  Mason Wheeler May 29 at 20:49
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@DavidMulder It is a humorous (but not a joke) answer to an odd question. The popularity of this answer has surprised me. At the same time, it is also a serious answer: it may be the only answer here with a citation that contains a definitive reason. As long as some town in Colorado forbids door handles, doorknobs will continue to exist. –  200_success May 30 at 12:37
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Not just bears, i use door knobs on doors where i don't want our cats to get through, so they can't steal food at night. –  Florian Fida Jun 2 at 17:51

They seem to be the cheapest in the stores. Both in the US and when I was in Ukraine. So the question becomes, why are they the cheapest?

My hunch is it's a result of round knobs all looking essentially the same, which caused more competition among manufacturers, which lowered their price, so they became more popular, more factories invested in the tooling to make them, and they've been cheaply cranking them out ever since.

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They are harder for little hands and jumping pets to open (though turning a lever door handle to the vertical also works for these purposes).

They are also somewhat less likely to have things catch on them (bag straps, stray elbows), especially in confined spaces.

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I thought that difficulty for the kids opening them would be a disadvantage in most cases? –  Mladen Jablanović May 26 at 9:24
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@MladenJablanović Depends on their age and whether you want them to be able to open the door :) –  Sebastian Negraszus May 26 at 9:37
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I still think those are not big enough (dis)advantages that any side switches to the other; people use them because people around them use them. –  PlasmaHH May 26 at 10:18
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Is this actually the reason for them existing though, or are you just applying some retrocausality - assuming a reason where one may not exist? Do the suppliers state this is why they make them or is it more "it's just how we've always made them"? –  JonW May 26 at 16:21
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I'm at the exact height so that I also constantly get belt loops stuck in the door handles. –  IQAndreas May 27 at 3:39

protected by JonW May 27 at 16:01

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