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In browsing the site today, I came across a question about doors somewhat related to something I’ve been wondering for a LONG LONG time:

Why don’t we remove all door handles and let doors open both inwards and outwards?

I have lost count how many times I failed to open a door the first time I grabbed the handle, mainly because of the consistency problem:

  • Some doors open inwards, some outwards.
  • Doors in some countries open inwards, some outwards, some either way.
  • Door handles come in way too many styles: knob, lever, car door style, vertical bar, etc.
  • Door handles are positioned sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right hand side of the door (in the case of lever-style, will make left- or right-handed people grip the handle in an awkward way)
  • So-called "local conventions" are regularly violated

I can understand that there’re historical and cultural reasons with people getting used to the way doors open growing up. However, as the world is getting flat, people traveling and immigrating everywhere now, shouldn’t the design of the door be evolved somehow?

What about this design?

Remove the handle completely, let doors open both ways (inwards and outwards) and just let people push the door swing open the direction they are going towards.

Naturally, removing the handle and letting doors open both ways would solve many usability problems:

  • Remove the confusion regarding which way to turn the handle
  • Remove confusion regarding which hand (left/right) they need to use
  • Usable by both left- and right-handed people
  • Remove the confusion about whether we need to push or pull (always push now, as there's no handle to pull)
  • People can always keep moving forward after opening the door

From a UX perspective, what would be the reason for arguing against that solution? I'd also wonder if there's some kind of study about this.

Sketch

Update - Regarding the door smacking another person coming from the opposition direction, the same risk occurs in the current designs. We can never be sure if somebody is behind the door when we push it open. And that person is never sure which way the door is going to open either (towards or away from them). So he will always be in a defensive position anyway.

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I'd worry about being smacked in the face by someone coming in the opposite direction to me. –  Matt Obee Jun 23 at 16:32
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One reason I can think of immediately is security. A door which only opens towards a potential attacker is reinforced by the door frame against being smashed in, whereas a double-swinging door is only as strong as the lock and structure immediately surrounding it. –  Digital Chris Jun 23 at 16:52
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I don't understand your suggestion: How do you intentionally close such a door? Or, in the case that you assume those doors always swing back to close automatically, how do you intentionally open such a door? In my opinion, the question why we don't more frequently use doors that can be opened both ways (IMHO a very reasonable question) and the question why we don't do away with any form of door handles (IMHO a ridiculously absurd idea) are two entirely unrelated issues. –  O. R. Mapper Jun 24 at 15:35
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Try having a door with no stops keep out a 30mph blizzard in the middle of winter. –  Hot Licks Jun 24 at 16:14
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To the update - in many floor plans, a two-way door would risk smacking people who are not going through that door but merely passing by without any antention to that door, without any "defensive position". Think of a hallway with multiple rooms next to it - if the doors can open towards the hallway, it becomes dangerous to walk through it quickly. –  Peteris Jun 26 at 8:22
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15 Answers 15

Handle-less doors exist in many restaurants.

The idea is that you can be carrying trays/plates in both hands, and simply walk through the doors, and get where you are going (implementation note, when carrying food, you typically 'back into' the door to go through - you can't push through the door with plates of food in front of you, so, you can't see what's on the other side because you are reversing).

The obvious usability problem there is that, if someone is coming in the other direction, you suddenly get a face-full of door, and a lot of damaged plates.

The solution to this problem in the restaurants I worked in, was to have two doors. One was used for entering the kitchen, the other for exiting. There was also a glass panel in the door to give some sense of whether there was someone on the other side.

In addition, we had a policy where you were not allowed to enter the exit door, or exit the enter door. Workplace safety and all that.

It was certainly convenient to have these spring-loaded doors without handles, but the usability comes at the expense of having increased risk of accidents, and increased costs of double-doors to mitigate that.

Edit: Not covered elsewhere, is the security of the door. With a traditional door, the door is forced against a solid jamb, and locked, it is much stronger than if there is no jam, and the door is held in place with a bolt in one place. If you try to 'kick in' a door that opens toward you, you need to break the frame, but if the door opens away from you, you need to just kick out the bolt mechanism.

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Next question: once you have designated an "in" door and an "out" door, why not just build the "in" door to only open inwards? –  Steve Jessop Jun 23 at 18:18
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Hmmm... now that I think about it, one of the reasons for the swing-through door is that they never slam either. The one restaurant I worked at was always having to adjust the auto-close mechanism to not slam the door in an otherwise 'peaceful' restaurant. –  rolfl Jun 23 at 18:27
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@rolfl, thanks for the info. So handle-less doors actually exists. Having 1 "in" and 1 "out" doors in restaurant is an edge case for me. The reaason is because it's usually a very busy place, with people crossing all the time. This increases the traffic which would naturally increase accidents (given that people usually back into the door). The question now for me is why don't we popularize this design? As I'd guess, if all doors were designed this way, then people would always get defensive when they come close to the door and minimize the risk... –  Son Do Lenh Jun 23 at 19:52
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@SonDoLenh - one thing you are overlooking is that, when you open a door towards yourself, you actually don't stand in the path that the door opens in, you stand slightly to the side, and open the door with the opposite hand (if the handle's on the left, you pull open the door with your right hand). There is no need to be 'defensive' with a regular door. –  rolfl Jun 23 at 20:11
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You can't really close a swing-through door. When you look at regular doors and frames closely, they overlap which is only possible when they open in one direction. Noise and air will always go through. –  virtualnobi Jun 24 at 8:02
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A great question! I love how UX design makes you think of these things.

However, just to play devil's advocate, I can list several reasons off the top of my head why we should not have all doors as you described:

  • Hinges: would have be to become more complex. One-way hinges, as they exist now, are a quite simple 3-piece design that require very little maintenance over their lifespan. As we all know, the more pieces you add to the puzzle, the more likely it becomes that one will break.

    • Hanging: There's definitely an art to it. There's some pretty tight tolerances required to get the door to seal properly on all sides with materials that are not analogous to having pretty tight tolerances (like wood and wood screws).

      Of course, it must still swing freely and close without obstruction. And it must open all the way smoothly without hitting the floor or ceiling. I could only imagine a door that swings both ways being double the headache to get fitted.

  • Retrofitting existing doors: This deserves an analogy to the USA and the Metric system. Why don't we switch? The Metric system is easier to teach, easier to learn, and easier to use.

    But, all of our roads and street signs are already set up for miles! Ok, well we'd have to keep using miles. And all of our thermostats use Fahrenheit! Alright, we'll keep using Fahrenheit, but only for thermostats and weather reports. But tools, parts, and screw sizes, that'll all be metric. Wait, we still have to deal with EXISTING machinery and hardware stuck in these archaic sizes!

    It seems pretty impossible for a whole country to just switch, even if it's better. There's a big argument for "backwards compatibility" in there, somewhere.

  • Security: a normal one-way door has a frame that it sits in, with edges that hold 3 to 4 of its sides in place. A two-way door would have to forgo all of these edges, leaving the only things holding the door in place its two-way hinges and the deadbolt. And without edges on the doorframe, the deadbolt would be exposed.

  • The Elements: here we see the edges of our standard doorframe come into play again. Turns out they do more than just security, we normally put weather-stripping on them to keep out roaches and relatives and keep in things like expensive Air Conditioning and girlfriends.

But of course, I'm being silly. Obviously outside-facing doors will have to remain one-way. You're talking about inside of a building, are you not? Well, let me have another go:

  • Privacy: Whether it be inside a residential home for a bedroom door, or for a private office in a commercial structure, a closed door has universal significance. Although it may not yet be understood, us humans have a need and a right for personal privacy. The thing that assures us we have it is a latch that keeps the door shut and a handle that must be operated to open it.

So we cannot retrofit doors that face the outside world, or doors to private spaces (from bedrooms to bathrooms, I think that includes almost all the doors inside a residential building. You could argue that a residential building is in total a collection of private spaces).

And no to personal offices. So really, our only candidates are public-to-public spaces that see a high flow of traffic. In which case I would argue, why even have a door there in the first place? Unless it's required, like an "Employees Only" section in a restaurant or a "Surgeons Only" area in a hospital. And I think those places already make use of a no-handle two-way door.

A great idea tho! Just my two cents.

Edit: I would love to see this done on every public restroom everywhere. I always save the paper towel I used to dry my hands (if they have them) to open the door. But if it's an outward-swinging or two-way door, you can use your elbow, shoulder, or foot to open the door and keep your fresh washed hands clean.

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Another point would be fire doors - they are very common in institutions and offices in UK and are specifically designed to be opened in only one direction (They are put in pairs as well, so wherever the fire started it can't get out) –  Ordous Jun 24 at 11:05
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@ITBear - A lot of public restrooms are going toward a doorless entry, with well-placed walls blocking views of the inside. –  Robotnik Jun 25 at 5:09
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I would like to add, that by similar fashion we can't have all the world switch to a unified power plug/socket standard all of a sudden. Sometimes the costs of making something better are far too big. –  Harijs Deksnis Jun 25 at 7:36
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Re: metrification: Canada switched to metric in the '70's so it's possible. There are some imperial measurements used even though they are not official (e.g. pounds in grocery stores) and we have to deal with the US so we have to understand mph and mpg. Anyone born after 1980 is probably very comfortable using just the metric system; Everyone else uses "mixtric". –  Stephen Rasku Jun 25 at 17:12
    
Hinges were the first reason I thought of besides the fact that you would risk smacking people in the face unless there was a window.. and it would be ugly aesthetics to have a window in every door. –  Dave Jun 29 at 18:40
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From the point of view of designing a building, the biggest problem with doors is that they create a lot of dead space in the floor plan (space that can't be used for anything else). The area you have to leave clear for a single door swing is at least as big as for a washing machine, and often more (e.g. if the door opens near a corner you need a space big enough that someone behind the door won't get squished when it opens). For a double swing (or a door that folds back 180 degrees), that area would be doubled. In Manhattan, each 9sq.ft door swing is worth around $12,000...

You can use sliding doors, or doors with two half-sized leaves (which need a lot less space to open), but those have ergonomic, maintenance and capital costs. Sometimes having no door is the best solution, especially with careful design relating to acoustics and lines of sight. But as others have said, there are a whole set of other problems when it comes to fire and security doors.

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+1 for mentioning the space. I'm designing the floorplan for small flat in London and the idea that we'd have room for doors open both ways is rediculous. –  edeverett Jun 24 at 12:58
    
This and only this. You don't want to increase door-in-face-danger area and you just don't want the required-to-be-clear space. –  Lodewijk Jun 26 at 23:22
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  • When I was in the US, I was told most doors had this simple convention: Handle == pull, Bar == push. Seem to be applied to most places I went (that being malls, restaurants, clinics, groceries).

  • Emergency doors are designed so you can push outwards. Easily opened even when the inside is jammed. You don't need to step back to open.

  • Rooms had doors open inwards because you don't want the door to be blocking the corridor/hallway/whatever or hit people when opening.

  • To alleviate you from pull-push dilemma, try sliding doors. They open on neither direction, just sideways. They also save space, and don't require space to open. There are also variants where, when power is down, doubles as a push-door.

My 2 cents

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Point 1 is violated all the time, and a source of much UX discussion over "affordance". Point 3 (for public spaces) may be true long ago, but is not true today for the same reason as Point 2 - so people can get out more easily in case of emergency. Point 3 is generally correct when speaking of personal spaces (e.g., homes). –  Evil Closet Monkey Jun 23 at 16:43
    
@EvilClosetMonkey Point 1 may be violated plenty in the handle/knob == push form, but I don't believe I've ever seen a door where bar == pull, at least not ones where the "bar" isn't just a really big handle. –  JAB Jun 24 at 16:26
    
@EvilClosetMonkey forgot to mention that places I went to for point 1 were mostly restaurants, clinics, malls, groceries etc., hence "most". I'd have to agree with you since there are cases that they are violated. –  Joseph the Dreamer Jun 24 at 16:37
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Sliding doors do require space: just in a different place. For example, my bedroom door is in the corner of the room and, on the other side is a narrow corridor. The only way to fit a sliding door would be on the inside of the bedroom, sliding away from the corner. However, I have a chest of drawers in that location, which would need to be pulled away from the wall to let the door slide past. It would then be difficult to store things on top of the cabinet, since they would also have to be kept clear of the door. Net result: no thanks! –  David Richerby Jun 24 at 19:18
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@Cornelius - I like sliding doors as a solution for some tricky interior layouts. However, the space occupied by a sliding door integrated into a hollow wall may nevertheless be needed to accommodate electrical cables (and possibly wall outlets) and/or water/gas pipes and other plumbing infrastructure... –  Erik Kowal Jun 26 at 10:37
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Reasons for using door handles:

  • Keeping the door closed, e.g. against draft. Wind will push at the door in just the same way you would push. Wind will not turn a handle though.

  • Closing the door when it is left open. If a door is opened all the way, you need to grab it somehow to close it. Hard to do without a handle.

  • Keeping the door open. As just mentioned, closing a door without handle is inconvenient. For this reason handle-less doors usually close automatically, so if you want a door that can easily stay open, handles are a good choice.

  • Stopping the doors movement when you open it. When you push a door open, it will smash into the wall, unless stopped by strong springs. If you open it with a handle, the door is usually at rest when you let it go, so no spring mechanism is required.

  • locking the door. To lock a door, you need to align the locking mechanism on the door and door frame exactly. Hard to do so when the door swings away from you at the slightest force while you insert the key, and you have no handle to pull it back.

  • Isolation against noise, draft. A two-way door will always have a significant gap at the side. A door which opens only one way can cover up that gap on the other side.

  • risk of smacking another person, who approaches the door from the other side. It is true that a normal door has the same risk. However with a handle-less door you are tempted to give it a big push, to give the door enough momentum to open all the way. With a handle, you usually remain in contact with the door and as soon as you stop moving your arm, the door will stop as well.

  • and lastly, let's not forget that handle-less doors are already widespread: most of them are simply automatic doors. An automatic door avoids most of the problems listed above, so if handle-less doors are desirable in a given location, automatic doors are usually a superior alternative.

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Good answer here and risk of smacking another person can be extended to hallways/corridors. For example, bathrooms accessible from a hallway will open inwards as people inside the bathroom approaching the door to exit may expect the door to open towards them. People walking down a hallway should not be expected to dodge every single door –  nvuono Jun 25 at 16:57
    
In general, I agree with all of your objections. However, some of them can be avoided or mitigated by at least fitting the door with handles that can be grabbed, even if they can't be turned. I myself have repurposed old door handles for use with some wooden garden gates; you can't turn the handles, but you can at least pull (or push) the gates open (or closed) with them. –  Erik Kowal Jun 26 at 10:32
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Of course there are multiple valid reasons to have doors as they are right now. To add to the existing answers (and excuse my english, I'm not a native speaker):

Having hinges (the metal thing that holds the door, had that translated) that open in both directions makes it difficult to actually really close the door. There always has to be some amount between the door and it's frame. Otherwise the door would be stuck.

This, on one hand, is part of the safety-issue. Few doors are really air-tight. But having a visible gap would allow a fire within room A to get some oxygen from room B.

At least here in Germany, doorframes have some sort of rubber part that seals the gap between door and frame. This not only prevents air to flow, but also reduces the noise passing, since noise needs (although not exclusively) air to travel from A to B. Such a rubbar-seal wouldn't be trivial to incorporate into a door that opens both directions.

And a guess on top of that: those hinges that open in both directions might cost quite a few buck more than the regular ones.

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The kind of door that you describe already exists. They are commonly used, for example, in restaurants between the kitchen and the dining area. Servers, who have the hands full, merely need to push their way through. To ensure that two people going in opposite directions don't crash into each other, they are always double doors, and the users adopt a convention (e.g. "always use the door on the right").

However, the problem is that doors that swing both ways offer poorer security. They can only be locked or held shut by via a protrusion into the top of the door jamb and the floor. Either the user would have to reach up to the top of the door to latch it, or there would have to be a complex mechanism to extend the latching mechanism down to customary height. Even then, the lock wouldn't be nearly as strong as that of a door that rests against the entire door frame on three sides.

Oh, and the whole thing would be more vulnerable to bears.

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200_success, thanks for the info. The locking constraint seems like an engineering problem, not a UX one for me though. And the link to bears is very informative :) –  Son Do Lenh Jun 23 at 20:24
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@SonDoLenh Correct, it is an engineering problem, which increases the cost of the door and decreases the security, safety, and sealing capacity of the door, which causes people to choose doors with possibly less-optimal user interfaces to meet their other goals. –  Adam Davis Jun 23 at 23:25
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  • Two people meet either side of a two way door. Their only option is to push. This might comes across as rude.
  • Two people meet either side of a normal door. The one on the "pull" side opens it for the other person. This comes across as polite.

The directioness of the door design provides convention that helps the door's users. (Maybe this is a just a British problem...)

99% invisible had an interesting episode on revolving doors and why people tend not to like them: http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/revolving-doors/

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If we were in a culture in which most doors opened both ways, our system of etiquette would have evolved a way to decide who should push the door and it would not be rude for that person to do so. –  David Richerby Jun 24 at 19:24
    
Besides, the person on the "push" side in your second example could go through first and then hold the door open for the other person. That seems similar in politeness to the convention you suggest. –  Wallacoloo Jun 25 at 19:30
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I guess it's coming down to this: It's impossible to close the door. You would always push it in, even a little bit. And it'd take really long to get the door to the correct closing position.

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Are you talking about revolving or plain handleless doors? Handleless doors settle to the closed position unless locked open, you just let them close themselves. I'm pretty sure revolving doors simply lock in place if needed for security. –  Ben Brocka Jun 24 at 13:39
    
@BenBrocka: In almost all contexts, I find doors that do not stay at exactly the angle that I left them in, but that swing somewhere else on their own, to be very annoying. Sure, you can add additional lock-in-place mechanisms (such as blockers near the ground), but that just complicates the design and probably isn't really beneficial for some floor types used indoors on the long run, either. –  O. R. Mapper Jun 24 at 15:51
    
@BenBrocka Even if a plain door settles in the middle, somebody opening another door in the same room changes the air pressure and causes the other doors to move. Likewise, if a window is open. –  David Richerby Jun 24 at 19:26
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Reading the other answers, and not having done extensive studies, there are some reasons why I personally would not want to have such kind of doors at home or in the office. I am assuming swing doors that automatically set the door into a closed position when released.

  • I like to have doors between rooms (and in my office) just open to the hallway
  • My cats like to roam in the apartment freely (I am assuming the force needed to open a door is bigger than the cats can handle)
  • My daughter likes to roam in the apartment freely (I am assuming the force needed to open a door is bigger than she can (safely) handle)
  • Sometimes there is "stuff" placed in my (or the offices) hallway which would require me to pull the door nevertheless, thus I would need handles anyways.
  • Insulation is a big problem. While its relatively easy to get a good outer building door closing very well, doing so with a handle-less door is almost impossible.
  • Wind. Where I live it can be rather windy, the doors would move all the time (outside door and/or open windows). With a handle-based door, the door is "locked" into the close position easily, and as well easily released by using a handle.
  • Depending on how you construct them (hinge in the middle of the wall, or edge) the door will open to one or two directions by only 90° which is somtimes quite annoying (when carrying big stuff into a room)
  • Classical doors can often just be deattached by lifting them (good for carrying stuff into the room), depending on the way the proposed doors close, this can be impossible or expensive to construct.

Additionally, there are some things that make the doors more expensive than traditional doors (which consist mostly of a piece of wood, a handle and some hinges, all relatively cheap)

  • The device/special hinges needed to keep the door in position is not only comparatively expensive, but also rather error prone in comparison to plain old hinges.
  • Some say security is just an "engineering problem" but the extra things needed to secure the door cost money
  • Constructing and building such a door with good insulation (e.g. for a passive house) will get really expensive (if possible at all).
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One other consideration is space. You have to clear a radius of space in front of the door, and if the door opens both ways, that's two fronts of the door, but if it's only one way, you don't have to clear behind the door.

Now you probably don't want anything on the floor behind your door anyway--but you might want something like a cupboard attached to the wall next to your door that a door which opened that way would smack into.

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Examples of doors that simply don't have the space on the other side: multiple doors on the same hallway sharing the same space, doors on top or bottom of stairs, doors on closets/ shelves, doors on small bathrooms (especially separate toilets). –  Inca Jun 29 at 11:06
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Regarding your update on door-smacking: One does not stay behind a door. If one does, it's their own fault when earning pain or injuries.

With one-side-open doors, you are usually prepared, in position and mind, for the door opening into the specified direction. With two-side-open doors, the worst case is two opposing persons hurrying to the door, with one person slightly ahead. The slower person is totally prepared for an into-the-door-move, but receives a smacker into their own direction. Broken body parts (fingers, wrists, noses) will be the result.

Do not underestimate an unprepared physis; I almost broke my wrists (and nose) already on doors that looked like opening outwards. I think the only reason they did not actually break was that I've got some good bones (no single fracture in my whole life, despite having had an adventurous youth). Now imagine the effect doubled with the door being slammed open into your direction.

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This happened to me, we both bounced off and landed on our backs unharmed - but it wasn't pleasant. –  Chris H Jun 28 at 9:53
    
Maybe it is more extreme to me; I have a tendency to optimize all my moves unconsciously; ppl often accuse me of being silent like a ghost and they say "whew, since when are you here?". I also open doors with just the keys, with my other hand relaxed or carrying a box of water. Maybe this leads to too many relaxed muscles, I don't know. –  phresnel Jun 28 at 12:00
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If you're asking this question, then the next logical step is to ask why we have doors at all. An open doorway would surely be even easier to get through.

The problem though is that providing a portal for you to walk through is not actually the function of a door. In fact, the function of a door is to block access.

That's right: the whole point of having a door at all is to make the doorway harder to get through.

There are various reasons for this, depending on the door - security, draft-exclusion, privacy, fire prevention, spring to mind, and I'm sure there are others - but ultimately, from a UX perspective, you're asking the wrong question.

Don't ask how to make doors in general less obtrusive; instead consider the reasons why any given door is there at all (rather than being an open doorway), and then start thinking about how you could improve it while still allowing to do its job.

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What are the risks of leaving door functionality the way they are? If it's a consistency problem of doors opening inward or outward, a) I don't think it's generally a time wasting or health risk (if you're pushing to hard on door that opens inward to the point of breaking a wrist, then you're probably being to aggressive with the door). A door opening inward and outward doesn't solve that issue for the person who might be on the receiving end of the aggressive door push and b) there are zillions of doors in the world, part of the problem you would need to solve is to introduce the new paradigm and install this for every single door in the world, otherwise, there are still varied amounts of doors still working inconsistently with the new paradigm. I'm also not clear on how the door handle style is an issue. Maybe a sensor that identifies if someone is on the other side of the door would be valuable, or a square window allowing me to see through, but overhauling doors and how they function globally doesn't sound realistic.

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One thing to consider is that you cannot easily close a door w/o handles unless it has some sort of hydraulic mechanism to automatically swing it closed like this:

enter image description here

So now, when you put up doors in a residential house, its not enough to just hang them on hinges, but now you need these installed on all of them too.

Obviously it's not THAT difficult to close a handle-less door. But it's a lot easier if you can grab a handle to close it.

Also, if a handle-less door freely swings either direction and does not have a hydraulic door closer, then how do you close the door so that it sits directly in the door frame and not leaning either direction? It's probably a little tricky and takes some time.

Also in a residence with toddlers, no door handles means there has to be some way to keep certain doors securely closed and/or locked in order to protect the child from whatever is behind the door (household cleaning supplies, or what-not).

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protected by JonW Jun 24 at 12:22

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