Elevator Door Open/Close Symbol Confusion

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The Hold that elevator! post, describing the confusion created by two sets of open/close buttons, on  The Cooper Journal renewed my interest in a question that has long bothered me, and which may even have been the genesis for my fascination with symbols. The question is simple—what do the two slightly different door open/close button icons mean?

I have occasionally searched for the official source defining the elevator car button icons, but never succeeded until now. Even after having spent nearly $2,500 on official symbol standards over the years, I failed to find these mysterious buttons in any IEC, ISO, or other international symbol standard. Why? Because the definition of these icons is hiding in an American standard that is mostly concerned with building accessibility for persons with disabilities.

After much searching, I discovered the answer, and have a few words on the subject of elevator button symbols. (OK, well over 1,500 words.)

After locating the relevant standards and taking a fresh look at the audible, visual, and tactile symbology used in elevators, it became apparent that the simple question of “what do these slightly different door open/close icons mean?” exposed the similar confusion I had experienced was nearly universal, that not even top-notch user interaction experts knew the answer, and that the problem was much deeper than just symbol design.

This simple issue is a perfect example of how the failure to use natural mappings, system design, established standards and design principles, and proper testing for usability results in an everyday item providing a universally bad user experience yet never being fixed.

Author: Peter Sheerin

Peter Sheerin is best known for the decade he spent as the Technical Editor of CADENCE magazine, where he was the acknowledged expert in Computer-Aided Design hardware and software. He has a long-standing passion for improving usability of software, hardware, and everyday objects that is always interwoven in his articles. Peter is available for freelance technical writing and product reviews, and is exploring career opportunities in interaction design. His pet personal project is exploring the best ways to harmonize visual, tactile, and audible symbols for improving the effectiveness of alerting systems.

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