Understanding good design through StepNPull and the Design of Everyday Things
In DSGN 1, “Design of Everyday Things” at UCSD, one of the assignments was to identify examples of good design in everyday interactions. The StepNPull door opener as an example of good design — it allows one to open doors with their shoe instead of their hand, has a simple learning curve, and can often be found directly below some door handles.
I reached out to the founder of StepNPull, Mike to ask him some questions about his design decisions and more about the StepNPull device. He shared some awesome background and was really supportive of the assignment!
Design iterations and testing
The StepNPull device is a metal plate that connects to the bottom of a door directly below the handle via three countersunk screws that are flush with the mounting plate.
It’s made with aluminum — the company tumbles the aluminum and then runs it through a CNC machine which smooths it out. The edges are made of “extruded aluminum” rather than “bent metal” which is structurally more sturdy, allowing for it to last 15+ years. However, through testing, StepNPull found that bare aluminum rusts after a few years had a less consistent finish. Newer models are powder coated or sometimes anodized (different types of cure) to prevent corrosion and last longer.
We also asked about the design process. The initial prototype was a c-channel plate. They later experimented with teeth to see if that would add better grip to reduce slipping. The teeth worked but they also tried scallops. They ended up with a groove-like surface which was
“aesthetically pleasing, still works, but not threatening.”
StepNPull is instructed to be installed as low as possible on the door so when stepped on or used, the person does not lose balance by having to bring the foot up any higher than the walking level. There are grooves on the top of the outer lip of the extruded plate to allow for a better shoe grip.
Principles of good design
In DSGN 1, I learned “good design” includes:
- easily discoverable signifiers of what affordances are possible
- mental models that align with previous experiences of a user’s interactions with shapes, goals, or cultural aspects of designs and designer’s conceptual model matches successfully with user
- signifiers shown to users user so they can understand whether their assumptions or actions about how a certain design works is correct
- gulfs of execution that align very well with gulf of evaluation
A good design allows a user to try to figure out how something is supposed to work through their intuition, but ultimately affirm to the user that their assumption of the design was correct by having the physical system signify that whatever the action was worked.
Affordances are the relationship between the physical object and capabilities of the person that determines what actions are possible.
The StepNPull device affords a person to open a door with their foot by stepping on the scallops of the device or hooking the edge of their feet or toes to the bend of the device. The grooves also afford a person’s shoe to better grip the device. Affordances on certain alterations of the StepNPull device like rubber stops afford the device to be a gentle doorstop than the door slamming into the wall.
Signifiers are cues that allow users to know where an action should take place and provide some basic understanding with feedback notifying of the effects of their actions.
The StepNPull device sticks out from the door, signifying it is pullable, similar to the extrusion of a door handle. The grooves of the object sticking up toward the user sometimes line up with a shoe’s divots, signifying a user to line their foot and step or put their feet in the channel. The device is standard powder coated silver but can come in colors. These signify its presence either as implicitly a doorknob (silver) or outstanding (color). StepNPull is positioned at foot-level which signifies the use of leg or foot.
A cultural aspect like avoiding germs or a preoccupation of hands like carrying baggage signifies a person might be looking for any way out of opening a door with their hands (i.e. using a paper towel or elbow) so the StepNPull is signified to be an alternative.
3. Mental Models
Mental models represent a person’s understanding of how something works. My mental model includes the StepNPull to be like a “foot doorknob.” The creator’s mental model was that the people in their workplace opened the doors with paper towels so when the c-channel shaped prototype appeared and they were already looking for hand door-opening alternatives, they saw it as an option. However, everyone’s mental model is different, so some users might think the StepNPull is a door jam since it’s attached at the bottom. It could even be something dangerous since the grooves upward, like tacks. It could take a learning curve of a new mental model to be formed.
The creator’s system image connects their door-opening alternative to the user’s door holder or notion of danger mental model by adding a little sticker in their packaging so installer can add an arrow that cues the person to look down where there is a scalloped foot door opener that they can leverage to open the door without their hands.
Peer feedback and founder responses
Classmates in DSGN 1 gave feedback for the StepNPull device and we were able to ask the founder, Mike, these questions.
Feedback: the StepNPull could be more at an angle or the scallops could be longer to give more space for pulling the door
Response: there was actually redesigns done for a local college class where they built a test device that “recognized frictional force with certain pounds against the device” and tried variations with “pointy teeth, gills, scallops, step was angled up, some had lines like a sharks tooth, some were higher.” However, based on measurements, “all of them worked fine but there wasn’t really a difference between the efficiency” of any.
Feedback: might be difficult to open heavy doors
Response: The founder said that it’s not door weight but door closers (the hinges) which change the resistance. He said the ADA recommends no more than 5 pounds of resistance, which is included on the installation instructions (figure 1) so other than that, the device should be able to open any door.
Good design is more than just “good design”
Learning more about classic heuristics of good design from DSGN 1 was fun but talking to the StepNPull founder about important aspects like manufacturing, testing, and materials helped me learn about more aspects of good design.