Horrible doors on British trains

I recently finished reading “The Design of Everyday Things” – a classic book that gets you thinking about everyday “user interface” around you – doors, gadgets, machines, bathroom taps, etc.  The principles in the book apply equally well to software UI, game design, and I’d argue programmers designing APIs for one another.  I recommend it highly.

I was particularly amused to see the HST train doors featured in there – something most British train users are painfully aware of, but have somehow actually gotten used to, to the point that we take them for granted and have actually forgotten just how laughably bad they are.  In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s how you get out of the train:

That’s right – open the window, lean out and open the outside handle.  Try not to lose your balance and fall onto the platform!  Notice how a real person’s arm doesn’t reach the handle quite as easily as the stick figure in the diagram 🙂

Don Norman didn’t actually get to the bottom of the issue:

Clearly difficult to use, but why?  I haven’t the foggiest idea.  To prevent accidental opening?  To make it so that young children cannot open the door?  None of the hypotheses I have tried stand up under close examination.  I leave this to the reader.

My childhood recollection is slightly hazy, and I can’t find a definitive source to back this up, but I seem to remember they reached this state of affairs in 2 steps: they firstly removed the interior door handles as a dirt-cheap “safety” measure to discourage people from getting out of the train before it stopped, then realised that they hadn’t actually discouraged everyone and had instead made jumping early even more dangerous, so they added a central locking system to keep the doors locked until the train stopped.  Of course, in a quintessential piece of British train-related incompetence, they didn’t bother to put the handles back on once they had central locking.

Was that to “save money” again, perhaps?  It’s funny how they spent more money overall than just adding central locking, and ended up with a solution that’s so much worse than central locking alone.  They did, at least, provide a mysterious puzzle for foreign visitors, and some good material for Don Norman’s book 🙂

But wait!  There’s more!

My regular train to work exhibits another piece of poor door design, not as extravagantly bad but nicely illustrative of a fundamental UI design principle.  Here’s the internal door between train carriages: how do you think the opening mechanism works?

Press that button in the middle, right?


At some point you’ll notice someone struggling with one of these doors not working, pressing the button harder and harder in growing frustration, and you get to show them what’s really going on:

That’s right, the door is actually operated by a motion sensor that has a very narrow range of detection, aimed at the area round that button.  If the door’s not opening for you, the thing to try is reaching up and waving your hand right in front of the sensor!

This is a brilliant illustration of a problem Don Norman talks about early on, about conceptual models.  His words couldn’t explain it much better:

The design model is the designer’s conceptual model.  The user’s model is the mental model developed through interaction with the system.  The system image results from the physical structure that has been built (including documentation, instructions and labels).  The designer expects the user’s model to be identical to the design model.  But the designer doesn’t talk directly with the user – all communication takes place through the system image.  If the system image does not make the design model clear and consistent, then the user will end up with the wrong mental model.

The design model here is that the door is motion-sensor-activated.  But the system image communicates to the user that it’s button-operated, so the user ends up with the wrong user model.  Worst of all, the designer of this door went to lengths to create this bad system image.  They deliberately designed a piece of plastic that looks like a button, aimed the motion sensor at it, and even added a light inside the button to highlight it more prominently to the user.  They should have read Don Norman.

But then, there is something quaintly amusing and almost endearingly British about incompetence at running trains 🙂

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4 Responses to Horrible doors on British trains

  1. Mark says:

    The button does work for the first of the interior doors (the buttons are on the ‘outside’ only), but once you’re between the doors, you’re at the mercy of the motion sensors on either side. I’m very tall and they don’t pick me up a lot of the time; I only learned the hand waving trick a year or so ago when I saw some enterprising young chap escape from the void.

    Both designs are terrible.

  2. Katja says:

    “British engineering” is about as functional and humanity-friendly as “Russian democracy”.

  3. Lee says:

    Interesting stuff about HST doors – yup, they’re a pain in the arse. It comes about because the design for the Mark 3 carriages is now almost 40 years old. Although many of them run as part of fixed sets in the HSTs, a lot of them were designed to be hauled by conventional locomotives and they had to be compatible with older carriages that may have been included in the train. As a result, they never had power-operated doors.

    I’m not sure why inside handles were removed from Inter-City type trains, because suburban slam-door trains always had them. I agree that the doors are a mess and they’re hopeless for anyone with a disability – but the coaches are now too old to justify doing much about it.

  4. Adam Sampson says:

    To complete the trifecta, look at the mechanism for the centre-of-carriage toilet doors on those trains: buttons for open/close and lock, where you have to remember to push the lock button after the door has finished closing — but not more than once, because then it’ll open again — and if you get the order wrong, you have to wait for the door to go through its sloooooow open-close cycle before you can lock it properly. And there’s no grandfathering excuse, since that mechanism only dates from the last refurbishment. (The end-of-carriage toilet doors are the same as they used to be, and have a big obvious mechanical lock that works fine.)

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