Gated Community: A Lesson in Usability

A few years ago, my husband decided to install a gate across our tree-lined driveway to discourage teenagers from using our yard as a turnaround. I imagined the gate would be the height of a picket fence, to keep out cars but not deter pedestrians. Hubby had different ideas. The gate is massive. It inspired our neighbors to come pay it homage. I admit, the iron posts and brick columns are beautiful. The lions’ heads on either side give it character. But the message it sends is Do Not Enter Here.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the gate has no call button. If someone has a legitimate reason for coming to our home, we either have to give them the code, or we have to open the gate for them in advance. The gate is also quite finicky. If you type the wrong code, it won’t open—even if you try again and enter the right code.

So people who can’t open the gate will sit in their cars, using their Blackberries to search the internet for our (unlisted) phone number. Or they’ll call anyone they know who might have our number, trying to figure out how to get us to come outside and open the gate. They’ll do this for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Sometimes, they’ll give up and drive away.

But here’s the thing: you can walk around the gate. That’s right: you can get out of your car, take the two foot detour through the pine straw, tromp the thirty yards to our front door, and ring the bell. It does not occur to some people to do this.

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t explain this tunnel vision. But as a professional communicator, I’m tasked with anticipating how people may become so stymied by the unexpected that they overlook the obvious. People under stress don’t always make good decisions, so my job is to point them toward the path I want them to travel.

Next on my husband’s to-do list: put up a sign telling people what to do if the gate doesn’t open. I’ll do the writing.

Related posts:
Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability
Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability

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2 thoughts on “Gated Community: A Lesson in Usability

  1. It’s funny, but walking around doesn’t occur to people. I was with a colleague in LaGuardia airport several years ago. We came to a doorway with two glass doors that were locked. She stood there momentarily flustered until she saw that the rest of the group had streamed around the doorway through the large open areas on both sides. We had a good chuckle. (I don’t remember why there was a doorway in the middle of what was an open room.)

    There’s an example, probably from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, about someone literally being trapped between two sets of glass doors because there were no handles and it wasn’t clear how to open them. They waited until they saw another person successfully navigate the doors.

    By the way, if we ever make it down your way, we’ll call first!

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