Intuitive Elevator Button Layouts

Posted by bob korbus on 7th November 2009

Elevator Button Panel You get on an elevator and go to choose your floor.  Is it easy, or do you experience cognitive friction?

Say you get on an elevator to go to the 26th floor and see the control panel shown below?  You get lucky and spot “26” in the middle of the panel but now you’re faced with a confusing choice.  Do I push the button to the left of 26 or to the right of 26?

To find out you have to do some more work.  You scan to the left side of the row and observe that the left most column is numbers, not buttons.  From that you can determine that the button for a specific floor must be to the right of the number.  Otherwise, there would be no buttons for the 1st column of numbers.  (You could also scan to the right to determine the same thing using similar reasoning.)

The extra work you have to do is caused by the fact the the buttons are equally spaced between the numbers which makes it ambiguous which button to push until you figure out the positional relationship between the numbers and their associated buttons.  How can this be done right? (continued below)

Elevator Controls, MGM Grande

The photo below shows a better design.  Forget the fact that, apparently, floors 2 thru 5 have been removed from the buillding.  The buttons are contained in a bordered area with their associated floor numbers making it unambiguous at a glance which button to push for your floor.  But wait!  There’s an even better way to do it. (continued below)

Elevator Controls, 200 W Madison

As you can see in the next photo, not only are the buttons in a frame with their floor number, the floor number is printed right on the button! What could be more unambiguous than that?  Another interesting thing to note about this design is that the numbers left of the buttons (look carefully.  Sorry about the dark photo!) cannot be abandoned or blind people will be abandoned with them.  But there may be a better way yet…(continued below)

Elevator Controls, Thoughtworks

There’s still a problem (at least in my mind).  Let’s say you get on the elevator to go to floor 8 and scan the control panel (look at the 2nd photo up since it’s easier to read).  Since, in America, the humans read left to right you start at the left side of the panel.  Even though we read top left to bottom right, you intuitively know that the buttons for the lower floors will be on the lower part of the panel, so you start scanning from the lower left.  Scanning up you find a 7 and think “Great, 8 is 1 greater than 7 so I’ll just go up one and find 8.

You go up one and what do you find?  10!  Why?  Because there are enough floors in the building that the buttons for them cannot all be in 1 column so the have to put them in side-by-side columns to keep all the buttons between hips and shoulders where most people can reach them comfortably.  And they (the designers) decided that all the lower floors should be on the bottom of the panel and the upper floors should be on the top so the placed the lowest floors in the lowest row, left to right, then the next lowest set of floors in the 2nd row up, left to right, and so on.  It’s easy to understand that reasoning.  However, it makes it harder to find your floor than my scheme proposed here: (continued below)

Elevator Controls, Mine

In this design, the columns of buttons become a metaphor for the structure of the building.  Floor (n+1) is right above floor n with exceptions at the column breaks.  To compensate for this compromise of exceptions, the columns are shift slightly up for each successive column to the right to indicate to the user that the columns to the right are for the higher floors in the building.  Now if you find the 7 you can intuitively go up one to find the button for floor 8.  There’s more intuitive continuity (Whoa!, should that be a usability term?).  Also note that in the other designs, the closest buttons physically to any button are immediately above or immediately below it, not to the left or right.   i.e. buttons are physically closer vertically, not horizontally.   But the numbers closest in the numbering system (1,2,3,4, …) are to the left and right horizontally not above or below vertically.  See the problem?

OK, let’s say you’re looking for floor 11 and you’ve found the button for 10 which has no buttons above it.  What do you want to do instinctively?  I believe that you’ll spot that contiguous numbers are aligned vertically and you’ll start scanning at the bottom of the next column to the right which is shifted slightly up from where you’re at now.   It’s not perfect but I think it’s easier to decode than the conventional way of increasing button numbers to the right until the end of the row and then starting at the left of the next row up.

My only hesitation for this new scheme is that it goes against a securely embedded convention which seems to violate a fundamental rule of usability – Don’t buck convention (because people are programmed that way, like it or not).  However, in this instance I think the new sheme is so much more intuitive that it justifies bucking the more awkward convention.

What do you think?

Update 6/28/12:  Check out this crazy button layout I saw in an elevator in a building at a university!  Two buttons for floor #1 – or so it seems at 1st. The elevator number label which is very seldom needed is give too much prominence which causes confusion.  And, of course, the arrangement of buttons for the floors is pretty bad, too.


One Response to “Intuitive Elevator Button Layouts”

  1. Wayne Korbus says:

    So, when I was in Dallas, the elevators for the hotel had the buttons laid out like the picture below.
    Dallas Elevator
    After constantly trying to push the wrong button on my first day there, I watche everyone else who rode the elevator do the same thing.

    EVERY SINGLE person who got on always tried to push the button with the number on it, and when it did not work they would push harder.

    Then they would look at it with a puzzled expression and just touch the button next to it, which is what you are supposed to do from the beginning.

    EVERY person getting on did this.