Redesigning an Elevator’s UI


About six months ago I moved out of my suburban house and into an apartment in a 35 story building in downtown Dallas. This of course necessitated the use of an elevator 5-6 times a day to walk the dog, go to lunch, meetings, etc. Any time I need to go anywhere, the trip starts with an elevator. It’s a typical elevator, lots of round buttons for the floors, buttons for opening and closing the door, etc. It’s pretty much just like every other elevator I’ve ever used, but something about using it all the time has made me realize how poorly designed elevators are in terms of interface, particularly this one.

My building was built in the ’50s, a classic mid-century modern skyscraper, and I would bet that despite renovations and improvements over the years, the elevator interface has changed very little in 50 years. Why not? Someone spent several hundred million dollars converting a skyscraper to apartments, thinking out every luxury detail, but neglected the thing we all have to touch to get in and out every day.

So of course, being a designer, I set to work to do better. First things first, lets look at what we’re working with:

The current elevator interfaceI have been told by guests that they have been confused by the elevator, because the numbering is inconsistent. What’s really going on is that there isn’t a button for every floor; it skips 2, 3, and 8. Of the 4 elevators, only 2 of them go to the basement floors and the 35th floor, so the experience is inconsistent elevator-to-elevator as well. It’s a giant mess of buttons in a grid that you have to study to find the right one, especially if you’re a visitor. Lets take a closer look at what all these buttons do:

Elevator FunctionsIn this image I’ve highlighted where all the buttons go. Most are to residences on floors 10-35, others to parking on 4-6, some to common amenities, like the fitness center on the 9th floor, and the pool on 35. The biggest problem is that all the buttons look identical – there’s no thought given to how people use the building, where people go most often, or what buttons need to be easy to see.

How often have you been in an elevator and seen someone trying to catch it as the doors close? It happens a lot, and if you’re like me that person sometimes misses the elevator simply because the ‘door open’ button was too hard to find in a hurry. Ever pushed the alarm or call buttons? Probably never – so why are they right next to the buttons you use all the time, burying buttons like ‘1st floor’ that are much more important? And why in many elevators, including this one, are there redundant numbers on buttons, and labels next to the buttons? It just makes it that much harder to read.

So here’s my suggestion for improving the elevator interface in my building with ideas I think could be applied to most buildings:

Redesigned elevator interface

I’ve done several things here that I think make this much more intuitive and easy to use:

  • I’ve eliminated the redundancy of labels next to the buttons, and consolidated everything onto larger buttons. I think having the braille on the button itself is probably more accessible as well, as there is no guessing whether the braille applies to the button to the left or right of the label.
  • I’ve rearranged buttons so that less accessed ones such as the maintenance floors and emergency buttons are distinct from the main interface, and are not interfering with primary controls for the top 95% of users.
  • Added labels on and next to key buttons and button groups to assist new visitors to the building, making it clear what the key floors are for things like the leasing office, parking garage, fitness center and pool.
  • I’ve given a hierarchy to the important or most common buttons, such as ‘open’, ‘1 Ground’, ‘9 Fitness’, and ’35 roof’. I realize that there are some efficiencies in having standardized sizes for the buttons, but surely we can mange 3 standard sizes instead of just 1.
  • I’ve added color to provide hints, as well as emphasize or deemphasize different functions. For example, highlighting the ‘Open’ button in green to make it distinct from the floor buttons, and adding color labels around maintenance floors and emergency buttons separates them as well.
  • I’ve organized the floors so that the intervals on the left are at common steps of 5, which will reduce floor hunting and make it easier for users to immediately identify the row of floors they’re looking for.

I would argue that these sorts of changes are worthwhile, and can even have an ROI. The time saved per trip in button hunting multiplied over the hundreds of trips per day, and hundreds of thousands of trips made over years will add up to serious value for the users of the buildings, not to mention a reduction in wear and tear on the elevators due to reduced mistake trips. In larger buildings, it may even add up enough to reduce the need for so many elevators. If nothing else, any elevator manufacturers and designers who make use of good usability will have a serious advantage in a field where I suspect elevators are designed with this process: “Hey Bob, how many buttons do we need? 38? Ok, I’ll make 38 holes.”

Additional thoughts

I haven’t mocked it up, but even the buttons used to call the elevator could use some improvement. For example, if you’re on the first floor, there are 2 floors below you (1 which is maintenance only), and 34 floors above you. So why are the up and down buttons the same size? 99% of the time users will be hitting up – so make that the big obvious one. About 1 time in 20 I accidentally hit down. Conversely, if I’m on my apartment floor, 95% of the time I’m going down, so it should be reversed.

Hopefully this can spark some additional ideas – there are probably things I’m not taking into account here. Have your own elevator interface idea? Send it to me and I’ll add it here. Chime in down in the comments with additional ideas for improving elevators, and other common interfaces that could use a fresh approach.