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The Root of Harvard’s Suffering

Once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it.

By Mohib A. Jafri, Contributing Opinion Writer
Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

It’s time to address the elephant in the room. While Houses, concentrations, and choice of extracurriculars may divide us at times, there is one common enemy that we all face on a daily basis: Harvard’s unintuitive doors.

It’s one of those things you don’t notice until you start looking for it, and when you see it, it will make you sick. Every minor inconvenience, every ephemeral bout of frustration, adds up to a cumulative suffering. Clearly, this is the true source of undergraduate dissatisfaction with campus life. Don’t believe me?

Let’s start with LISE Cafe. After pretending to do work in there for a bit, you make your way to the door. You see a handle and pull it. It doesn’t give. You look up and pull the other door’s handle — maybe one of them is locked? Nope.

You read the sign next to the handle: The glass door reads “PULL” on the other side of the door. You visualize yourself on the other side pulling the door. Therefore, you must push. You push the door.

I shouldn’t have to know English to know how to open a door. Not only that, but who pushes a door handle?

Angered at LISE’s absurdity, you head back to Leverett House to catch some sleep. It’s late — cut through Smith Campus Center. You’re greeted by two sets of French doors — four doors in total, and only one badge reader. Which door will it open?

You swipe and hear the right set of doors unlock. You go for the rightmost door. It doesn’t budge. You go for the left. It opens.

Flustered yet again, you stop by Quincy House’s Stone Hall to cry to a friend living on the fourth floor. You tap your ID at the elevator’s badge reader. It stays red. You tap again. Still red. You wait a few seconds, and it returns to green. You tap again. Red.

An impatient sophomore grunts past you, hovers their ID two inches from the reader for a one-Mississippi-two-Mississippi, and up to the fourth floor you go. Your eyes swell with tears by floor three.

“What’s wrong with me?” you ask yourself.

Nothing is wrong with you. If you also find yourself frustrated trying to figure out how to open a Harvard door, know that you are not alone, and that it is never your fault. Someone designed that door with you, the end user, in mind. But they failed to focus intently on the experience. If you don’t know what to do with these trivial devices as soon as you approach them, and you had to have outside knowledge — English comprehension, a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, or even the presence of a Quincy sophomore — that’s bad design.

As Don Norman writes in “The Design of Everyday Things,” good design is discoverable. That is, just by looking at the object, you should be able to form a mental model of how it works. LISE violates the mental model that handles are to be grabbed, and grabbing is a pulling motion. Smith offers no cues as to which door will unlock. Quincy requires word-of-mouth knowledge and practice just to operate an elevator.

Harvard often fails to use what engineers call a human-centered approach to problem-solving. In this discipline, people are paramount: Cost, engineering, aesthetics, and even time come secondary. While difficult doors are more whimsical indications of our school’s poor design, I invite you to question where else Harvard has failed in putting us first. Was Harvard made with people like you and me in mind, or were we the afterthought? What other doors, physical and otherwise, does Harvard shut off to people like us by design?

Roughly four percent of applicants can enter the doors of Harvard. Of the fortunate, one percent can actually manage to open the doors.

There’s little I can do alone, but collectively, we are a force to be reckoned with. We don’t have to accept these failures of design. Together, through petitions online, sit-in protests in front of the Smith Campus Center’s doors, and a sprinkle of administrative help, we can stunt the root of Harvard students’ suffering.

Mohib A. Jafri ’21 is an Electrical Engineering concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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