Prototype Portfolio: Opening Doors

In Prototype Portfolio by Darpan Bohara

Prototype Portfolio: Opening Doors
IDP 116 J-Term 2018
Andrea Hutter
Claire Kerper
Darpan Bohara
Krista Smathers


Our prompt was to design something for someone who leads a double life. Our team of four came up with people we know who would fit this criteria and after discussion and coordination with potential user for our design, we settled on our user who wishes to remain anonymous. Our user is a Smith student who uses a wheelchair, has dealt with inaccessibility on campus and has struggled with propping open heavy, non-automatic doors to public spaces around campus.

POV Statement: Student with wheelchair needs to open doors to inaccessible spaces, both literally and metaphorically.

The Interview – Empathizing
We conducted an hour-long interview to learn more about our our chosen user and the challenges they face in leading the double life of a part-time wheelchair user. The main questions asked in the interview with our “double-lifer” were:
What are the main components of your life currently?
When do you see these components overlapping the most?
Describe a typical day/week in your life.
Describe yourself in three words.
What are the most important tasks you do? Any challenges doing these tasks?
What are your biggest challenges in each life you lead?
What is your favorite thing about being a Smithie? What is the hardest part?
What type of product could you imagine would be useful for you?

[Image description: a word cloud featuring the interviewee’s frequently used words. The most prominent words are: wheelchair, go, open, door, accessible, bathroom, parents.]

The word cloud above uses the interview transcription to display the relationship of word frequency of word size in the graphic. Using this information, our group determined that wheelchair accessibility became the main narrative of the interview and that doors provided the main challenge to our anonymous subject. There were many key points in the interview where our user described anecdotal instances of their struggles as a part-time wheelchair user. These were fairly specific to their disabilities and life as a student.

Our user described the circumstances for when they choose to use their wheelchair. In addition to physical barriers making it difficult to access the full campus in a wheelchair, our subject described the social norms adding to their discomfort as a part-time wheelchair user: “It’s both [accessibility issues and stigma]. I know, even in the house, like, the doors are just… stupid. So I was trying to get into my room, which you can’t fit a wheelchair through, so I had to get out to collapse it to get into the room, and it like, freaked out someone else ‘cause they just saw someone sitting in a wheelchair stand up and they were like, [expression of shock] — really confused! I was trying to use the bathroom and I wheeled by someone and they were like, ‘what happened to you?!’ This is my normal state of being! Here at Smith, the difference between when I use my wheelchair and not is both taboo and accessibility. When it’s in a more accessible area… it’s more of the taboo.”

People typically expect that someone in a wheelchair is either injured or that their legs do not function, and these stigma are part of what make our user feel uncomfortable using their wheelchair in their dorm and on campus. While attempting to solve this hindrance would involve changing the views or educating the people around our user on the viability of part-time wheelchair users, our team opted to focus on adapting and empowering our user to easily open their own doors without attracting too much attention.

When asked about a typical day in their life, our user immediately divided their days into categories of “good” and “bad.” In describing their “bad” days, our user discussed their process of prioritizing activities like getting food and going to the bathroom over going to class and rationalizing how many doors and which they would have to pass through. They attributed the success of their mobility in a wheelchair to their participation in aerial arts, or circus: “I feel like if I was not a circus person, I probably just would never be able to go to the bathroom.” Circus is actually conducive to their specific medical issues: “I do aerial arts and stuff, which is simple for me because, while it is a lot of cardio stuff, there are enough “breaks” of me being upside down that my brain gets enough blood…” This aspect of our user demonstrates an instance in which they individually and creatively found a (temporary) solution to their medical issues and also a comfortable and fun way to exercise. Our user was clearly passionate about their participation in circus, and this seemed to be a refuge for their creativity and provided an environment in which they were able to thrive.

Observations / Technology Review

For our observations, we asked our interview subject to demonstrate how they currently navigate through heavy, pressurized (self-closing) doors. In general, their strategy was to take both hands off the wheelchair’s wheels and instead grab the door handle and frame to pull themself through. They used the word “launch” repeatedly to describe how, as soon as they have pushed or kicked the door open sufficiently far, they have to fling themself over the threshold before that door swings back upon them. In general, it seemed that pushing a door was harder than pulling: when pushing a door open, they tended to roll backwards away from that door, whereas pulling the door brought them closer to the threshold. Therefore, after identifying the major steps of navigating doors as push or pull and then hold, we focused most of our efforts on the push and hold aspects.

bathroom entering

[Gif description: a wheelchair user rolls up to the door of an “accessible” single-occupancy restroom, grabs the door handle with one hand and the door frame with the other, and pushes the door open while pulling themself through it, visibly struggling, and using an impressive amount of arm strength.]

leaving the bathroom 1

[Gif description: a wheelchair user demonstrates the process of exiting a dorm’s “accessible” single-occupancy restroom. The person turns the door handle with one hand and grips the countertop with the other, then uses one foot to push off from the wall in order to gain the momentum to pull the door open inwards. They then adjust their grip on the door handle and use it to launch themself over the threshold, pushing off the door frame along the way.]

In addition, our user supposed that one detachable, travel-size device that can be used to ease the passage through many separate doors would be more practical and helpful to them than a device that was permanently affixed to each individual door that the user regularly passes, due to the sheer amount of doors on campus with which they deal frequently.

Insights, POV

Participating in circus provides our user with a comfortable environment, but our group wanted to design something that would empower our user no matter where they were on campus. Based on the interview, we generated our POV statement, which not only our user and their needs, but also their situation as one that is empathizable. The POV statement we created is as follows: Student with wheelchair needs to open doors to inaccessible spaces both literally and metaphorically.

Nope door

[Gif description: a wheelchair user attempts to pull open a heavy door, loses momentum, and backs up to try again. The caption reads “NOPE.”]

Our User: Composite Character Profile

[Image description: a Smith student, holding a notebook, sits in a wheelchair inside a dorm room.]
• Age 20
• College student
• Travels short and long distances using a manual wheelchair
• Lives in a “semi-accessible” college dorm: elevator and automatic exterior doors, but no automatic interior doors
• Carefully budgets their physical energy and stamina on a day-to-day basis


Adjustable Handle Wedge

Wedge Early Model

early wooden wedge

[Gif description: A low resolution prototype of a wooden wedge that is attached to an adjustable handle]

The first prototype we chose to design was a low hanging prototype. In other words, we chose an easy to fabricate, low cost product that would serve the purpose of propping the door open. We designed a wooden door wedge attached to a moveable handle for easy insertion under or side crack of the door and for effortless retrieval of wedge when the door needed to be closed. For this we used a wooden wedge, attached a paper clamp at the thicker edge of the wedge and attached an adjustable handle made of a small wood stick and a hollow straw. The paper clamp provided a 90 degree movability to the handle allowing the user to retrieve wedge after entering a door.

 Wedge Refined Model:

pros and cons

[Image description: Pros and cons list of the adjustable handle wedge]

After creating the first low-resolution prototype, we brainstormed a list of pros and cons as shown in the image. For the next prototype, we changed our materials and used a wide headband, a foam wedge, moldable grip strips, duct tape and hot glue. These components formed the new wedge, which was supposed to be more conducive to different widths under and on the side of the door because of the flexibility of the headband.

Foam wedge

[Image description: Testing to see how well the foam wedge can prop the door open. Foam wedge consists of a plastic headband around a wedge of foam and covered in a gripping surface.]

Only one side of the wedge was covered in grip strips and the other side remained smooth so as to slide more easily underneath the door. We attached the wedge to a modified selfie stick with a retractable handle by velcro to allow us to test different wedge prototypes using the same handle. The selfie stick had many benefits, including a rotatable surface on which to velcro our wedges which allowed for access under or into the side of the door frame from many different angles and could be locked into place upon insertion. Our other wedge was a modification of the wooden door stopper used in the first prototype. The wooden wedge was outfitted on the underside with a gripping surface in the hope that it would more effectively hold heavy doors open.

Door Opener — Early prototypes:

Expandable Tension Rod

tension rod tension rod extended

[Image description: the tension rod prototype, fully compressed, spanning across a doorway at about four feet off the ground, and holding the door about halfway ajar. Next, the same rod fully extended from that position, holding the door fully open.]

This low resolution prototype, made by Andrea, was inspired by the way a pressure rod for a shower curtain works. It had dense foam on each end to grip the door and the door jamb, and had two cylinders, one with a slightly smaller diameter fitting inside the larger that would telescope out. The user would need to push open the door manually about 17” and place it above their head high enough to comfortably be able to roll under it once the prototype had expand to a sufficient width. To mechanize this, both pneumatic and electromechanical solutions were considered. The team performed testing in a wheelchair and it became apparent that the prototype did not work well on flat door interfaces and required too much of the user’s energy and time installing and removing the device. Due to these impasses with this prototype design, we abandoned this line of pursuit.

tension rod with cat

[Image description: Andrea’s cat, Trouvée, checks out the tension rod prototype.]

Door Jack

Door jack

[Image description: the door jack prototype, composed of a broken vice, a hook attached to some elastic, and a soft bumper on the end that would meet the door.]

This very low resolution prototype, made by Claire, was inspired by the mechanics of a car jack; the idea was to pump the door open in increments and hold it open until released. The idea was quickly discarded when it became apparent that there was no easy way to affix one end of this “horizontal jack” securely to the frame and the other to the door in a way that was both temporary and accommodated the arc of the swinging door. Further, the jack would be suspended in the way of any person trying to pass through the door.

Motorized wheel door opener:

robot door opener sketch

[Image description: a drawing by Andrea showing the side edge or cross-section of a door where it meets the floor, and a mechanical device featuring a bracket around the bottom of the door, a small wheel that drives the door, and a handle to activate the wheel.]

Claire and Andrea researched the idea of a motorized door opener and found some ideas and inspiration online. We worked together to restructure, simplify and modify the ideas we found and align the with the particular needs of our user. We kept in mind that we were prototyping a device for our user’s biggest challenge, i.e., heavy doors with pressure rod closers. Another key aspect of concern was that this would be a portable device that the user would be installing and removing. We talked about how best to create a temporary attachment for the door opener and prototyped it with a “U-shaped” attachment that could be slipped on to the base of the door on the edge that swings open.

robot demo

[Gif description: simulation of the motorized wheel door opener pushing a door open by applying a driving force on the outside of the door, pushing it inward.]

Testing of the prototypes

Adjustable Handle Removable Wedges

While our user tested our product, the user propped the door open, stuck the wedge under the door and went inside. Once in the room, they used the stick to retrieve the wedge and closed the door. They used it similarly while leaving the room. We had two different wedges for them to try: foam wedge and wooden wedge.

wood wedge pull door

[Gif description: Adjustable handle wooden wedge in use by the user while they are exiting a room]

foam wedge fail

[Gif description: Adjustable handle foam wedge fails to hold the door open for the user]

The foam wedge proved less capable than the wooden wedge to prop the doors. The wooden wedge helped them as they were getting out because they no longer had to fear that the door might slam into them as they were wheeling out because the doors shut with high speed and force. However, this prototype, according to our user’s feedback and our observation, did not help the user as our user still had to force open the door themselves. Inserting the wedge under the door after opening it was ineffective as they could simply wheel in as they have already opened the door. Overall, the wedge was effective in keeping the door open and making sure the door does not close on our user on the way out, it did not aid the process of reducing effort when opening the heavy doors. For this reason, we realized that this prototype, while doing what we anticipated it to do, was not a product that was not useful to our user and would not be an applicable solution.

Electromechanical Wheel Door Opener:

robot test

[Gif description: user testing the electromechanical wheel door opener. The user first install the door opener prototype by opening the door slightly to slide the bracket onto the bottom edge, then door is pushed open by the wheel device (simulated) and the user wheels through the doorway.]

We handed our user the door opener prototype with the information that it would be motorized and roll forward.Then they to figured out how to install it on the door. To install the device, they pushed the door open manually about 8 inches, then reached down and slid the “U-portion” of the prototype under the door. We instructed them to push the “START” button drawn on the front. The prototype was not mechanized so a team member slowly pulled the door open from the other side, simulating the work of a motorized device and the prototype rolled with the door. Then our wheelchair user rolled through the open doorway. Ostensibly, device would then disengage and the door would close on its own if it had a pressured door closer attached. This segment merited some discussion with our user and the team in how to best turn on the device from the inside by adding an additional activation button to the panel on the other side of the door. WaOf the two solutions presented to the user, they said they would more likely used this one because it required less time, especially with installation and removal, though further modifications addressing greater ease of installation and less time require to move the door opener prototype device.

Future outlooks/Further prototype possibilities:

Improved Motorized Wheel Door Opener
Working with our user and getting their feedback brought to light some areas in this prototype that would provide greater ease and benefit with modifications. The first modification is to swap out the U-shaped door attachment for an L-shaped door attachment. The user would be able to install the device simply by sliding the horizontal extension of the “L“ under the door near the handle without the need to open the door. It would also be necessary to include an adjustable timing mechanism to allow the user to wheel into the space without having to manually disengage the door opener device once they are through the doorway. Additionally, considering a possible solution for starting the door opener from the inside could be triggered theoretically by electromagnetically if connected through the “L” as it extends under the door. This part would require further research and development of such a starting mechanism.

A New Alternative—The Chair Bumper
For an alternative lower cost, non-electronic solution, we envisioned a sort of arc-shaped bumper that would circle around the front of the wheelchair, making contact with the door and pushing it open as the user wheels forward. The user will have to expend a lot less energy as the effort is distributed from the wheelchair through the bumper, while the user does not have to remove their hands from the wheels. This bumper would be slid back to the back of the wheelchair where it would collapse for storage when not in use.

Wheelchair bumper

[Image description: a photo of an empty wheelchair overlaid with a very simple sketch, in yellow, demonstrating one possible shape of this bumper attachment.]


Laura Rauscher, head of Smith College Office of Disability Services for lending us a wheelchair. Thank you so much!
Our anonymous user, for selflessly dedicating so much time to interviews, observations, and testing, and approaching it all with openness and a sense of humor
Zaza, for just about everything
Our classmates, for your feedback (and so much more)
Thank you to Doormatic ( that provided inspiration and an idea to further build on for our door opener prototype.

Team Members’ Contributions and Reviews

Andrea: It was a wonder to watch how the various steps from empathy to testing created a multiplier effect of collaboration, energy, and good will in our team. Personally, I think better with a pencil in my hand. My mind engaged best as I sketched what was being discussed and drew iterations of various modifications. I am handy with tools and am particularly adept with found building materials. I enjoyed participating in the building of three of the prototypes and exchanging feedback with our team and also with other teams. It taught me about aspects of myself that benefited through the process of teamwork and how key working with an open mind is. Also, I am of the opinion that a good sense of humor helps in teamwork and enhances relaxation and idea flow and consequently, we had great fun in this growth experience.

Claire: For me, this project involved almost as much learning as it did unlearning; at the beginning of the week, I was at a point of, “I’m comfortable, I’ve done this before.” This project let me exercise and share my skills, especially on the tech side of things, but also taught me to never, ever get too comfy. I got to try my hand at transcribing the hour-long interview and optimizing its summary in a word cloud. I also created all of the gifs shown above, which was great practice and a lot of fun. Preserving our subject’s anonymity as requested, without abandoning all use of images and direct quotes, was of particular interest to me. And after dedicating myself to the “empathy test” of using a wheelchair part-time for three days, I’ve begun to learn a brand new way of seeing how the world is built.

Darpan: Our group took a collaborative approach throughout the design thinking process. We bounced ideas off of one another, built on those ideas and challenged them to influence improvement of the final prototypes. I enjoyed working with the prototyping of the low cost, adjustable handle door wedge with Krista. I was resourceful in using the prototype cart to form a low resolution prototype. I also helped by forming the prototype portfolio and team presentation outlines and dividing work according to team members’ interests. I attended to the practical and organizational aspects by redirecting our tangent conversations and inviting our group to focus on task at hand during moments with time constraint. I collaborated with all my team members, incorporated their feed in my work and shared my own insights with the team.

Krista: I enjoyed creatively collaborating with my teammates to build the prototypes. It was really interesting to see two ideas being developed and use comments from the others to improve the wedge prototype, which I spent most of my time on. I tried to offer my teammates lots of positive feedback and suggestions to help develop our designs. It is most helpful for me to learn from physical models, so I put a lot of time into consideration of prototyping materials.