Where You Stand Inside An Elevator Can Say A lot About You


You’d be shocked what you can learn about human nature if you hang out in an elevator long enough. But that’s precisely what happened to Rebekah Rousi, a PhD candidate at Finland’s University of Jyvaskyskyla, who also researches user psychology—the affects of technological interactions on human psyche, and the mental factors of design encounters. In the April version of Ethnography Matters, Rousi posted her paper describing her analysis of elevator usage and how qualitative and quantitative data collection aided her.

While staying in Adelaide, Australia, Rousi spent a few days hanging out in two tall office buildings, riding elevators up and down all day, searching for patterns amongst the employees who used the lifts. The elevators in each building were the same make and model, but one of the buildings had a security desk on the main floor and the other did not. Although Rousi acknowledged her presence could have affected people’s behavior, she tried to blend in as much as possible. And she made several interesting observations.

People consistently segregate when they board an elevator. And not only do they segregate by age and sex, there’s apparently a social order to who stands where. The older gentlemen stand in the back, observing the other passengers (or maybe people’s asses… dirty old men). Younger men stand in front of them, and women stand in the front. And if the elevator has mirrors, men looked into them to see themselves and others, while women tended to look down, avoiding eye contact. Unless the women were in groups: Then they not only chatted away while on board, but also used the mirror to look at themselves and others.

Rousi tried to figure out what psychological factors led to the segregation. She felt it was too simple to be truly gender-based. Power hierarchies, too, seemed too cliché. Then Rousi considered the aspect of shyness. What if, she thought, bolder personalities choose the back—where they are free to look around, unafraid if they are caught—and shy people stand up front? At this point, Rousi concluded that she just can’t draw a conclusion of why people self-segregate in the elevator cabin, and further analysis is needed.

What else did Rousi learn? During her elevator study, she also requested employees in the two buildings complete unrequired short elevator-satisfaction surveys. While a number of employees in the building without a security desk  (Building N) completed the survey, a significantly fewer number of workers in the secured building (Building S) returned the questionnaire.

The surveys revealed the employees in Building N had plenty of complaints about their elevator. Not only were they afraid people from the street would enter the elevator—incidents that actually happened in previous years—they were more concerned with the technical safety of the elevator. Meanwhile, Building S employees were confident their elevator was safe from criminals and would always deliver them safely to their designated floor.

While the safety concerns of Building N employees are completely legitimate, Rousi believes their mechanical-safety worries may be caused by their negative feelings associated with lack of security. Furthermore, NO negative experiences related to elevator mechanics were shared by employees from Building S.

Even though Building S employees didn’t offer any negative comments, Rousi noted they didn’t much offer any comments at all—they barely returned any questionnaires. Isn’t that a bad thing, too? Aren’t companies always clamoring to find innovative ways to get users to fill our their stupid surveys? Well, yes, but we’re not really talking about a consumer-driven product here. Businesses don’t really choose what elevators to install in their buildings based on positive customer feedback. Oh, sure, they will hopefully consider negative feedback. We don’t want them installing defective lifts that have killed a bunch of kittens somewhere in Taiwan. But the goal of a good elevator isn’t to impress with a bunch of bells, whistles, horns and streamers. It’s to get users quietly, quickly and safely from Floor A to Floor B. If it’s incognito, doesn’t that mean it’s doing its job? So a lack of surveys means its doing its job wonderfully swimmingly.