An uplifting experience – adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience


Rebekah Rousi

Editor’s note: This post for the April ‘Ethnomining‘ edition comes from Rebekah Rousi, @rebekahrousi who describes how the combination of qualitative and quantitative data collection was fruitful in her analysis of elevator usage. The post highlights the lessons she uncovered using both approaches.

Rebekah is a researcher of user psychology and PhD candidate of Cognitive Science at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. With a background in visual arts and cultural studies, she is particularly interested in the psychology of user experience, affective human-technology interactions and the mental factors of design encounters.


I don’t know who was more moved by the experience of elevator design, me or the 50 people I interviewed. A few years ago a leading elevator design and manufacturing company gave me the task of examining how people experienced and interacted with elevators. The scope included everything from hall call buttons, to cabin interior design and perception of technical design. When given the brief, the artistic director noted country specific design features (or omissions) and even mentioned that there may be observable elevator habits I would want to take note of. Then, on our bidding a corporate-academic farewell she added that I might want to consider the psychology of the surrounding architectural environment. With that, I was left with a long list of to-do’s and only one method I could think of that would be capable of incorporating so many factors – ethnography. Ethnographic inquiry provides a framework in which the researcher’s own observations and experiences of the phenomenon under study – in this case elevator users’ behaviour in relation to the elevators, other users and the surrounding architectural environment – can be combined with “insiders'” opinions and insights.

Westpac House Entrance

Westpac House Entrance; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

Grenfell Centre entrance

Grenfell Centre entrance; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

So, I undertook the study in two of Adelaide’s (Australia) tallest office buildings (see the building entrances above). I chose these buildings for several reasons: 1) they are both highrises in which elevator usage is a necessity; 2) they are both non-residential office buildings in which factors such as occupational well-being, health and safety, and socio-cultural dimensions including power relations and hierarchies come into play. In order to gauge and explain user behaviour in relation to the tangible and non-tangible dynamics of the spaces, it is necessary to study sites which are similar in purpose. Further, both buildings housed the same brand of elevators. And both had only recently undergone elevator upgrades.

The data collection consisted of two separate parts: the mini-interviews (or verbal questionnaires) which lasted two to five minutes; and the field observations. The mini-interviews comprised the following topics: background information; mental factors such as current mood and personality type loosely based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (social, organised, intuitive and analytical); Likert-scale opinion rating of elevator design elements; design suggestions; preferences (elevators or stairs?); security and safety; and habits. The components I was looking at in the field observation were: waiting and operating habits; interaction with design; interpersonal interaction; and movement flow.

The observations were broken down into blocks in which I either sat outside the elevator banks watching people enter and exit elevators, or travelled up and down – attempting to blend in with the other users. It is debatable as to whether this is cause for ethical concern, as elevator users were not fully aware that I was studying them. However, the buildings’ occupants had been informed of the study beforehand. Some people even recognised me as the researcher who had come to spend a few days riding in the elevators. But, at least using the elevators myself made me understand the elevator experience from the position of a user. Other points of observation included the interior architecture and design of the ground floor lobby. Additional features such as security posts and wet floor signs were also noted.

Elevator interior of Westpac House

Elevator interior of Westpac House; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

Sculpture inspiring the pattern on the elevator interior back panel

Sculpture inspiring the pattern on the elevator interior back panel


Technical Design over the Decorative

By combining the mini-interviews with the observations I was able to gain an inside-outside perspective of the elevator user experience. It soon became obvious through the interviews as well as observations that the decorative properties of the elevator cabins did not maintain high priority in people’s consciousness. People actively engaged with features such as monitors at either side of the doors as well as mirrors which were located on the doors in one building, and side panels in the other. But, there were notable patterns even in this behaviour, which will be mentioned in a moment. The characteristics of the designs that were particularly mentioned by the 50 people interviewed, were mostly related to the technical design and mechanics. For one thing, in one building people noted their disconcertion by the sound of the wind in the elevator shafts. This constantly brought to their attention the height and speed at which they were travelling. Further, people mentioned their dissatisfaction at having to wait for the elevators to arrive after pressing the hall call button. Finally, floor skipping, or the elevator dropping past floors, was noted by many in reference to the previous elevators that were housed at one of the sites.

So on the whole, sentiments which were expressed by the interviewees related to the mechanics of the elevators and feelings of safety. Interestingly, statistical analysis of the quantitative data showed a positive correlation between perceived safety and security, and the interior control panel design. This may mean that users feel safer when they perceive their own level of control to be greater. This control element also was apparent when analysing the responses in relation to the elements featured at the sites. For instance, one of the buildings featured a security desk in the ground floor lobby, while the other did not. No negative experiences were mentioned by the occupants who used the elevators in the building sporting the security desk. All the negative experiences which were related came from occupants of the building without the security desk. Further, in addition to worries over the mechanics of the elevators – and articulated memories of the elevators which were replaced a few years earlier – people in the building without the security desk mentioned experiences where people would walk in from the streets, travel in the elevators and get off in the basement. A security keycard was not required to enter the basement and occupants perceived it as being unsecure. So, elevator users also felt threatened by external elements such as people who did not have any business in the building.

Hierarchy in Interaction

Yet, moving back to the interaction with elevator interior design elements, it was noticed that interaction went hand-in-hand with social organisation. As a result of 30 elevator journeys (15 in each building) a clear social order could be seen regarding where people positioned themselves inside the elevators and how they interacted with the design features, such as mirrors and monitors. More senior men in particular seemed to direct themselves towards the back of the elevator cabins. In front of them were younger men, and in front of them were women of all ages. Men watched the monitors, looked in the side mirrors (in one building) to see themselves, and in the door mirrors (of the other building) to also watch others. Women would watch the monitors and avoid eye contact with other users (unless in conversation) and the mirrors. It was only when the women travelled with other women, and just a few at that, that women elevator users would utilise the mirrors. One interviewee even mentioned that she only looked in the mirrors when there was no one else in the elevator.


Further, interviewees seemed somewhat aware of these dynamics. Both men and women mentioned how they would either purposely stare at other elevator users to draw attention, or that one woman in particular would enter the elevator and stand facing the back, rather than the doors, which other users found disconcerting. Thus, people related a sense of playfulness at recognising and purposelessly disrupting usage norms and hierarchies. Another elevator user who was quite anxious about elevator travel mentioned that upon entering the cabin she always stood perfectly still, believing that any sudden move may cause the elevator to drop. She noted how her children were amused by this belief and purposely would jump when they were travelling to draw a reaction from their mother.

Perceived versus Real Time

What was most interesting to discover when conducting this study was the relationship between psychological perception and the material reality. Through combining the mini-interview results with the observations of waiting behaviour for instance, it could be seen that people perceived time that was spent waiting as being longer than it really was. Observation of elevator hall calls for one hour (62 people) revealed that 50% of people stepped into the elevator within less than one second of pressing the hall call button. Twenty-six per cent stepped into the elevator within two to five seconds of pressing the button. Ten per cent stepped in within six to ten seconds, six per cent within 11 to 15 seconds, and eight per cent needed to wait over 15 seconds. This follows findings of numerous studies dealing with the difference between perceived and actual waiting times (see e.g. Bae and Kim 2011, Jones and Peppiatt 1996, as well as Maister 1985).

Grenfell Centre elevator banks

Grenfell Centre elevator banks; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

Westpac House elevator banks

Westpac House elevator banks; Picture by Rebekah Rousi.

Defensible Spaces

Also, the types of responses that were given by participants varied from building to building. While no significant differences were statistically observed between buildings or variables such as gender, personality type, mood etc., qualitatively, the occupants of the building which featured the security desk in the ground floor lobby did not refer to any negative experiences or opinions about the elevators of the building, even though this building sported the same brand of elevators and had a recent refurbishing history, similar to the other building. In the building without the security desk, people were much more willing to participate in the study, but they also readily recalled past negative experiences. This leads me to wonder about architectural psychological theories such as that of defensible space (Newman 1972, 1996; MacDonald and Gifford 1989) whereby control, or perceived control, is established over property to deter criminal activity. Or at least, in the case of these buildings, the presence of live security staff, or lack thereof, determined the level of experienced safety and security. Security cameras are all very well, but at the end of the day it is only the people who can help you. This was in a way confirmed when an interviewee recounted an experience of being trapped in one of the elevators. She noted that it already was an ordeal to be stranded in an elevator, but her anxiety increased when she pressed the emergency button and was served by someone at a help desk in another state, who was not aware of where this particular building was located.

Points for Consideration

Aside from these findings, a number of issues came to mind in light of the role and ethics of the researcher. I was one of these ‘outsiders’ who had entered the building. People in the building with the defensible space defined by the security desk were more reluctant to participate in the study, possibly: a) due to lack of time; or more likely b) because they were wary of me and my intentions. Although the property managers had informed building participants via email that I would be conducting a study in the buildings, I had not gained permission from every individual I had observed. Moreover, most of us feel uncomfortable if we are aware that someone is watching – formerly or otherwise. Further, to highlight my position and role in society is also important. I was in Adelaide, Australia as a visiting researcher from Finland. I was born and raised in Adelaide, so I do not differ from most of the study’s subjects in terms of language and accent. But I am a Caucasian woman in her thirties, who was perceived by some as a market researcher seeking to obtain a quota of research respondents (which was mentioned in passing comments when people stated that they would ‘help me achieve my quota’) and by others as perhaps a silent rule breaker. I tended to forget myself when I stood in the elevators, generally standing towards the back of the elevator in line with senior male staff members. And likewise, looking at others in the cabin rather than at the ground or monitors as most of the other women did.

Implementing ethnographic measures to study the user experience of elevators and their architectural surroundings has certainly been a learning curve. Based on my above-mentioned realisations, being aware of one’s social position, and behaving in a way which complies with the environment in which the study takes place are points to be mindful of when undertaking similar studies in the future. Furthermore, through adopting a mixture of qualitative and quantitative techniques, a more detailed and explanatory impression of the situation may be obtained. This methodological approach is definitely worthwhile. But lastly, regarding the nature of the usage purpose of elevators – to seamlessly move people from one space/floor to the next – the very point of conducting research to explore user experience came to mind. Experience occurs and exists in the mind. In order to recall it, we need to be conscious of it. If we are asking people to comment on their experiences, we are asking them to be conscious or mindful of them. In the case of elevators, successful usage means that a person has been transported smoothly without interruption and in essence, should not be consciously aware of the human-design transaction, other than that the flow of their movement is continuous without interruption. By asking them to comment on their experiences, we are asking them to be conscious of design interactions which should not necessarily be consciously perceived. Generally, in these user instances people are only conscious of negative experiences as they interrupt their movement flow. So, possibly new paradigms and approaches to user experience should be established which account for the desired effect of no conscious experience.

Acknowledgements/ Credits

I would really like to thank Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation for funding the Theseus II project, through which I had the opportunity to visit Australia and collect valuable data and experiences. Thanks to the propriety managers of Westpac House and Grenfell Centre in Adelaide for allowing me to study the buildings’ elevators. Special thanks goes to Anne Stenros and KONE elevators for initiating and inspiring the study. And thank you very much Professor Pertti Saariluoma for all these opportunities.


Bae, G. and Kim, D-Y. (2011). The Effects of Offering Menu Information on Perceived Waiting Time: The Case of a Casual Dining Restaurant in Korea. In Proceedings of 16th Graduate Student Research Conference in Hospitality and Tourism 2011, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Jones, P., & Peppiatt, E. (1996). Managing perception of waiting times in service queues. International Journal of Service Industry Management, 7(5), 47-61.

MacDonald, J. and Gifford, R. (1989). Territorial Cues and Defensible Space Theory: The Burglar’s Point of View. Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 9, pp. 193-205.

Maister, D. (1985). The psychology of waiting lines. in Czepiel J.A., Solomon M. and Surprenant C.S. (Eds), The Service Encounter, Lexington Books, MA.

Newman, O. (1973). Defensible Space: People and Design in the Violent City. London: Architectural Press.

Newman, O. (1996). Creating Defensible Space. US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington DC.

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56 Responses to “An uplifting experience – adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience”

  1. April 4, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    rebeka I love this post! thanks for sharing. have you seen this bathroom on top of an elevator shaft?

    • April 5, 2013 at 5:11 am #

      Hi Tricia,

      Thank you very much! And no, I have never seen this! How cool (and scary)! I guess you wouldn’t have far to go to the bathroom if you were concerned about heights. 😀

      • Lee McCasland
        September 24, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

        rebeka –
        My thinking in elevator placement (as a 53 year old male) it that it is a gentleman’s position to assume the rear of the elevator. The reasoning is typical of Southern (and older/more experienced) gentlemen in the U.S., as we will not be the first off, and will always give others a better position for ingress/egress. It is a respectful and gentlemanly thing to do, and always will be.
        I see similarities to your theory of heirarchy, but I see this reasoning as being just a bit different.
        This is not unlike openning a door for women or the elderly.
        Perhaps younger folks have not yet learned this sensitivity, so they ten to take whatever position is most available or convenient.
        Lee Mc

  2. April 12, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    Interesting article. I wonder if you observed any people with disabilities in your study, especially wheelchair users. I would think their experience and interactions would be different to varying degrees, depending on how well the elevator is designed to accommodate diversity. I would also imagine that their usage could affect other non disabled users’ experiences and interactions.

    • April 12, 2013 at 6:47 am #

      Hi Catherine,
      That’s an excellent comment and truly insightful idea. I frequently think of physical access (even outside this study), but psychological experience of the social dynamics involved when people with and without disabilities are utilising design in the same spaces would be a truly interesting topic. So, will you do this or shall I? Or, should I ask, have you done this already?
      All the best,

  3. Rachel
    April 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    You equate senior men to power. How do you know everyone’s hierarchical position? While looking at what you can tell by just viewing (they’re men, they’re the older group of men on the elevator) you can’t assume that they are the most important players. You can’t even necessarily ask them. To really know who’s powerful you’d need an org chart plus some understanding of the organization.

  4. Rachel
    April 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    So how about those of us who stand sideways against the wall so we can see everyone but right by the door so we can get out without being blocked

    • April 17, 2013 at 8:39 am #

      Hi Rachel,

      You’ve brought up some very good points. I referred to senior men in terms of age – so based on characteristics that I could see. But, you have highlighted the need for more in-depth interviewing of behaviour and intentions, such as the reasons why you stand near the front and to the side. This was something that I just commented on to someone else yesterday. We all have our own rationale for why we behave in a certain way, and in order to understand other people’s rationale, we need to ask them to explain. With further investigation this will certainly be done. For this reason, feedback such as yours is constructive and insightful. Thank you!

  5. April 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    Hi Rebekah,
    Very interesting study! Interpersonal dynamics fascinate me and I have spent many an hour thinking on precisely such scenarios as these.
    I would posit that power, gender, and social hierarchies are inherently intertwined, and that these factors doubtless exact a strong influence on how small groups of people self-organize in contained spaces. Speaking from my perspective, I actually make an effort to monitor my habits and use trends like the ones you name here to intentionally adopt behaviors associated with power and authority. I am a woman and a feminist, so I am aware of how society bends me to always keep my gaze down and not express self-confidence or challenge the authority of others, especially men. Well I don’t think I have to tell you what I think of that! 😉
    Contrary to the message of these misogynistic mores, I find it socially and professionally lucrative to exhibit confidence and assertiveness in the manner demonstrated by “senior men” in your study. I feel that my agency is increased and my connection to others is strengthened. You never know when you might meet your future boss; better to make a good impression!
    Stephanie (graduate student in biophysical neuroscience)
    P.S. Thanks to RK at NPR for linking me to your work!

    • April 17, 2013 at 8:40 am #

      Hi Stephanie,

      Great to hear from you, thanks for your comment! And during the study it was truly interesting to hear from people aware of these dynamics, who also actively sought to subvert them. It’s amazing what you can do with a little bit of positioning and return gaze 😉 .

      All the best,

  6. April 17, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    This is an interesting idea for a study, but I do question some of your assumptions. There is also the idea of politeness. That people entering an elevator do stand at the back or sides to make room for those coming in. This is an old convention of elevator manners:

    In fact, apparently, someone chose to make a whole website about it!

    What you might need to complete this research, is to make a study of behavior while waiting for the elevator and then the resulting formation inside for comparison.

    Interesting idea. I’d caution for more complete research before assuming any findings.

    • April 18, 2013 at 5:14 am #

      Dear AnthroPunk,

      Thanks for the link, the information on elevator etiquette, and the idea for further research. I completely agree with caution on assuming any concrete findings. I contributed this blog in hope this would be a relatively informal setting in which to reflect on the findings of this case study (pilot study) to gain ideas such as these.

      So, thank you very much again!
      All the best,

  7. April 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    Listening to NPR, I found a review of your work regarding elevators. Later, also read ethnographymatters. I am Chilean, and I live near Santiago. Being an artist, I would like to see the works of yours you consider performance art.

    • April 19, 2013 at 8:18 am #

      Hi Zechileno,

      If you Google my name and have a look at the images, you’ll see some shots of me doing “The Longest Lecture Marathon – the world’s longest powerpoint presentation”. It was a performance that lasted 27 hours, and has been considered ‘art’. 😉 I’ve performed quite a few different pieces, but it’s that performance which has been my artist tradepiece over the past few years. I’ll have a look at your work when I get a chance.

      Thanks for contacting me.
      All the best,

  8. Corrigan
    April 22, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    A novel you might be interested in: The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. It’s about an elevator inspector in noir pseudo-future, where elevators take on a slightly more intellectual/psychic/political significance in society.

    • April 23, 2013 at 5:36 am #

      Dear Corrigan,

      That sounds intriguing. Certainly when I get some time I’ll grab a copy. Thanks for that!

      All the best,

  9. April 26, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    FYI – the editor’s note needs some fixing – your name doesn’t go anywhere (but it seems like it’s clickable) and your twitter handle goes to someone else’s twitter account!

    You might get a kick out of my 2011 article for interactions – – that looked at the kinds of experiences we have with elevator interfaces and mused about why that might be.

    Anyway what a great opportunity for a study and big thanks for sharing here. I wonder about pattern formation with habitual usage. I don’t like or work in a place with an elevator so I occasionally develop new relationships with specific elevators, say a hotel I’m staying at for a while or a someplace at the airport I go to over and over again. I won’t have patterns for other riders because it’s not regular enough but I will have patterns about positioning and posture – where are the buttons, are they high or low, is my floor button high or low – there’s kind of this geeky efficiency optimizing thing that informs how I’ll swoop through the doors; but I need to have a formed model of what’s going to be on the inside. Sample of one person, of course.

    • April 29, 2013 at 5:13 am #

      Hi Steve,

      Thansk for the great link and comment! Yes, this work is fun!

      All the best,

  10. Steven
    April 27, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    I stand at the back to allow women to get off the elevator first, my idea of politeness. I look at the floor count, avoiding eye contact with anyone also because it’s not polite to stare, and I respect others’ privacy.

    I’m 60; but I’ve done this since I 10, when I rode the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building.

    Cognitive psychology–the only school to do so–acknowlegdes that humans are conscious; perhaps that might be a basic premise also adopted by those in the “cognitive sciences.”

    • April 29, 2013 at 5:16 am #

      Hi Steven,

      This is great stuff! I think for this reason this study and blog publication has been really useful, as it’s brought back into consciousness the reasons for our behaviour, and a lot of social and cultural codes that have somehow be forgotten (or less talked about) – like politeness.

      Thanks for your comment!
      All the best,

  11. Fernando
    July 23, 2014 at 6:18 am #

    One important factor seems not explored or fully accounted for…How people perceive an elevator as a safe method of vertical transportation.
    I am designing elevators for living, whereas all factors referred on your study are important, safety, takes a vital and critical factor when comes to design, install and maintain elevators.
    This is something I have in mid all times ahead of all others.

  12. April 12, 2013 at 6:51 am #

    Well, we would get an even clearer picture if at least 100 elevator journeys were taken per building. This would and should have been done by a group of observers, not just for the different sets of eyes, but also for different characteristics (gender, age, nationality etc.), to see whether these patterns still remained. The problem was resources, and encountering the same batty person travelling up and down the elevators repeatedly would have no doubt been a little disconcerting to many elevator travellers.

  13. April 15, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Oh, and when the doors don’t close quick enough we’ve just to keep pressing that button ;-D….

  14. Larry
    April 17, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    I am a lawyer, 66 years old, white male, in the middle of the US. I have always stood at the back of the elevator because it seemed both polite and common-sensical to leave space at the doors for people getting on.

  15. April 18, 2013 at 5:15 am #

    Hi Larry,

    Thank you very much for your reply! That’s just what we need to know. 🙂

    All the best,

  16. Deanna Beeler
    April 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    I’m a lawyer too, female, sixties. If I can, I stay near the front for my own ease in getting out, but I back up a bit (toward the near side wall, usually on my right facing out), when new people come in, which seems courteous. Staying to the right may be just because the elevators’ buttons are on the right. When we approach my floor, if I’m not in front I start checking out people’s postures and demeanors to see who is planning to leave, and I orient myself toward what looks like a “soft” spot.

  17. April 23, 2013 at 5:39 am #

    Dear Deanna,

    Thank you very much for that! I’m working on a follow-up which documents people’s reasoning for their positioning choices, and this is just the information I’m wanting. Thanks again!

    All the best,

  18. April 19, 2013 at 8:19 am #



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  27. Mirror, mirror in the lift… ‹ Life of a Sultana - March 31, 2014

    […] say, the  more chance there is of someone getting bored, the longer they would feel time has gone. Mirrors were introduced as a trial initially, due to an increase of people complaining about the time it […]

  28. Frag' den Liftboy: Stammplatz im Aufzug? - Senkrechtstarter - July 11, 2018

    […] Nun, die Ethnologin, Rebekah Rousi hieß die, stellte fest: Die Menschen stellen sich nicht immer an die gleiche Stelle. Aber Frauen bleiben eher vorne an der […]

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