The UX of Everyday Things: Switches

Long, identical rows of switches are frustrating. How are you supposed to tell which switch is for what? Even in my own home I can never seem to get the light switch on my first try. This might seem like a first world problem, but when better design solutions might exist why stick with the current one?

Norman’s switches are on a plan of the room (from his site)

Don Norman suggests that switches be put on a stand over a visual plan of the room, so we exactly know which switch is for what.

This is perhaps too radical a change, not to mention difficult to do on a large scale, especially in a country like India. Which brings me to the problem statement:

With commonly found switches, what are the best practices to make switchboards more usable?

So here’s what I could think of right now:

  1. Plug points: It’s good to keep a small LED light in switches to show whether things or on/off, like the one in my office (above image). Also, if there are other switches in the board then this switch ought to be offset to differentiate it from the other switches
  2. Fan: Similarly, fan speed dials and switches may be grouped together. (Also, the switch should always be on the right of the regulator. I wonder how anyone could get this wrong, but whoever designed my switches did.)
  3. Lights: lights are probably the most confusing of all switches because there can be many lights in a single room: the tube light, the CFL or night light, the lights outside the house and so on.
  4. There has to be a good way of identifying which switch is for what light. Icons for each (a tube light, nightlamp) switch may help. Or even a small text label below each switch. These may not look visually appealing, but I suppose it will be easier to use.
  5. Grouping and order of switches matter. If there is a long row of lights (say, in an office) the switches should match the order. If there are two rows, there should be two rows of switches.

What do you think?

I plan on writing more articles on the UX of everyday things. Stay tuned!

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