Forget what you know about light switches

In which I whine at length about a modern convenience

“Hey, guys. If we use just one switch plate, we can save a money and offer our guests a high-tech feel in our hotel rooms!”

This is how I imagine the conversation went when someone proposed installing switch plates like this in the hotel I just visited:

Seems harmless enough. But can you decipher it? Here’s a quiz:

Question: Is the lamp on or off?
Answer: It’s on, despite the fact that the LED is not illuminated.

Question: Is “Privacy” on or off?
Answer: It’s on. Red might make you think “Danger,” as in, “You have no privacy,” but you’d be wrong.

Question: What is “Service”?
Answer: Room service. Duh. Apparently adding the word “Room” would have blown the budget, even though it’s more telegraphic.

Question: What is “Master”?
Answer: The main light in the room. Not ideal, but far from the most egregious issue here.

Question: Is “Master” on or off?
Answer: It’s off. Remember: LED on = off, LED off = on. Except for “Privacy” and “Service,” where on = on and off = off.

Confused? I was. And the total lack of affordance — no physical buttons or switches to indicate state — had some fun consequences.

For example, in the middle of the night I apparently touched “Service” when trying to turn on the lamp. Half-an-hour later, I was awakened from my slumber by knocking at my door. Panic! Where am I? Who’s knocking?

“Uh, hello?”
“You called for service?”
“But you pushed the service button.”
“I didn’t push any button.”
Points at switch plate: “See, the green light for service is on. You must have hit it by mistake.”
“I thought the green light meant ‘off.’”
“Why would a green light mean ‘off?’”
“It means off for the lights in the room.”
“It does?”
“I’m going back to sleep now. Thank you for visiting.”
“You’re welcome! Enjoy the rest of your stay!”

Back to the switch plate

Three of the four LEDs are green, one is red. Of the three green LEDs, two mean off when they are on, and one means on when it’s on.

Now, about that red privacy LED: one might think — as I did — that red is a warning state—assuming, of course, you’re not colorblind, as a sizable portion of the population is (#accessibiltyfail!). I.e., red means no privacy.

Wrong: red means you do have privacy.

Not a big deal, right? Until, like me, you wonder why the housekeeping staff hasn’t visited your room in a few days.

“Ah, maybe the red light means do not disturb!”

Walk outside, notice that there’s a white light with the words “Do not disturb” near your door. Go inside, press “Privacy,” go back outside: the DND light is now off. Voila! So simple!

You get the point. This is a usability disaster. Instead of streamlining things, this all-in-one switch plate creates confusion and despair. But it’s modern! It’s chic and clever! It will save us money!


In my world, the lamp would have its own switch; there would be a wall plate for the overhead light; the phone might have a dedicated room service button; and maybe there’s a cardboard door hanger to let others know you don’t wish to be disturbed.

Crazy, right? But the future belongs to the dreamers.

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