Friday, April 9, 2004

What Were They Thinking?
    — Which Way is Up?  Which Way is On?

“What Were They Thinking?” highlights products and presentations which just don’t make sense.

In March, I stayed at a Days Inn in Nashville.  The light switches in the room were all of a design like the above diagram: about the same size as a standard light switch, but horizontal, with no projecting toggle, just a divot divider down the center, and very pale text on the switch itself.  (Which is technically just like on a normal toggle switch: indecipherable unless you looked closely at it to read the labels.)

These switches caused me no end of frustration.  After about 24 hours, I finally realized that they were at least all consistent: when you can into a room or were facing the bathroom mirror, “On” was away from you, in the “going in” direction.  If you pressed the away side, the light turned on (or stayed on), and if you pushed the toward side, the light turned or stayed off.

Of course, we’ve all encountered rooms with two light switches — or just ones installed upside down — so that such consistency is pretty meaningless.  The apparent state cannot be trusted because it may be “wrong”; the only true way to tell the state of the switch is by the state of the light.  To turn on or off a light, you put your hand on the switch, feel for the current state, and flip the switch in the opposite direction.  (If the bulb is burned out, tough luck!)

With these switches, while there is a mapping to the real world, there is no indication of current state from the switch at all (whether or not that matches the state of the light).  (Since the state is binary — on or off — we don’t need consistency of indication, just indication at all.)  And thus the typical behavior with these switches is not to change the direction based on the light’s state, but to fumble and push several times until the desired state is achieved; inefficient.  This problem is abetted by the inobviousness of the switch: you can’t just put your hand in the area and find it with tactile ease, but instead you have to sense where the slight indentation of the horizontal switch is and then identify how to fit your finger onto the switch before you can move to the on/off part of the task.

Undoubtedly, this was a case of someone wanting to get a patent of their own, which they hug and squeeze and call George.  It’s not of much value beyond that.

To make matters worse, this room was fitted with a panel next to the bed, with five of these switches on it (in vertical mode rather than horizontal), rigged to control the various lights in the room. Presumably, this was intended so that the person in bed could turn on lights before getting up.  But none of the switches were labeled, and they were arranged in a grid, so the only way to tell what went with which light was to try them all out and memorize.  (Like that’s going to happen when staying in the room for one or two nights?)  But wait, that’s not all: one of the switches was apparently not hooked up to anything!

Updated on July 9, 2004

Updated on January 7, 2010

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