The Light Switch Issue — A Lesson in Bad UX

Amber Plant
6 min readOct 31, 2021

Disclaimer: This hot take was written before I started studying at General Assembly, and therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt. I still wanted to share this, though. This was, and still is, one of the motivating factors of my pending career in UX. I simply cannot tolerate illogical things.

Prepare yourself for a tale of passion, anguish and frustration.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. Discoverability: is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all of the different controls and settings mean? — Donald A. Norman (The Design of Everyday things)

This is an essay about light switches. You’d think that there would be no complexity with these simple buttons. They are designed with two functions, do not require a user guide and do not have any frills. Switching a light on or off should be a straightforward task that requires little to no thought from the user and should definitely not require a 1000 word essay. I should not feel bitter about an inanimate object that was designed to do one task and one task alone. On, off.

And yet, this small piece of plastic has caused many midnight arguments in my household.

Take a look at the image below and consider the following layout: The door to the right of the light switch panel leads to the en-suite bathroom. There are two switches — one is for the bathroom and one is for the bedroom. Which switch would you automatically assume is for the bathroom?

The scenario: It’s late at night, your family is asleep and you need to brush your teeth. Bear in mind that if you answer incorrectly, your fiancée will wake up from their blissful slumber and complain about the unanticipated glaringly bright lighting.

Logically, due to the proximity of the bathroom door the switch should be situated on the right. It should be, but from my indignant tone it is clear that it isn’t. Every time I’m required to use this switch the guttural feeling of dissatisfaction and rage returns.

My fiancée disagrees with my dissatisfaction. Their logic is that you can surely remember after one wrong press that the button is on the left. My argument is that you shouldn’t have to. The light switch does not align with the principles of usability. It is not satisfying to use, it does not follow the logical flow of proximity (see: The Law of Proximity) and it encounters multiple user errors that are perpetuated by bad design.

The Survey

I created a survey undertaken by 40 peers, motivated by the need to one-up my fiancee, combined with the complete lack of ability to just leave things alone when they bother me. The survey asked one question (the same question as I asked you earlier): Which switch would you assume is for the bathroom, and which switch would you assume is for the bedroom?

100% of the participants stated that the bathroom switch should be situated on the right side, and the bedroom switch on the left.

Some comments from the participants:

“The switch closest to the door in my mind is the one that turns on the light” — Nicola M.

“I’d say the one closest to the en-suite is the one for that room because it seems the most logical thing to me. On another note, I hate double switches. I’m a carer and go to a lot of older houses and have spent way too much time turning switches on and off trying to find the right one.” — Janelle F.

“The right switch for the bathroom, being nearest to the door to the bathroom itself. Regardless of where in the room the en-suite and switch are, the switch should be nearest to the door.” — Luke W.

As you can see from the unanimous result, it is expected by all users that the switch for the bathroom should be located on the right hand side of the panel. This is a product of bad design, but not from a functionality standpoint. The understanding of the light switch isn’t the issue, the usability and discoverability are the culprits. The switch turns the lights on and off, but the outcome fails to meet the expectations of the user.

Translating Physical to Digital

This could be translated into an app/web interface scenario. It is imperative to give your users an excellent experience from the second they load onto your website. Failure to do this can result in a negative perception of your brand.

Imagine you’re visiting a popular clothing retailer. On the home page there is an image of adult clothing on the left, and children’s on the right. In-between the two images are two buttons with links, simply stating adult (left) and child(right). You’re looking for some clothes for yourself, but instead you are met with baby rompers and glittery backpacks. You leave the site and shop elsewhere. You share your experience with your friends and on social media, disappointed and baffled by the fact that a company whose job it is to sell products can’t even invest its own time and resources into enabling you to purchase from them.

The frustration and confusion in this scenario is likely to result in a loss of user engagement, and further down the line, sales and profits. An engaging and user-friendly website is a worthy investment for any company, regardless of size.

“For every dollar spent to resolve a problem during product design, $10 would be spent on the same problem during development, and multiply to $100 or more if the problem had to be solved after the product’s release.” Robert Pressman (Software Engineering — A Practitioner’s Approach)

Bad UX isn’t just a bugbear, it is the beginning of the end for companies that fail to rectify it.

A study undertaken by Watermark Consulting found that companies that led in Customer Experience outperformed companies that lagged by an almost 3-to-1 margin. The analysis both highlighted the benefit of giving customers an excellent experience and drew attention to the penalty paid for bad design and User Experience. As you can see in the chart below, it is evident that it is financially advantageous to invest in prioritising User Experience.

What do our Users expect?

Products should be designed to be fit for purpose, they should run smoothly and they should consistently meet the expectations of the user. Additional arbitrary steps should not be necessary for the user to follow and the product should not require guesswork. Instructions should be clear and the product should work with the user’s intuition, not against it.

When creating a product, we must consider how the end user’s experience will be. It’s easy to tunnel-vision and rush to the end result when we are creating a product but the user’s experience is vital to the overall success of the product.

(Yes, I am rewiring my light switches.)

- Amber L. Plant

Aspiring UX Designer, amateur comedienne, despiser of nonsensical light switches. (See: The Von Restorff Effect)

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