Allow me to ramble a little if you will. Consider light switches. We’ve been used to them our whole lives, and even if we’re being generous, they haven’t changed much at all over that course of time. For someone who grew up in the 80s, that’s a pretty long time for such a commonplace interface to not have undergone major changes.
Perhaps the biggest change we’ve seen was the gradual switching (no pun intended) from those little stick switches that flipped up and down to the nowadays commonplace flat switches that push in at the top or bottom.
Seriously. That’s about it. That’s about the only interfacial change we’ve seen in the light switch in our generation. To me that means one of two things: either it’s such a good invention that it just hasn’t needed any change, or we haven’t been devoting it enough attention as designers.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think the light switch is a fabulous invention. However, I don’t think it’s perfect. One of the biggest complaints I have is the lack of any kind of obvious relationship between the switch and the device. A perfect example is my bathroom. I have three switches in a row on an unmarked panel on the wall. These control, in order, the main light, the shower light, and the fan.
If I were to design an interface for turning on devices in a bathroom, this is not how I would do it. If this were an app, the buttons would first of all be labeled with an icon at the very least. You would never see three completely blank and identical buttons in a row in a software interface. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single labeled light switch on a room. On appliances, yes, but not a room panel.
Secondly, I question the order. It seems to be implicitly grouped by switch type. For instance, the two switches that control the lights are first in the panel. There’s no other conceivable reason to order them this way, and yet the group is not indicated in any fashion (let alone, clearly) on the actual interface. I’m left to infer this and remember it until I can simply form a habit of which switch to press.
The order makes no sense to me. Why group the switches by type, unless the group were clearly indicated? The first button is obviously in the correct location, but it has nothing to do with its type. It has to do with the frequency of use of that button. It is the primary button because it controls the thing in the room that is used most frequently. So frequently, in fact, that if a room could have a default button, that would be it. So why don’t the other buttons on the panel follow this same frequency-of-use pattern? If it did, the fan button would surely come second because, if I’m being modest, it is used for more than just showering, unlike the shower light.
Which in fact, brings me to another point. The shower light and fan are almost always used together. In fact, I get angry when I forget to turn the fan on when I have a shower. A good user interface designer might take note of this and design the interface such turning on the shower light automatically turned on the fan. And heck, if we’re being creative, maybe turning off the shower light kept the fan on for a configurable amount of time.
Come on people, we’re pioneering the 21st century here, let’s start to design our living spaces in the same way we design our apps. Just think of the things we could achieve. And do you think we’d want to go back after that? Let’s just do it now.