To resolve this issue, let’s go back in time to the first switch. In 1884, John Henry Holmes invented the first electrical switch with the quick-break mechanism. This beauty:

The quick-break switch from 1884. Source: Wikipedia.

Now let’s not talk about safety and design. It was a pretty big breakthrough at the time and did what it was supposed to. Since then, designers have come up with many solutions: we have toggle switches, push buttons, pull chain switches, illuminated switches, rocker switches, dimmer switches, and much more.

Different types of switches.

Not to mention the first button in 1898 which was part of a flashlight. Buttons revolutionized how we live today (“One finger does it… automatically”).

Ok, now a confession: I am talking about switches because of a very recent experience. Some weeks, ago we opened a new branch office in one of Hungary’s industrial hubs, Kecskemét. It’s a very well designed, modern and stylish office. But there was one thing I couldn’t get over: the light switch in the meeting room. I am a tech savvy guy; nothing usually fools me. But this time, I way busily preparing a presentation, rushed into the room, and I couldn’t achieve what I wanted: to turn on the lights. I had to stop and think. This experience burned into my mind. I started to think about it some more; it embarrassed me because I believe we shouldn’t have to think about a shitty switch at all. It should be a simple task for someone who is busy and just wants to turn on the lights without any effort.

So let’s cease with the utopist vision, a world where switches don’t make me think. Maybe we can find the perfect switch using a simple (UX) design mindset without undertaking extensive research on available switches. So, consider all the requirements of a successful switch.

The concept

Clearly expresses the current state.  So it is obvious, in any possible situation, whether it is on or off. Regardless of where and how it is positioned or whether it is upside down. Regardless of other switches in a row - can you recall a situation when you were messing with switches because you had no clue which one is on or off?

Don’t make me think:  as an example, whether it is dimmable or not. I will just buy a bulb, and I don’t want to think about it. If by mistake, I choose one that is not dimmable, then don’t let me dim it - do not even make me think about it.

Beautiful  - ok, this one is subjective. We can skip it for now.

Touch screen? No!  Yeah, this is the low hanging fruit, which might be obvious but I have some concerns regarding touch screens. For example, most are quite hard to handle and need a backlight, etc. They aren’t intuitive at all since you’re provided with a graphical interface on a flat screen. To figure out how to interact with it is a cognitive activity. And there’s the issue with resolution… it won’t look beautiful unless you invest in an expensive retina screen. So we need a cleaner solution; not to mention accessibility.

Sensing & IoT  Businesses tend to feel the need to develop an application or a UI that you can interact with on a screen. I’d suggest a more sophisticated approach where you can interact with the environment in a more natural way. And connecting the system to a computer (or device) would give endless opportunities: saving energy, programmed lights, etc.

“Click"  Though each day we have more interactions with digital interfaces, in certain cases we still need physical feedback to feel comfortable. The mechanical click of a switch is something we’d miss for a time if we eliminate it from our lives. So our device should support it.

Put it together

So we need a switch that is intuitive, programmable, has sensing capabilities, supports mechanical feedback on a very flexible, variable surface, and can smartly manage unusual situations - like bulb failure, multiple switches, etc.

Let’s prototype

But… how do you prototype something physical if you are limited to digital? This time, we’re making a dummy mockup that supports our basic functions. Prototyping experiences that do not happen in a user interface or somewhere other than a computer can reproduce, is always a challenge but with some thought and imagination, you can create something close enough. This enables you to test ideas without investing into the prototype using a lot of resources.

So here’s our switch, try it!

As you can see, it supports most of our requirements. We cannot simulate the feel of touch, but a slight shadow indicates how the haptic interface should work.

Let’s see if we can simulate other scenarios. What happens if the bulb is not dimmable?

What happens when it’s upside down?

Yes, exactly: nothing. It still works the same, looks the same. No space for confusion.

Frankly, this might not be the perfect switch, but I think we are a step closer. Before any design decisions are made, it is crucial to test and validate the idea using real world users. Not with management or engineers, but with people who might use our product in the future and by so doing, prevents us from making bad decisions and helps users not to struggle with our product.