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Hi! I’m Vicky, A professional ergonomist who spends time in the wilds of the real world

Three common light switch usability fails

Three common light switch usability fails

Light switches - that is a pretty simple user interface, right? Not too hard to get that right, right?  Well, I am sad to say that a short walk around my house will give a resounding no.  The light switches of my house - they illustrate three of the most common usability issues found with something as simple as a domestic light switch.

1.  Poor access
I don’t quite know how it happens, but so many light switches end up hidden behind all kinds of objects.  In my house - it is behind doors.  Some are not too bad to work around.  Others we just end up not using the main light in the room because the switch is so difficult to get to.

Light switch ergonomics 2
Light switch ergonomics

2. Poor positioning 
Other times it is not that anything is blocking access to the light switch, just that the switch is not where you expect it to be.  Our downstairs loo is a perfect example of this.  First, the control is not what you expect to see in a bathroom - being a switch inside the room rather than a switch outside or a pull cord inside.  Second, the switch is on the same side of the door as the door hinges, making the switch is further away from you as you enter the room.  The result? Having to explain to guests how to turn on a light - brilliant

Light switch ergonomics 3

3. Poor mapping
This might be the most common issue where a single switch unit is used to operate multiple sets of lights.  In some cases it can work really well - like in my ergonomist’s hotel review.  Other times it can be a mess.  Here my home doesn’t do too badly (as the light circuits are fairly simple) but this unit in my living room is a problem.  The switch on the right of the unit operates the lights in the room where the switch is located.  The switch on the left of the unit operates the light on the stairs, but the stairs are located to the right of the switches.  Resulting in me selecting the wrong switch on a regular basis.

The other pictures below are for much more complex set ups I have come across - I particularly like the use of labels in the first image to overcome the difficulties with the design. In both it is difficult to match the layout of the switches to the layout of the lights, resulting in plenty of trial and error to turn on the lights you need.

Light switch ergonomics 5
Light switch ergonomics 4

Are these three problems you recognise in your homes? Are there other common problems with light switch design I have missed? Do you know any examples of really good light switch design?

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