How to turn a light off in the dark

Posted by on May 2, 2009 in thoughts, usability | No Comments

Hotel rooms present a variety of novel user-interactions to their often tired and stressed guests. But do travellers really value chic design and high-concept living when all they want to do is turn off the lights and go to sleep?

Light control

Hotels have been welcoming guests for many hundreds of years, and certainly since the invention of the light bulb, interior and electronic design have been integral to the guest’s experience. You might have thought, therefore, that hotel designers have had a chance to get things right. However, contemporary hotels are under pressure to provide all kinds of modern convenience. From wifi and iPod connections to innovative, comprehensible controls for taps, heating, lighting, television, cable, telephones, room service and trouser pressing – all in one room, without cluttering the place up or making it look ugly.

I recently had the pleasure to stay in the centre of Barcelona, in a fantastic new hotel. I’ll leave their name out of it but in case you’re up on your “boutique” Barca residences, this one had an open air swimming pool on the roof…

The hotel was marvelous and the service was wonderful, so no complaints there. The problem came in the room when trying to control the lights. Surely the lighting problem has been pretty much solved by now – it can’t get much harder than on and off? Or can it…

The lighting system in our hotel room was incredibly counter-intuitive. Suffice it to say my girlfriend got extremely tired of me trying to work it out, especially when that meant my fiddling turned the lights on and off every five minutes. However, the usability issue that really caught my attention was this – why illuminate an off switch in the dark? Surely it would be much more useful to illuminate the “On” switch, so that when you’re desperately trying to creep to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you don’t have to fiddle about? I can only imagine the button was wrongly labelled and then wired in according to the incorrect label? Or does someone see a benefit that I’m missing?

Fixed light control
The fixed control – pretty simple huh?

So, it was particularly interesting for me to hear the following UIE podcast upon my return, where this sensible question was asked (and I paraphrase) “If Don Norman’s seminal The Design of Everyday Things is twenty years old, why are simple design mistakes still being made?”

Let me know.

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