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Exploiting the desire for order

I met a lot of remarkable people in Finland, and some of them – they know who they are – have given me a lot to think about, in a good way, about lots of aspects of life, psychology and its relation to design. Thanks to everyone involved for a fantastic time: I was kind-of aware of the idea of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow before, but something about the combination of week-long permanent sunlight, very little sleep, great hospitality and a hell of a lot of interesting, clever people, brought home to me the reality of the phenomenon, or one quite like it.

A couple of the people it was great to meet were Loove Broms and Magnus BÃ¥ng of the Interactive Institute in Stockholm, who have worked (among other things) on innovative ways to provide users with feedback on their energy use, beyond ‘traditional’ interfaces. We’ve seen a few of the Institute’s STATIC! projects before on the blog before, but it was very interesting to be introduced to some more recent concepts from the AWARE project. They’re all well worth a look, but one in particular intrigues me, primarily because of how simple the idea is:

Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII
The Puzzle Switch – designed by Loove Broms and Karin Ehrnberger. One type is shown above; below, a different design in ‘On’ (left) and ‘Off’ (right) positions.Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII   Puzzle Switch, AWARE project, TII

The AWARE Puzzle Switchlower part of this page – really is as simple as a a series of light switches where it is very obvious when they are switched on, and which “encourage people to switch off their light, by playing with people’s built-in desire for order.”

Where else can we use this idea? The Puzzle Switch does it safely, in a way that, for example, having a lever hanging off the wall at a crazy angle (which would equally suggest to people that they ‘put it right’) would not. Is the key somehow to make it clearer to users that high-energy usage states are not ‘defaults’ in any way? That accompanying any energy use, there needs to be some kind of visible disorder (as with the irritating flashing standby lights) to cause users to notice and consciously to assess what’s going on?


  1. Roy

    Do we all really have an inbuilt desire for order? I know I do, but I normally put it down to being a design engineer. I suspect there is a proportion of people who delight in disorder!

    • nancy brownlee

      I know lots and lots and lots of people who don’t even notice disorder. They strew their dwelling with clothes and dirty dishes, they crunch, obliviously, over spilled potato chips and cereal on tgheir way to the kitchen to get another snack, they shove their grimy kids toward you with instructions to give you a kiss, they show up at work linty-headed and slightly smelly…

      • nancy brownlee

        Also these light switch designs are ugly. Why would anyone want an obvious and obtrusive light switch as a design element in a room? Ugh.

  2. Obvious? Nooo!

    At most there is a choice between ‘less discordance vs more’.

    But where does that get us?

    We might at a push associate red with poisonous berries, and green with edible vegetables, and perhaps figure out that red wasn’t safe whereas green was.

    But you still have to decide what behaviours/responses they’re supposed to produce in the observer.

    If I see a green light in front of me, why should I not interpret it to mean “Remain here at this sign of safe harbour, for venturing further into the unknown is fraught with risk”. And if I see a red light, why do I not interpret this as a clear warning sign that danger lies nearby and will befall me if I do not quickly proceed?

    So, similarly, if I see a switch with choices between degrees of order, and the bulb is broken, how would I guess which configuration should result in the light being turned on?

    Artificial light is unnatural so I might infer that disorder brings illumination.

    Alternatively, I might believe that illumination was positive and that order was positive, and assume that one implied an affinity with the other. Conversely, I might infer that change was positive and required flow from positive to negative, thus in order to produce light I needed to create disorder as a reason for it to come into being.

    If I guess wrongly I may get electrocuted when I change the bulb.

    The switch design is also plainly broken in its state of least disorder. So well is it camouflaged that I have little idea that it exists in three horizontal sections, nor that the central section may be shifted either to the left or the right.

    Perhaps, in the darkness, if I had a bright light to hand I might figure out how to operate it?

    Ideally, a switch should be a miniature model of that which it controls. It should also be usable in the conditions in which it is expected to be useful, i.e. visible in the darkness, recognisable in appearance, and intuitively operable. Even if at the sacrifice of aesthetic.

    However, yes, as controls over those who should be discouraged from operating a light, they are effective. Light-off – switch camouflaged (usable only by cognoscenti). Light-on – discordant, visible and jarring, but still not necessarily completely obvious as a light switch, although an apparent mechanical solution to a reduction in discordancy does appear to be worth a try.

    Comparably, one could imagine hidden light switches behind opaque white flush panels. Completely invisible except when the switch is on, when bright leds illuminate an outline of a conventional switch. Thus switches may be turned off by all (by a single press), but turned on only by those who know where they are (and tap twice in the right place). We can ignore the finger print problem – this only being an analogy.

    So, it is not ‘obvious when they are switched on’. It is more a case of a solution to turning them off being somewhat intuitive only after they have been identified as being light switches and only after their current configuration has been ascertained as being in the ‘on’ state (probably because the lights that one would expect them to control are currently illuminated and no other switch has been located).

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