Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Mysterious switches and other design phenomena [post 22/100]

I spent last night in one of my favourite hotels. As always, the bed was super-comfy, the room was beautifully appointed, the service was friendly and all was very comfortable. I appreciated, as I always do, the presence of not only power plugs but also USB ports at either side of the headboard – you’d be amazed at how few hotels have figured out that we like to use our smartphones as our alarms, and we like to charge them at night, and maybe it would be a good idea to put an outlet somewhere within a reasonable distance to make that possible. It’s a small thing but when you travel as much as I do, small things get amplified, both for better and for worse. This particular hotel is designed to make the frequent traveller feel at home, and it’s their attention to detail that makes me love the place – a good selection of free DVDs they’ll deliver to your room, a selection of music already there, a connection for your smartphone to the hifi, even a teddy bear in case you like that sort of thing (though I’m not sure about that – you don’t know where it’s been, do you?). So it was with some dismay that I noticed last night they are not immune to the widespread plague of the hotel industry: mysterious light switches.

In my day, I’ve slept in rooms where I couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights off, rooms where I could find switches for everything but the light right next to the bed, and rooms where I gave up entirely and used my smartphone to light my way around. But my favourite (probably because it’s amusing but not annoying or disruptive) is the unexplained switch. In my room last night, there was a set of two. What do they do? I experimented with a number of combinations of on/off with the other switches in the room, but saw no effect. I checked every light fitting I could see and they were all working and accounted for with other controls. I can only conclude that the switches in my room controlled something in someone else’s. About which I had a good chuckle.

I’m genuinely not upset about this, or having a go at the hotel – mysterious switches are no big deal, and this certainly doesn’t change my opinion of the place – but hopped up on lemsip, drifting off to sleep, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s some kind of connection between this and the other design topics I spend so much time thinking and writing and talking about. Here’s a place that has gone out of its way to keep its rooms up to date, comfortable and highly functional for travellers, and yet there’s this fairly obvious thing that they’ve just… missed. Did someone not notice? Did someone decide it wasn’t anything to worry about? I don’t know if there are people who would be upset by mysterious switches (provided everything in the room worked ok) but it seems strange just to let a thing like that slip. I’m sure the same thing happens every day, though, in a new product design – the team run out of time, the code wasn’t ready for this release, whatever, and the product ships with a piece missing. How many mysterious switches are there in the services we use every day, and how many of those do their creators even remember?