The Confusing State of Toggle Switches

Most users know how to toggle the switches on electrical devices, but get confused with the interface ones. They often have trouble discerning whether a switch is indicating a status or command. If the switch is “on,” users could interpret it as the current state, or as the action that occurs when they toggle it.

Indicating Status

It’s not always clear to users that toggle switches signify the current state. This confusion happens when there are on/off labels, green/red colors, or checkmarks on them. These cues produce high visual noise that weakens status communication. Without a clear “on” signal, users fail to perceive the switches as indicators of state.

When communicating status, you only need to signify what’s active, not what’s inactive. Using cues to indicate both the active and inactive state makes users interact with switches like commands. Users have a habit of perceiving visual cues like call to actions when there are many of them in a group. Seeing them on every switch makes them think it’s informing them what the control will do instead of what it’s currently doing.

To prevent users from misinterpreting your switches, reduce the visual noise on them and only provide a cue for the “on” state. The “off” state of your switches should have a neutral color, so it doesn’t steal attention. Adding any cues to the “off” state would produce noise that drowns out the signal. Avoid using “on/off” labels because they make the switches look like command buttons. Also, avoid using checkmarks, so users don’t confuse them with checkboxes.

The only cue the “on” state needs is a high-contrast color with the power symbol on the thumb of the switch. Users will recognize the state by not only color but also the distinct shape. The power symbol is the ideal icon for toggle switches because it’s the universal standard to communicate on/off states independent of language. This cue makes your switches accessible to both international and color-blind users.

Interaction Consistency

Another confusing aspect of toggle switches is the inconsistency between its form and interaction. The switch has the appearance of a slider, but most users don’t drag it. They press the switch like a button to activate it. Not only that, but some switches aren’t even draggable. When users do try to drag it, it doesn’t work as expected.

The reason switches mimic toggle switches in the real-world is to help users interact with them without any knowledge of interfaces. But this skeuomorphic style isn’t useful if there isn’t a match between the computer interaction and physical interaction.

One potential solution is to lose the skeuomorphic metaphor and use a toggle button with the power symbol. The prominent icon would make the “on” signal more clear. Pressing it would activate and deactivate it as users would expect. This approach has potential, but it isn’t a familiar convention yet. If designers adopt it, users would see more toggle switches that work the way they appear.

Toggle switches confuse users when you don’t design them properly. Too much visual noise makes it hard to recognize them as indicators of status. By minimizing the noise and providing a cue for the active state, the status signal becomes clear. Users are now able to toggle your switches like they’re toggling electrical ones.

Originally published at on July 25, 2019.

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