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The best light switch ever (and why your office sink is a mess)

The best design?

Travel to nearly any electricity-equipped room on the planet and you’ll know how to turn on the light. You don’t have to know the local language, or be trained, or do a conversion. The design is simple. It’s usually an up/down switch and up indicates on. And it just works.

And despite this universally accepted convention, there is actually an even BETTER light switch. If you work in an office building you may already have used it.

The best light switch is no light switch.

It just notices motion and assumes if you’re moving in there, you probably want light. And if there’s no motion, then there’s probably no human in there. Not only is it more efficient, it’s more economic and more environmentally responsible.

Improving the light switch took some ambitious thinking. Why mess with something that is universally accepted and effectively not broken?

Any decision in business that requires remembering is vulnerable to a variety of human qualities: ignorance, selfishness, stupidity, inattention, etc. This is why your office sink likely has a sign that says “your mother doesn’t work here” – when people are asked to do simple tasks like “turn off the lights” or “clean up your dirty dishes” they either forget or just don’t care.

“Please drive slowly” is a great idea for a sign. But can it be improved? Some towns in Mexico have a sequence of speed bumps  (called topes or bustos) where if you don’t slow down, you’ll certainly blow your tires out. You don’t have to remember to read the sign and slow down. ZERO offenders. Problem solved.

Design improvements are inspired and guided by these annoyances. So the light switch was not broken, the users were. They were required to remember something. How can we make a light switch that doesn’t rely on the person to remember? How about if we do the remembering for them by using a motion sensor?

Which processes in your business rely on people remembering things? You have no idea how many. It’s staggering. It’s terrifying. Watch an employee train a new hire. Count all the “remember to’s” and make it your goal to reduce that number for every subsequent new hire.

Redesigning a process can take years. Only now are people able to self-check into a hotel, movie theater, or customs at the Airport. It took years and years of refinement and simplification of the process. The payoff, however, is worth it. Reduced friction for your employees and customers, cost savings, and less mundane steps and room for error.

Just remember to move your arms every few minutes if you’re in one of those bathrooms where the lights turn off automatically.

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