Mobile

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.

toggle-switch-signals

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.

toggle-switch-interactions

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.


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Article written by anthony

Author and founder of UX Movement. Creating a better digital world for mankind by teaching and evangelizing best practices, standards, and techniques in user experience design.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. EpokK Reply

    What about the loading and the indeterminate state for this component?

    • anthony Reply

      Toggle switches should not have an indeterminate state. They’re either on or off. Indeterminate states exist on checkboxes.

  2. Suraj Reply

    Just use tick boxes :p

  3. Waldemar S Reply

    I second the use of checkboxes. But I think the power buttons might have an important use case: You normally don’t think of a checkbox as something that takes immediate action; they aren’t ‘verb’ buttons. A power button, however, does have that connotation.

  4. T Reply

    Unfortunately your off state doesn’t pass minimal contrast requirements, this could lead to people missing the switch altogether or, if they can see it, mistaking it for disabled.

  5. Magdalena Reply

    Things will get complicated if you need to also display disabled states for both on & off. Any recommendation how to handle this?

  6. Vianney Roj Reply

    Nice article 🙂
    Thank you for sharing.

    Just a little remark about the “power button” : we should be careful about showing the state of a UI element only by its color, people can have difficulty to distinct color.

    With the design above, if I had to choose between the switch and the “power” button I rather use the toggle for this reason, the state active is shown by the color and by the icon inside the circle.

    An alternative will be to change the icon in the toggle button depending on the state.

    Have a good day

  7. Robert J Reichert Reply

    Check boxes are a smaller visual target to hit and can add interaction costs and accessibility problems. My biggest issue with toggles (and happy to be corrected) is that in this example: https://uxmovement.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/toggle-switch-signals.png if the user is unaware of the alternative state (all toggles defaulted of “Off” for instance) there is no indication of the state of the toggles (nothing to compare to and nothing to inform if their load state is on/off) So there will be an interaction cost in that many users will toggle to check the alt state of one of them to confirm its off/on. They will see “Oh it turns to color and a bracket appears on the button” once they test the toggle only.

  8. Mo Reply

    Looking at you Pinterest! They have the worst toggle bar in their app. Its white or black. You can’t tell which one is active.

  9. Bauke Reply

    While I like the example you mocked up in Interaction Consistency, technically your use of the standby/power symbol goes against its intended use:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_symbol

    The symbol to be used is: IEC5010 (See link above).

    • anthony Reply

      I originally used that symbol, but when I tested it most people had no clue what a closed circle with a line through it meant. But when I used the current power symbol, most people recognized it and understood what it meant.

  10. Steve Reply

    Great topic-very relevant to my work so thanks for sharing! It is also exciting to see several peer comments regarding accessibility. Such an important consideration. Using proper color contrast and adding visual design differences between states will help to ensure effective experience for all.

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