Status-based visual alerts are present in all walks of life. Without it, there would be too many things competing for our attention. When there is a notification, it is a signal on which we can decide to act (or not). In a busy life, status notifications can be a pain but are largely a way to manage task-switching (Fact: there is no such thing as true multitasking — anywhere).
The core issue is about identifying states. We are conditioned to binary states, and especially so in an electronic world where everything is controlled by On/Off switches. Moreover, they are easy to remember and supposedly intuitive. However, what happens when there can in fact, by natural causes or human-introduced complexity, be more than two states?
The binary labels of Clean / Dirty are doing too many things:
- Identifying the status of dishes
- Identifying a trigger or subsequent action (Dirty =run later when full etc.)
- Superimposing ‘dish status’ to also account for dishwasher operations which naturally has its own states (e.g. empty, partially loaded, running, complete etc.)
In our dishwasher example, we find that using two states of Clean and Dirty can create logical discrepancies because they don’t fully account for the complexity of the situation.
Designing user interface elements to represent states is a complex task. Any design must be able to convey information unambiguously while also maintaining a sense of context and an understanding of the possible real-life workflows — best case and exception-based.
Idea A: The ideal would be a detailed status display saying Empty, Cycle ran x minutes ago etc. This, of course, is only possible electronically and even then a bit of overkill in all practicality.
Idea B: Another option could be more informative labels. We are obsessed with minimalism. One word labels — Clean/Dirty are easy, binary and ‘neat’. However, using a database analogy is our data now a bit too “normalized”? Perhaps some redundancy can help? What if there are two labels: Just Cleaned and To be Cleaned. These outcome-oriented status indicators can give proceeding workflows and actions some context.
Idea C: Or we can go to another extreme and only have one label — Clean (with reverse side blank). After all, a dishwasher’s job is to clean dishes. When we switch on the dishwasher, the label reads Clean. When it’s unloaded or is being loaded with dirty dishes, the reverse (blank) side is displayed and users can simply open the dishwasher to determine the state of affairs.
Of course, none of these statuses will remove the human error element. If someone forgets to change the label, then there can be confusion. Adding to that complexity is the use of language, which can be interpreted differently! Luckily, there is the catch-all “Eye-Test” at various stages which prevents the worst-case scenario of dirty dishes being recirculated. Besides in a kitchen environment, there are other scrubbers etc. available for a manual clean.
However, what if the stakes were higher? We would have had to put more thought into designing statuses to accurately reflect the various states of affairs — and that too in the context of real-life workflows.