On/Off Trees


This switch is attached to a tree in a heavily frequented plaza of a small hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.

There are no gadgets, no machinery or any other electric devices that could be triggered by that switch. The way it is taped onto the tree might suggest, that you can turn the tree on or off. But what sense would that make? So it probably has a different function.

It is interesting to observe people standing in front of that switch, wondering what it would trigger. The question is: why do most people not dare to try and find out?

There is a thin line between curiosity and uncertainty. Are you allowed to flip that switch? Will it do something (potentially) harmful or costly? To you? To others? Why is the switch taped to a tree? The surface of a tree does not really have a strong affordance to tape anything onto it, right? Maybe it has been intentionally placed in a central, accessible place? If it were dangerous to flip that switch, it would not have been installed in such a public space, right? So why not flip it?

What are the costs of getting it wrong?

Whether you are designing services or products: when your customer doesn’t know what his actions are going to trigger and what the potential losses are, uncertainty wins over curiosity most of the time. Bottom line: Never assume someone knows how your service/product works. Provide frameworks and forcing-functions that minimize losses.

And the switch? Turns out, it’s a remote bell to call for the hostel service. Curiosity won on this one.