Background and question

There's been a few discussions around clearly showing to users on/off and auto states. However, I'd like to focus on automated controls in the context of machinery with moving parts as it adds an interesting layer to consider and would love to get your folks' thoughts on it, so here's the question first:

If you switch something off do you expect automation to stay on? Would you still expect the same if you were working with machinery?


I'm working with the team to create a UI to be able to control a fuel/solar/mains powered water pump (commonly used by farmers). Functionality included: turning it on/off as well as automating it based on the water tank levels that it's attached to (i.e If the water tank reached a low level like 10 cm, the pump will automatically switch on).


  • Currently divided on approaching the 2 states (given a user has set up automation):
  • When turning it on, the pump turns on and automation is on
  • However when turning it off, the pump turns off but should automation turn off as well?
  • Reason for this is, a 45 year old farmer could want to turn it off for maintenance and not realise automation is still on and the pump could suddenly turn on.
  • Logically these are two separate actions and states (pump: on/off, automation: on/off). Therefore, one would assume they should be treated separately, so if I turn off the pump, automation should stay on.

Recap and potential solution

Should we reduce the potential states from 4 to 3 to be: Pump: On & Auto: On / Pump: On & Auto: Off / Pump: Off & Auto: Off? (leaving out Pump: Off & Auto: On).

An option is we can have a toggle next to automation, so users can easily control that setting as well as the pump on/off.

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2 Answers 2


Conceptually, automated is the opposite of manual. So when I stop automation, I expect all automated processes to stop and I control everything manually.

While I can imagine scenarios where one part of the automation stops while another part continues, all the cases I know of relate to digital environments or at least the digital part of hybrid products (example: IoT)

However, this particular case is about keeping two parts independent, but both physical (or mechanical), which could lead to problems or even accidents.

With the information I have, and based on all the cases I can think of, I would say that you should stop all automation immediately. In any case, you can (should) inform the user what is happening. And if the process is too important, you can set up an alert or notification on the user's phone to remind him about the need to take action, such as reinstate automation.

  • Really appreciate your insight! Exactly, there is that safety element which is very important as well. Thinking about it more based on your comments, the assumption we want to validate is whether they're ok with manually turning automation back on after manually turning it off (e.g they turn it off > provide maintenance > completed maintenance but only wants to turn automation back on as pump is not needed at this time). Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 1:22

The common pattern for this is to offer a 3-state switch: On, Off, Auto. Auto means the system decides on/off; On and Off mean that a human decides.

It's very jarring to tell a system what to do, and have it do something else. If we say "off" and the system brings something back on because of automation, we would assume the system is defective before we assume that automation was accidentally left on.

(Side note: 45-year-olds are Generation X and 43-year-olds are Millennials! We get tech.)

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