What Is a Toggle?

A toggle is a form of binary or “on/off” control often found on electronic devices and systems, as well as computer software settings. When used in a context where the user is updating their preferences or settings, toggles should be clearly labeled, use standard visual design, and deliver immediate results. When they don’t, toggle switches can confuse users.

Toggle is also a verb, meaning to switch back and forth between two different states (or options). For example, you might toggle between stream and map views on Instagram when choosing a location for your next photo shoot. Or you might toggle between two screens while video chatting with friends to see the same image on both.

The name “toggle” comes from the physical action of placing a pin transversely through a eye or loop in a chain, rope, etc., to bind it temporarily. The first use of the term in print was in 1814.

In web design, toggles are often used for system settings that can only be either on or off, such as Airplane Mode, or to change an audio setting like the EQ. This is because toggles take up less screen space than a radio button, and can offer a pre-selected default state. However, if the system is slow to respond, users may find this control frustrating, especially when they are repeatedly pressing the same button to achieve a desired result (i.e turning on or off).

Designers should pay attention to the societal and cultural implications of color when using it as a toggle-state cue. For example, using red as the active state can be confusing for users who associate it with stop signs or traffic lights. In addition, using embossment as a main visual cue can be ineffective if it’s not combined with other forms of contrast and visibility (bold vs thin text, for instance).

If the current state isn’t immediately obvious, a simple toggle label can help users make sense of the control. It can also help to add a clear visual cue that shows the toggle’s current state, such as a colored background or arrow, and include a descriptive word such as On or Off alongside it.

When a toggle switch has multiple states, it’s important to provide a distinct difference in appearance between the toggle-state cue and the other states, such as a colored border or rounded corner. This helps to ensure that the user understands which button they’ve pressed, and makes it easy to reset their preferences or settings in the future. Finally, toggles that are not clearly differentiated from their inactive state can be confusing for users with cognitive issues. For example, people with red/green color blindness will struggle to distinguish green from black. As a result, they are unlikely to recognize the active state and will likely be confused when their instincts tell them to press it.