Lights Out

A story about annoying neighbors and user preferences.


It happened on a Monday evening, an hour after sunset. It was one of those things that you hardly notice at first. After a while though, it was so noticeable that you wonder how on earth you couldn't have noticed it right away.

With the declining light of day it slowly crept into my life. Unannounced, it appeared on my living room wall: a strip of bright light.

This is not normal. What is this? Why is it here? I started to investigate. It came from outside and I noticed that the mirror in my room absorbed some source of bright light. It reflected that light and projected it onto my living room wall. I stepped out of my balcony door to investigate further.

My flat is situated on the fifth floor and it connects to a huge inner yard that is shared with several neighboring houses. One side of my modest 5 square feet balcony is protected by a wall. Once I stepped out onto the balcony I noticed that the whole wall was illuminated by some incredibly bright light.

I looked towards the source of that light. One of the other balconies (or you might even call it a terrace) had their lighting on.

The brightest light of the night

Imagine what it must feel like to look directly into the sun after spending a week in a cave. I'm not complaining about someone putting their terrace light on at night. I'm complaining about someone turning a flood light on, that could potentially illuminate a soccer stadium. Except it was illuminating my flat.

night time view of a building with a terrace on top with a strong light on

The brightness of this light was swallowing the beautiful sparkle of the night sky. It wasn't just built to illuminate a terrace, it was built to glare anyone looking towards it. I had high hopes though that the good people from across the yard would go to bed and turn off their blinding light eventually.

I haven't been so wrong in a while.

The next night

As you might have guessed, they didn't turn their light off that night. When I came home from work the following night I was faced with the same strip of light on my living room wall. The same light illuminating my balcony.

I felt frustrated and I didn't know how to deal with the situation. So at first I tried to ignore it. At least the light didn't reach my bedroom. Soon they will notice, I told myself.

I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed

When the third night came and the light was still shining bright, I started asking myself why. Why would someone keep their terrace light on. Why would someone pollute the night sky with light like that? It wasn't disturbing me directly, it was rather a matter of principle.

That night I realized that the situation wouldn't change without my interference. I decided to do something about it. I used Apple Maps to locate the potential entrance to my neighboring building. I went over to the house and started ringing door bells. Someone buzzed me in and I was ready to face my neighbor that has been annoying me for the past nights. Only, they didn't open their door after I rang.

It took another four nights before the light was eventually turned off. I figure they must have gone on vacation and forgot to turn their lovely terrace light off. What a week it was.

What this means for the web

Obviously, this isn't just a story about bright terrace lights and annoying neighbors. It turned out to be a perfect metaphor for how we like to view our user interfaces at nightfall.

Dark mode to the rescue

Ever since I started writing my blog in June of this year, my website has had a light theme. This week of eternal brightness made me realize how glaring my website must have looked to anyone reading my blog in low light. Let's change to a dark theme, right?

A dark theme is great, it doesn't necessarily improve accessibility though.

Light theme

In several studies outlined in this Nielsen-Norman article about dark mode vs. light mode we learn about the positive impact of a light theme in several areas as opposed to a dark theme.

A light theme for people with normal vision or corrected-to-normal vision performs better when it comes to:

  • Visual acuity. Small details are recognized with more precision.
  • Proofreading ability. The ability to detect errors in a text.
  • Text readability. Text remains readable even when font size decreases.
  • Glanceable reading. The quick reading of a couple of words and extracting relevant information.

Dark theme

A dark theme on the other hand has positive impacts for the following people:

  • People with low vision such as cataract because dark themes emit less light.
  • People with sensitivity to light (photophobia), caused by neurological problems (such as migraine) or eye diseases.
  • People viewing screens in low light.
  • People who like to save their device's battery life (Yes! It does that too!).

User preferences

Observant readers of my blog might have noticed that I did change my website's design to a dark theme. As we have learnt, forcing a theme, no matter if it's dark or light isn't gonna satisfy all users and won't provide the most accessible experience.

The most accessible experience will allow users to pick a theme that suits their individual needs. I'm not quite there yet but I plan to have a proper dark mode in the near future, so that users can choose between a light or a dark mode, depending on their preferences.

I wanted to try out a dark theme anyways, to see what it might look like, but this isn't the final solution. Going even further, it is possible to determine what mode users prefer, depending on the settings in their operating system. CSS offers a media feature called prefers-color-scheme that can be used to do just that.

There are other CSS media features out there that can consider even more user preferences. The prefers-reduced-motion feature can detect operating system settings that relate to any form of motion in user interfaces. CSS can detect preferences with regards to contrast, colors or even data usage but some of these features are still very experimental and aren't yet supported by many browsers.

Good night

Dear annoying neighbors from across the yard. I dedicate this article to you and I hope you understand that not everyone enjoys the glaring light theme you have going on over there during nighttime. Let's turn the lights off for now. 🌝

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