Have you ever walked around your space at home and thought about the useability of the things you utilize daily? How about the remote to your TV or, better yet, the four remotes that it takes to use our digital entertainment eco-systems. One for the TV, one for the audio system, one for the DVD palyer (if you still have one), and one for the Cable box/Satellite TV, and maybe more. There is a statistic somewhere that says just about every living room in Western civilization has at least two of them. And even if people aren’t designers, everyone has an opinion on how a remote should be designed and behave.
Originally remotes were simple. If we look back at the Zenith Space Commander from 1972, it was an ultrasonic remote with 2-4 buttons that used hammers to hit aluminum rods within the remote. These rang at specific frequencies, forcing the television to turn on or off and even change the channel. This type of remote was designed for engineering simplicity. And thus, over time, as buttons were added, they became more and more complex.
Enter the era of the multi-purpose remote. The UX evolution of the remote was so heavily focused on adding new features that nothing was ever removed. At one point, remotes went from using on-screen menus to adding every option possible to the handheld device. Since manufacturers see remotes as a cost rather than a profit, they tend to let electrical engineers design them. The engineers see themselves solving a circuit problem rather than solving for a user interface, thus designing for simple engineering, not usability. Over the years, I began to see this pattern with everything from TV remotes to Cable box remotes. They kept getting larger and more buttons were crammed into the layout.
However, Once Apple introduced their first-generation Apple TV remote, it was a game-changer. The Apple remote had a simplistic user interface, so it paired quite well in functionality to the experience on screen. But over the years, when Apple released the Siri remote, they lost track of useability. They seemed to focus on aesthetic simplicity and prioritize form over function. Everything is aligned symmetrically, and the buttons are located in the center, which causes confusion around which end it up!
In this day and age, why can’t someone develop a universal remote that is a blend between 4 and 62 buttons (Yes, I counted on my remote at home)? The basic items on a remote are: up, down, left, right, select, home/back, and on/off. We should consider solving for complexity, not just hide it. If there are less-used features, place them in on-screen menus rather than overloading buttons with unknown features. And run real user test scenarios to evaluate the design. If we implement creative ideas without testing or getting feedback, that is not UX design. And if we all get tired of pushing buttons, who knows, maybe remotes will evolve to be voice command only.
- Nielsen, Jakob. “Why Consumer Products Have Inferior User Experience”, Nielsen Norman Group, 14 March 2004, https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-consumer-products-have-bad-ux/
- Turbek, Steve. “3 kinds of Simplicity”, UXmatters, UXmatters, 27 March 2017, https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2017/03/3-kinds-of-simplicity.php
- Dingler, Noah. “Getting Control of User Centered Design: The Evolution of the Remote Control”, DesignThink, Design Think Studios, 7 December 2018, https://www.designthinkstudios.com/blog/getting-control-of-user-centered-design-the-evolution-of-the-remote-control