Remote Control Anarchy

The six remote controls required for a simple home theater illustrate the problems caused by complexity and inconsistency in user interfaces.

I’m frustrated by how difficult it is to watch a movie on my TV. It ought to be a relaxing experience, but I constantly get into trouble trying to operate the several remote controls required to accomplish this simple task.

Until I conducted a small usability review of my remote controls, I didn’t realize why the task was so difficult. I knew only that I found it bothersome, which left me in basically the same situation as most victims of the crummy products that the consumer electronics industry inflicts on the public.

Given that my home theater is rather modest, it requires that I master “only” six remote controls (shown in the photo below). Several of my colleagues have fancy home theaters; their tales of woe alone have scared me away from any upgrade attempts. Although I could easily afford more equipment, I don’t have time to suffer through the inevitable usability problems.

At least there’s some justice in the world: the consumer electronics industry is losing significant sales because prospective customers are afraid of the complications entailed in attempting to integrate one more box into their existing system. If it works, don’t touch it. Don’t buy anything new, or you will get slapped.

Photo of a set of remote controls
The six remote controls required to operate a modest home theater. From left to right: the controls for a cable box, DVR (digital video recorder), DVD, television, audio amplifier, and VCR.

Overwhelming Complexity

My problems begin when I attempt to pick up the right implement. Granted, each remote is fairly well defined: there is no question that each controls one specific device. However, most remotes are roughly the same color and shape, making it difficult to grab the desired one from the unsightly pile — particularly in a dark room.

The most obvious indicator of remote control complexity is the vast number of choices they offer: 239 buttons in total. I only use 33% of these buttons with any regularity. Two-thirds serve no purpose except to confuse me and make it harder to hit the buttons I do use.

A small step toward reducing complexity is to use a rocking switch instead of two separate buttons for paired operations, such as the up/down on volume control. Rockers eliminate 50% of the buttons and make it obvious how the switch’s two parts are related. Of course, to create the most direct mapping between the control’s shape and the target operations, the rocker should be vertical for an up/down command and horizontal for a forward/backward command. Unfortunately, my amplifier control reverses these mappings, adding to the cognitive overhead.

Several of the devices’ numerous buttons feature obscure labels. A small sampling: AUX, lock, fav, r-in-a-circle, Replay zones, DSS Cable, Zero/C/A Skip, ADD/DLT, M/A Skip, SAP/HiFi, FQ+, FQ-, MD/Tape, DSP Mode, ATT, SIG Select, and FL Dimmer.

While a technically inclined user might understand a few of these labels, usability is severely diminished when you have to consider so many unclear choices. In fact, even the 90% of buttons that are clearly labeled become harder to understand because the remaining 10% interfere with your ability to form a simple mental model of the device and what each part of it does.

Even labels that make sense as stand-alone words can cause usability problems. Consider, for example: Info, Help, Guide, Angle, Condition, Action, Direct, Midnight, and Mode check.

Yes, understanding each word is easy enough, but what do the corresponding buttons do?What’s the difference, for example, between Info, Help, and Guide (all of which are on the same remote)?

Better labels could certainly improve usability somewhat, but this is a perfect example of the hard-won lesson that user experience goes beyond user interface. You can’t just paste a good interface on top of an overly complex structure. Yes, you can alleviate some frustration by using clear labels, rockers, and other UI tricks, but this set of remotes will never produce a great user experience, no matter how good the industrial design.

To achieve great usability, you must reduce complexity. Certainly, a single universal remote would go far in fixing the situation. Better integration between the devices would also help: the user shouldn’t have to send separate commands to each box — they should communicate internally.

One of the biggest steps toward better remotes would be to give them less power. It’s not necessary to be able to control all the features of your home theater remotely. Even the laziest couch potatoes can get off their butts and journey to the equipment once a year to perform certain set-up operations (though such operations are more likely needed only once during the product’s lifetime). Fewer features mean fewer buttons, less complexity, less risk of hitting the wrong button, and increased likelihood that users actually understand the remaining, useful features.

Inconsistent User Interfaces

On my six remotes, the most basic of all commands, the on/off button, has three different locations: upper left (three remotes), upper right (two remotes), and both upper left and upper right (one remote). The devices also use three different designs to highlight this button:

  • a circle or box around the button,
  • a distinct button color (sometimes red, sometimes orange), or
  • a recessed button.

Each of these designs is used on one-third of my remotes.

All six devices include their own numeric keypad — one of the excesses that causes the total number of buttons to explode. Worse, there are four different layouts for this elementary design element:

  • Standard telephone layout. Three remotes use this design (TV, cable box, and DVR).
  • Non-standard “100” button. This appears to the left of the “0” button on the VCR control. Presumably, the idea was to offer a shortcut that would save users keystrokes, but the mental time required to consider and select this non-standard input option vastly exceeds the keypunching time required to push two standard buttons in standard locations.
  • Non-standard top rows. One device uses four numbers per row (1-2-3-4 and 5-6-7-8) as well as a non-standard “10” button. The different layout of the rows eliminates any possibility of using motor memory to easily key in numbers. The non-standard “10” key causes the same problems as the “100” key discussed in the previous bullet, but compounds the situation because the user is forced to understand two different non-standard ways to enter multi-digit numbers.
  • Non-standard last row. The DVD control’s last row includes a zero, creating a row with four rather than three digits (7-8-9-0).

Using the standard telephone layout for a numeric keypad is an obvious guideline. Unfortunately, only 50% of the remotes follow it.

They also use color inconsistently. Across the six remotes, five different colors are used for buttons and six different colors are used for labels, without any system for what each color signifies.

Integration and Simplicity

Too many buttons, too many nonessential features, twenty-four obscure labels, and inconsistencies in even the simplest operations, such as numeric entry. No wonder that this set of six remotes has horrendous usability and annoys a certain user when he should be relaxing. Would that he were suffering alone.

Each of my remote controls has its own usability problems and violates different usability guidelines. But the real usability disaster is caused by combining the six remotes into a single movie-playing user interface.

Each manufacturer might well wash its hands of this failure to create a decent user experience. After all, each is only responsible for its own device, not for the full system. But that’s a lousy excuse. Users deserve to get devices that work when they pay good money for them. Who gets cable TV, for example, without owning a television, and probably a few more components?

Users would never accept a consumer electronics product that wouldn’t let them run a standard cable from one box to another to transfer the video or audio signals. In today’s world, cognitive interoperability is just as important as technical interoperability. If it wants to sell more boxes, the consumer electronics industry needs to get its collective act together and create unified interaction design.

Lessons for the Web

Before Web designers get too smug, let’s remember that the exact same problems are found online:

  • Users often have to use multiple websites to solve a single task, and yet there is no workflow support across sites on today’s Web. Even a simple task like comparing product descriptions is overly difficult because each site presents the same information in different ways. (It’s even hard to compare choices within a single site, and few sites offer good comparison tools.)
  • The simplest and most common operations are presented in myriad ways on different sites.
  • Rather than comply with the standard way of doing things, there are always a few site designers who are compelled to invent deviant user interfaces, thus harming users and sacrificing business. Unfortunately, these sites also poison the well for everybody: non-standard designs reduce users’ confidence in operating sites that do standardize their features.
  • Some site designers let the underlying technology raise its ugly head and break the user illusion.
  • Many sites offer users far more features than they’ll likely need to accomplish their task.

Next time you’re frustrated by the remote controls in your living room, think about whether you’re inflicting similar usability problems on people using your website or intranet.


This entry was posted in Introduction to HCI and Usability and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s