Remote (out of) Control

Rhys Merritt
theusabilityofeveryday
3 min readDec 9, 2016

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If you own a home electronic device, you’ve likely used a remote control to operate it. If you own more than one device, there is a very high chance you’ve used two very different kind of remote controls to operate each device — and here lies an issue. Remote controls are all very different, and it can be a nightmare to understand them.

What is the problem?

Switch the channel to HDMI so you can play a game, and you’ll likely be looking in a different area depending on which brand and model TV you purchased, and which variant of remote control it came with. There is very little consistency within the consumer electronics industry, and it’s incredibly evident with this particular device.

LG’s LN5400 remote

In our house we have two Playstation 4 controllers, and one remote for our LG TV, on which we only regularly use four of the forty-six buttons: 1) on/off 2) input 3) volume 4) channel. Thats less than 10% of the buttons! This is a huge waste of real estate, and a lot of pressure on the cognitive load of a person using it.

You could argue that I’ll need a lot of those other buttons for setting up the TV initially — and you would be right, but these sort of one time tasks could easily be carried out by using buttons placed on the back of the unit, leaving the remote control to be a usable for the rest of the devices lifetime.

I found some interesting images online of TV remotes depicted by various people, and they all had one thing in common. Complexity reduction

The image on the left if a still from the film ‘Toy Story’ — I found it especially interesting that a children's movie would depict a remote control in such a simple manner. Clearly it’s something that people are aware of, since these animators decided that the simplest way to depict a remote control wasn’t to create a 45 button chunk of confusion, but instead to use the buttons people most likely stick to and know, because it’s usually all that’s needed.

The middle image is rather funny, but it touches on something that’s actually quite a serious issue. When I recently gifted my old Apple TV to my in-laws, it didn’t take them more than 5 minutes to figure out the Apple remote — yet their own TV remote that they’ve had for close to a decade is still largely a mystery to them, with only 3 or 4 of the 40 or so buttons showing signs of actually being used.

Is there a solution?

There is a solution, but it’s a radical one. The people making these products need to work together to create an understandable pattern, and a guideline for how to proceed with this. I don’t personally see this ever happening until consumers express this desire with their wallets.

If I were to suggest a solution, it would be to go with the Toy Story remote control pictured above, and relegate any additional one-time set up buttons to the rear of the unit where they belong — out of sight.

TL;DR

Consumer electronics remote controls are all different, and they have far too many buttons on them. To make things more usable, they need to go through a serious process of complexity reduction, and the industry needs to come up with an interaction pattern as a guideline.

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