A rant about TV remote control usability

“DStv: so much more user-friendly,” says the ad in the background as I try in vain to press the button on the remote control just right so I can pause my show and go get another cup of coffee. It probably has something to do with last straws and camels and stuff, but that ad finally put me over the edge and onto the computer to write about the user experience of DStv’s remote control for their HD PVRs.

It is often much easier to figure out which companies practice user-centered design and which don’t when they produce physical products as opposed to online interactions. Think about Target’s redesign of the prescription drug bottle as an example of deliberate design, and America’s 1040 Tax form as an example of what happens when there is little to no design input on a product.

In the past I’ve had the pleasure of using the Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote, pictured below beside the DStv remote, and that showed me that it is, in fact, possible to design a remote that even my mom can use. So I’d like to write about the differences between DStv’s remote for the HD PVR’s, and the Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote. Both are shown below:

DStv HD PVR remote Logitech Harmony 880 remote

The DStv remote – Why it’s bad

The DStv remote control breaks many principles of user interface design, but mainly this one: Recognition rather than recall. To quote Jakob Nielsen:

Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.

The principle applies mainly to online design, but it can be applied to the DStv remote in the following ways:

  • Several buttons have no proper affordance and mean nothing to the user. There are 5 different-colored buttons with no mapping to the real world, and some labels are confusing. As examples of interactions that are not obvious to the user without either reading the manual or extensive trial-and-error:
    • To view your recorded shows, you have to press the red button.  How am I supposed to know that?
    • To make matters worse, once you see a list of your shows, this same red button is used to delete the show.  And that’s how we lost the latest episode of 30 Rock.
    • To edit certain (but not all) settings, you have to press the white button within the menu system.
    • At other times, the white button is used to edit your favourite channels.
    • When you pause or rewind a show, you go back to live TV by pressing the “TV” button.
    • The “up” button brings up your favorite channels, while the other direction buttons bring up all available channels.
  • Several buttons don’t do anything at all. I haven’t seen the blue, yellow, and green buttons used for anything. It’s not uncommon for remote control buttons to be “reserved for future use,” but I maintain that this is a bad idea because it just introduces unnecessary user complexity.

In addition to that, the play/pause/forward/rewind interaction is awkward. To pause live TV, you have to press the button exactly in the middle, otherwise you might actually start rewinding or forwarding.

Making the fast forward action a pull action instead of a button you press might sound like a good idea, but doing that limits its function. Now you can only fast forward on one speed. If this becomes a push-button, or something other than “hold to fast forward”, you’d be able to fast forward at different speeds.

And this is only the remote… once you get to the on-screen experience the interaction reaches a whole new level of “what the…!?” Maybe we can dig into that at another time. But first, here’s how it should be done:

The Logitech Harmony 880 remote – Why it’s good

  • Beautiful, ergonomic design that makes you actually want to use it and not hide it under a pillow.
  • Progressive disclosure of features — depending on your activity the “soft keys” at the top of the remote perform different functions, with clear language on the display to indicate which button does what.
  • Online programming of the device — no need to remember device codes to set up the features for each component.
  • Thoughtful key layout with no ambiguity about which button does what.
  • Several smart features, like starting the backlight when you lift the remote off the table.
  • User language incorporated throughout — simple commands such as “Activities” and “Watch a DVD” instead of technical references.

It’s clear that Logitech did some user research to find out what the underlying user needs were before they developed this product. A lot of the features can be directly linked backed to complaints I’m sure we all have about remote controls. A couple of examples:

  • “I can never see the buttons on the remote when it’s dark in the room, but I also don’t want the light from the remote to disturb my viewing.” Solution: motion sensors that turn on the backlight when you pick up the remote, and turns it off after it’s been sitting still for a while.
  • “I don’t want to have to struggle with device numbers and complex remote programming”. Solution: build an online interface where the user can program the remote, and then send the commands to the remote through a USB connection.

There’s probably more to say, and yes a lot of arguments to be made for why DStv’s remote isn’t that good. But in today’s user-centered world, there shouldn’t be excuses any more. Companies need to make products that are useful and usable so that people can enjoy them without frustration. Good user experience = good business.

I do want to end on a positive note and say that I think the DStv iPhone app is a solid piece of user-centered design.  It doesn’t go overboard on features, and it keeps focused on the one thing users need it for — checking TV schedules.  I just think the app designer needs to take a look at the remotes, that’s all.