Why universal remotes are hard to learn to use (very long)

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Marc Rochkind, Dec 19, 2001.

  1. Marc Rochkind

    Marc Rochkind Second Unit

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    I was going to add this to the "wife" thread, but that thread has gone off in another direction.

    Here's why universal remotes are hard to learn to use. (This applies to any user interface, not just remotes.)

    1. Too many buttons are modal. That is, a given button on the remote does different things depending on what other button has been pushed first. Example: If I push the TV button, the TV/Video button then chooses the TV input. But if I push the DVD button before the TV/Video button, it sets the DVD audio option. An LCD where you can really choose your own label is a potential solution, although, for entirely different reasons, I don't like LCD remotes since you have to look at the screen to operate them.

    2. Lack of sufficient feedback. There is usually some feedback from pushing a button, but it is so subtle that it is easily missed. For example, the only feedback may be a tiny indicator on the front panel of the VCR. If the user meant to press another button for the DVD and is therefore looking at the DVD, he or she will not see the feedback at all. (A related problem is that the feedback displays are all over the equipment rack, rather than in one place as they are on a computer screen.) And, even if the feedback is seen, how is the untrained user supposed to know what it means?

    3. Too much dependence on existing state. This is the problem of the same button doing different or even opposite things. An example is the power button which either turns it on or off. Incorporating such commands into a macro only makes things worse. The macro doesn't work, and hitting it again also doesn't work, but this time for a different reason! Violates every user interface guideline one could possibly dream up.

    The result is that universal remotes work fine for someone who could also operate the equipment without it and has a thorough understanding of what all the buttons and indicators do (that is, someone who could program the remote), but they do not make operation easier unless the operator pushes all the buttons exactly correctly. Any mistake, due to the modal effects, lack of feedback, and dependence on existing state, will not give the operator sufficient feedback, so there is no training with use.

    Universal remotes do make operation more EFFICIENT, but they do not make operation EASIER TO LEARN, which is at the root of the so-called "wife" problem. In fact, they probably make the equipment harder to learn.

    To say it another way, it's not enough to supply an untrained user with a device that works when operated correctly. One must also design the device for when it is operated incorrectly. Learning only comes from incorrect operation, after all. If the user only operates it correctly, there is not even a basis to determine if learning has occurred!
     
  2. Marc Rochkind

    Marc Rochkind Second Unit

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    Gosh, it took be almost 7 minutes to write this, and I just didn't want it to scroll off too quickly! [​IMG]
     
  3. Brian Glaeske

    Brian Glaeske Stunt Coordinator

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    Great post and great observations.
    Of course what is the solution?
    Donald Norman (an expert in usability) makes some observations in general about the usability of home theater in thisarticle.
    Short of reading your mind the best solution is like a car, the industry must start to create standardized user interfaces and nix the NIH (Not Invented Here) attitude. Why does every VCR need a different IR code for "play"? Why can't we get discrete codes for all functions?
    The HT industry is really screwing themselves into the ground by not getting more imputeus behind it.
    Brian G.
     
  4. LarryH

    LarryH Supporting Actor

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    I may be in the minority, but I feel like I've wasted a ton of money on "universal" remotes. I've bought at least three over the years and never used a one more than a few days. It's just too much to keep track of all the special-use keys different components use - for programming a VCR, for viewing the schedule on a PVR, for setting aspect ratios on TV's, etc. etc. I've always just gone back to the customized remote that comes with each device since it's just so much easier to find the right button for the right job. Of course, I've got remotes laying all over the place, but at least I can work most of them just by feel.

    Whew! I feel better finally getting that off my chest.
     

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