Why are remote controls so awful?

A recent Slate article asks How did the remote control get so awful and confusing? It gives some history of remote controls, but it doesn’t give a satisfying explanation of how remote controls became so complex or why they remain complex.

I argued a few days ago that simplicity is hard to sell, unless the status quo is overwhelmingly complex. But here is situation that many people find irritatingly complex and yet nobody has produced a simple alternative. (There are so-called universal remotes, but they’re not universal and they’re not simple.) Why do you think this is?

23 thoughts on “Why are remote controls so awful?

  1. Microwaves are also in this category. The zenith of microwave design was my microwave in the 80s, that had a “time” knob, and a “power” knob. It was transparent, self documenting, and met 100% of all my use cases for a microwave. The nadir is the new one in the kitchenette on campus, which has 14 buttons and a digital display, adorned with pictures of fish and bread and various other things that I have never and will never put in the microwave, but no discernible way for me to microwave a cup of cocoa for 60 seconds without at least 4 button presses – 6 if the person before me had got part way through the obscure multiphase reheating program that they probably hadn’t meant to start before they noticed that their cup of tea has boiled over, and I have to cancel my way out of the cryptic sub-program they have chosen and wipe up the tea. Sadly, the execrable campus microwave is representative of the state of the art which has multiplied buttons without multiplying functionality or feedback. (I can think of programming languages I’d put in this category as well, but I’m not keen to open THAT can of worms here.)

  2. People use just a few functions on their remote. Unfortunately, they don’t agree on what those functions are.

    You have a DVD player from the same brand? You want a specific set of functions. You have a recorder? You use another set. You use the on-screen live schedule to program it? That’s one set of functions. You prefer to set the time yourself? That’s another set. You often watch films with different aspect ratios? You want the button that selects how content should be scaled on screen. Often record, then watch shows later on? You want the back and forward skip buttons for those commercials.

    Or, a simple remote and use lots of on-screen menus instead. Of course, you’ve just moved the complexity, not removed it.

  3. I don’t see why each action has to have a unique button, whether a physical button or a virtual button on a touch screen. It’s like we’re using pictographs and haven’t invented an alphabet yet.

  4. I can control my cable and DVR (though not the on/off switch of the TV itself, unfortunately) from my cell phone now. I’m not crazy about the interface, but they’ll probably improve it over time.

    This is the way forward, I think. A cell phone is complicated too, but you get comfortable with it through daily use. I already don’t need a calculator, GPS, or for that matter, a computer either, for many of the functions I used to use it for. Hopefully one day I won’t need the heavy ring of keys I carry around either — or my credit cards.

  5. Microwaves consistently have some of the worst UI. Maybe the industry figured out that consumers see complexity == high-techness (in microwaves, at least). Maybe they just don’t care and have interns design the UI.

    A few years ago, I worked with a guy who would ONLY use the popcorn button. You press it, and the microwave comes on.

    At least remote controls are dealing with multiple devices from different manufacturers, as Janne noted. Microwaves have no excuse.
    It boggles the mind.

  6. To answer your question …

    It turns out that as hard as selling simplicity is … making simplicity is harder still. There are multiple decision makers in multiple companies and organizations spread around the world and none has either the desire or resources to make/drive the necessary changes.

  7. I had a microwave where the button layout had clearly been designed in isolation and then handed to the engineers with no communication. Despite including such buttons such as “stop”, if you had the timer on and pressed “stop”, the LCD would scroll a message telling you to push “timer” again to stop. What?

    Some of these issues appear to be solved with the “activity” modes that control cross-device functionality. Really what you want to do is switch everything to movie settings, not instruct the DVD to play when the TV is on the wrong station. But there’s no standard for automatically negotiating whole-system modes so to get that you have to program a universal remote from scratch.

    Unidirectional remotes also are kind of stuck because they can’t query the state of the system and derive the right set of state transitions to execute. Not everything can be reset to a consistent start state by dead reckoning.

  8. That’s a fairly specific question. It’s hard to imagine what factors lead to the current situation with television remotes. However, one factor perpetuating the status quo is that there is little feedback from customers actual use back to the manufacturer. If the people making the remote controls (or microwave interfaces) had real feedback showing how often the various features were used, it would probably convince them to simplify their interfaces. Save money on useless buttons at the least.

  9. Robin Goodfellow

    What’s the expected per unit profit margin on a better remote? Approximately zero dollars. I think that explains everything.

  10. To answer your question, I think the complexity entered with VCR’s. Before that, “Remotes” had a few buttons — up channel, down channel, up volume, down volume, and power. After that, you had Record, Play, Pause, channel select, you had to be able to enter the time to start recording, so now you needed a numbered keypad, select between on-air or playback video, video source select, all that. Plus now you had TWO remotes, one for the TV and one for the VCR, beginning that inevitable multiplication.

    And Cable TV adds its own complexities, with ‘favorite’ buttons, etc. and now you have THREE remotes to take care of.

    Personally, I like getting a reasonable “Universal” remote. But even then, typically you’re missing one or two buttons (like that “favorite” one, or a “Record” one) that means you STILL have to keep the original remote around.

  11. Artur Mustafin

    The fastest way to activate a device functionality is to press a button. Whilst you can sell a one button remote control, there are nobody to buy it, just because all of us wants more functionality from their TVs than just power on/off.

    Of course you can argue, that finding visually “that small button in a third row of buttons second to the left one” is a hard alternative to the following: press the-only-button 3 times, pause, then 2-times-fast, pause, then one to start function, but I will definitely disagree, because even dolphins can use more than 4 buttons, this is only a question of reflexes (adaptation).

  12. The complexity has to go somewhere. A worse solution is what you get with computer monitors: 3 buttons and you have to tap them in some magic order to get down into the horizontal offset function, screw up once and you exit.

    What I don’t like is most things now you have to use the remote: there are tvs and such out now that don’t even have power buttons on the machine. Your remote batteries die or it breaks and presto no entertainment for the night. There was a day when you could get off your butt and push a button if you had too.

    Regardless, people want a lot of features, maybe not all of them but their is a group that wants every single feature that is on the remote. If it wasn’t the remote as a seperate button a lot of people would insist it doesn’t exist or worse you’d have the monitor nightmare but worse: trying to program the time with a few buttons and magic combos like hold these two buttons and wait 5 seconds.

    As a counter example of what I think is good design: the Apple remote. Very simple, ~ 4 buttons but it does most of what you want once you start viewing something. For the ~once an hour you might want something else you can just go to the box (in this case the computer) and get a more complicated interface but for the basic interaction you get a basic device.

  13. I’m right with you regarding mandatory remotes. It really irks me to have to use a remote control.

  14. Originally, remote controls simply copied all of the box-front controls onto a portable platform. Which is why the very first CD player I ever bought had a remote control with an “open tray” button. Think about that. Frisbee practice?

  15. In the 80s my mother had a TV with an ultrasonic remote. It was simple, with just volume and channel change. It worked just fine, but I distinctly recall the time I used it with my mother’s cat in my lap.

  16. I agree with Janne: while the average user might need only 20% of the features offered by the device, different users need a different 20%.

    Operations done with a remote are inherently modal. Watching TV? You’re going to want volume and channel buttons. Watching a movie? Volume makes sense, but channel doesn’t. Trying to figure out how to record a TV show? Neither volume nor channel really make sense.

    Unfortunately, remotes cannot change their UI based on the mode of the device, so they are inherently modeless. Even touchscreen remotes can get out of sync with the mode of the device. So my remote needs volume and channel buttons, as well as a different set of buttons for navigating onscreen menus, and a different set of buttons for controlling a DVR, etc.

    The PlayStation controller, which I use as a remote because I play movies streaming through my PS3, has a mere handful of buttons and a couple of analog sticks but manages to work as a perfectly functional remote. This is because common features are mapped to intuitive buttons, and there’s a button you can press to call up an onscreen display of uncommon features in the unlikely event you need them.

    In addition to the example above, I believe another game controller will define the ideal interaction between a remote and a device: the Wii U. The controller is actually a small touchscreen device which is more like a low-end tablet than a remote. But it interacts with the system in an intuitive way, and is designed around the idea of continuous play: if someone else needs to use the TV, you can continue playing your game on the controller’s screen.

    I suspect that some brilliant electronics manufacturer will come up with an accessory for your phone or tablet which allows it to act as a remote (some high-end devices already use bluetooth for remotes, which today’s devices already support). Eventually, when you buy a TV or DVR or Blu-ray player, you won’t get a remote, you’ll get a QR code which installs the remote app on your device of choice. At first, this will just allow you to use your device as a modal, interactive remote. But eventually, your TV will speak some streaming protocol (DLNA, if Sony have their way, and they definitely have a head start) and will allow you to watch your show on your tablet if you need to run to the restroom or pull the clothes out of the dryer or whatever.

    It makes me wonder, actually, if there’s room for a third party to do for remotes what Square did for credit card processing. Plug a simple IR emitter into your phone’s audio jack; the analog signals sent from the jack should be readily translatable to IR pulses. That is actually the hard part, since companies have been producing “universal” remotes ever since the first person lost his VCR remote in the couch cushions and figured there must be a better way. I assume somewhere there’s a vast repository of data on various devices useful for creating version 1 of the remote app, which could work about as well as the best universal remotes today. Version 2 would rely on the device being able to talk back to the remote, enabling true modal operation. Presumably version 3 would be self-aware and have a telepathic interface.

  17. @Nathan some good ideas here.

    However I don’t think talking back to the remote is necessary if the commands are coming from the remote the remote should know what state it expects the “TV” (or whatever) to be in. So if you click on the DVD button you get the DVD centric remote, if you click on the TV again you get a different set of options etc.

    You can also do interesting logical things like if a user is playing a movie make the pause and stop buttons relatively bigger and/or remove the play button entirely. This is where software should diverge (but doesn’t really at the moment) from being a simple graphical representation of a physical object. Just because a physical device has to show you all the buttons at the same time doesn’t mean a media player or a touch remote has too.

  18. @Mike: There is a problem with the assumption that the remote can know what state the device is in at all times. Here are some counterexamples:

    * I turn a TV on using the remote. Am I in “TV” mode or “video game” mode or “movie” mode? Most TVs remember their last input state.

    * I turn the TV on using the remote and enter TV mode. Then I push the input button on the TV to go to the blu-ray player. The remote doesn’t know about this and is still in TV mode.

    * I’m watching a movie. The movie ends and dumps me back to the player’s interface. The remote doesn’t know this and is still giving me large pause, fast-forward, and volume buttons but no interface navigation buttons.

    These problems aren’t insurmountable with a modal remote that guesses the state, but they’re annoying and increase complexity (because you need a way to tell the remote “here’s my new state”). This all goes away if the device can talk back to the remote.

  19. @Nathan I agree being able to talk back is nice. I think you still need a “set state” button anyways. Example: you’re watching TV and then decide to play a game the game is already in the XBox or whatever all you need is to be able to turn on and control the console.

    I think another solution would be if devices connected to the TV all joined a wifi subnet and broadcasted their state. Then a remote or other devices could see the state of everyone else. Lots of things could be automated then for example Bluray goes to sleep when you switch to TV, input on TV is changed when the game console is started etc. The beauty of this would be you’d only have to program the remote to the one network and everything else would be some standard encoding that is used to broadcast messages around.

  20. I had an HP iPaq years ago with a remote control app (via the irda port), but it didn’t actually make things any easier (vs. just using the stack of physical remotes)

    I’ve also used an iPod Touch remote control app for Boxee (a media center similar to XBMC) that communicated via WiFi. This was probably the closest to what you all are describing… complete 2-way communication, changing modes based on the what you were doing (navigating, watching a movie, playing a DVD, listening to music)

    The WiFi communication had a log of lag sometimes. Then, after a few months, it kept losing it’s link to the media server.
    (Looks like XBMC has a similar app for android)

    I guess the takeaway here is more about how combining the hardware/devices into a PC removed most of the complexity.

  21. Robin: Several companies sell universal remotes on their own, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars. These must have a profit margin greater than zero, so there must be a market for them, even if not as big as the market for TVs.

    Artur: I would *love* a remote with one button! That’s the only thing I do with my TV: on, off. Everything related to audio or selecting the source material comes through my receiver (which has its own remote). Everything related to playing a disc comes through my DVD player (which has its own remote). Neither of the latter two remotes can turn on a TV, strangely, so when I want to watch something, I need to grab all 3 remote controls, but I can’t remember the last time I pressed anything other than “power” on the TV remote.

    Nathan: most home theater equipment already has control ports (so rich people can hide them behind the wall), so all you really need is a wifi/bt-to-whatever converter. This would be even better than a Square-like add-on for your phone, because you wouldn’t need an extra dongle on the phone itself. (Somebody makes a thing that sits on your coffee table and actually broadcasts IR light, too, but that’s pretty awkward.)

    Statefulness is indeed a problem. Older devices often had plain “IR signal over RCA jack”, which is unidirectional. Newer devices have RS-232, which allows bidirectional communication. Some even have USB (easier hardware, harder software). Unfortunately, TVs are the one device that omits this completely: even new, expensive, computerized TVs don’t seem to have any control ports.

  22. I received a Logitech Harmony One remote for Christmas a few years ago that I had requested. Plug it into your computer via USB, and the online interface allows you to configure “macros” for single-button operation of desired tasks. It is a thing of beauty. Its genius is easily thwarted, though: It assumes that, as the pinnacle of AV remotes, you would never have the desire to get off your couch and actually touch any of the buttons on your AV equipment.

    With kids (ok, and with my WIFE), there seems to be an uncontrollable urge to walk up to the TV to turn it on, THEN sit down to use the remote. Well, as “smart” as the remote claims to be, it only remembers the last state that it left your equipment in. (“I last turned the TV off. Now they want to ‘watch TV’ – I must toggle the on/off function.” <– if the TV is manually turned on before the 'watch TV' macro button is pushed, then the remote effectively turns the TV *OFF*, causing much consternation (kids) and borderline/not-so-borderline foul language (wife).

    When I'm by myself using the remote, it's an amazing experience. When I'm at work, I frequently get calls that ask, "What input is the amplifier supposed to be set to for the PS3 to work?".

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