As the designated family technician, it’s fair to say I’ve faced more than a few remote controller issues in my time. The buttons aren’t working? Check the batteries. Only some buttons are working? Maybe it’s in the wrong mode. Can’t find the right button? Ah, that’s a bigger problem – and it’s probably not your fault.
As our TVs have gotten ever more advanced, we have been given more choice about how our TVs should operate. As our only means of communicating these choices, the TV remote has been asked to do more – meaning more buttons. I don’t think it’s bad that we are now able to pause, fast-forward, record, adjust volume, mute, among other things. It just means the designers have a bigger task bringing order to this chaos.
The classic Sky remote is a great example of intuitive design. Now, a grid of 41 buttons might not be your idea of ‘intuitive’ – and that’s fair – but it is still interesting to see how well the designers work around this constraint.
The Sky remote has the central ring of controls placed quite high, with the all-important menu button right at the top. This provides a sense of order and hierarchy. If you were to look for the menu button on an unknown remote, you’d start looking at the top.
The Sky designers clearly wanted to have a very shallow learning curve, and this can be seen throughout the remote’s design. The buttons contrast sharply with their background to aid visibility. Meanwhile iconography and abbreviations are kept to a minimum, with descriptive text the preferred solution. Where most controllers have a mute icon, the Sky remote says ‘mute’.
First time users will certainly appreciate this approach. However, how often are you a first time user of a TV remote? Designers are often faced with a trade-off between making their products more intuitive or more streamlined. I believe that products we use consistently over many years can be less intuitive in order to be more streamlined. Whether the learning curve is shallow or steep, the user will have gained an understanding in a relatively short time compared to the total life cycle, so creating a product that can be used efficiently over the rest of that life cycle is paramount. This is something the LG Magic Remote excels at, among other things.
The interface appears to be nothing remarkable on the surface, but there are several things which add up to make a very pleasant experience. The buttons are laid out in order of importance. The most frequented buttons are the closest to the centre, where your thumb naturally lies. Compared to the Sky remote this approach has less hierarchy and so may be more difficult to pick up, but what it loses in intuition it gains in speed.
The remote acts as a pointer to control a cursor on the software interface. This system has been implemented very well, as the cursor feels extremely responsive. In fact, every input feels instantaneous with this TV and remote; thus the Magic Remote avoids one of the big pitfalls of remote design. An unresponsive remote makes the user question if they are doing something wrong or if the battery is dying. Every button has to work first time every time, that much is obvious.
Looking beyond the interface, LG has also created the most comfortable TV remote I have ever held. This is on the same level as game controller ergonomics.
The lower half of the remote is round and bulbous, keeping the centre of mass comfortably over your fingers – whereas the upper half is thin and light, allowing it to cantilever over the edge. Underneath there is a notch for your index finger to rest in. There are no sharp edges contacting your hand. You know exactly how it should be held just by picking it up.
I also want to emphasise the way it sits on a table. The entire remote is gently arching upwards, inviting you to easily slip your fingers under and pick it up. It looks like it is halfway towards being picked up at all times.
The way we interact with our TVs has changed dramatically over time, and this has inevitably influenced the way our remote controls work today. The first truly remote controller can actually be traced back to 1955.
The Flash-matic remote control by Zenith was effectively just a flashlight, with photoelectric cells in the 4 corners of the TV set. This is cool, but personally I think their next model is even cooler. The Zenith Space Command controller operated using ultrasound and was purely mechanical inside.
Under each button was a tiny hammer which would hit an aluminium rod. The rods were shaped to emit specific ultrasonic frequencies, which would be interpreted by the TV. This seems like a very elegant solution, as no batteries are required. However, the manufacturing cost was probably quite high and separating frequencies is an easier task with only 4 buttons.
With a growing number of channels, it became unfeasible to have a button for each one. There was a shift to ‘channel up’ and ‘channel down’, which worked well until digital tech in the 80s brought the numeric keypad. All of these approaches have left their mark on the evolution of remote controls, and their influence is felt today. In this case though, I think that might be a bad thing.
Nowadays we have software interfaces which give us an overview of all channels and allow us to switch to another one directly. With Freeview having 85 channels, and the likes of Sky and BT offering many more than that, who is going to navigate through all that with channel up and channel down? Nobody. And the vast majority of people don’t use the keypad anymore either. It’s just too complicated. Okay, BBC1 is channel 1, but did you know that BBC1 HD is channel 101? What channel is STV? Or STV +1 HD? Why are we still letting these useless keypad buttons cluster our remote controls?
These legacy systems are bogging down remote controller design. So what happens when you design a remote without these restrictions; a remote that was never a part of this evolutionary chain to begin with? I think we can get a glimpse by looking at remotes designed for streaming services.
These all go for an ultra-minimal design. Beautiful objects. Nameless wheels and touchpads. Admittedly a bit of confusion from the users, as can be seen online. But I’d be willing to bet that there is less confusion than other designs – at least these buttons are being used. With such advanced software interfaces, only the bare necessities deserve to be given physical buttons. Anything you use once in a blue moon can be tucked away in the settings screen. Sure, navigating to the settings screen isn’t exactly streamlined, but that’s less of a concern for unfrequented operations. As long as I can control playback, volume and access the menu directly, then I’m happy.
My idea of a perfect remote control is very close to these streaming remotes. Take the Google Chromecast remote. Put volume and playback icons on the navigation wheel. Move the power and home buttons to the top. That’s pretty much it. I like how I can pick it up easily due to its tall, curved sides and I like this size.
Utilising the software as a place to hide all the junk that used to clog our remotes, these streaming remotes get the best of both worlds. By reducing the required functionality, you can achieve both an intuitive and streamlined interface, while also reducing the total package size to a pebble that rests in the palm of your hand.
Sorry Apple, I don’t care how thin your remote is if it ain’t comfortable.