Nice article on the design of the Tivo remote control in tomorrow's Times

18 Feb 2004 - 10:55pm
12 years ago
1 reply
1309 reads
George Schneiderman

There's a nice article in tomorrow's NYT (2/19/04) on the design of the
Tivo remote control. It actually discusses both aesthetics and
usability (although neither term is actually used), and talks a bit
about process.

There's also a companion piece in which Jakob Nielsen critiques remote
Apparently he doesn't like the FAV button, which in my opinion is just
about the only thing that makes channel surfing bearable if you have a
large number of channels. (This is a feature that allows you to
specify particular channels as your "favorites". Once you have defined
your "favorites list", using a separate mechanism, then pressing FAV
will advance the tuner to the next highest channel on the list.
Personally I think that it would be nice to have parallel up/down FAV
buttons, just like the regular channel up/down buttons, so that you
could scroll through your favorites in either direction, and return
easily if you went past the channel you were looking for.)

Don't miss the slide show comparing various remotes.

--George Schneiderman


19 Feb 2004 - 11:31pm
George Schneiderman

> One good feature could be to put a touch sensitive screen (like a PDA)
> where buttons can be hidden - dragged - color coded - arranged by the
> user. If the product is designed starting from use like if it was a
> software product, it can be much improved and later hardware can be
> adapted to it. It can get as simple as granma needs, and as powerfull
> as TV hardcore viewers want.

Ugh. For my money a remote is a distinctly physical device. You want
prominent well laid out buttons that can be learned and then operated
by touch in a dark room without having to look at the device. I think
that most conventional remotes are pretty awful, but not half as awful
as they could be if you threw a programmer (or even a designer) at a
touch screen. I suppose that that might make sense for certain
specialized functions--things like programming a device to record, for
example. But these are typically handled via on-screen menus anyway.
For core functionality--turning the item on or off, changing the
volume, changing the channel, playing, pausing, fast forwarding and
rewinding--I think that a computer-like screen-based interface would be
a dramatic lunge in the wrong direction.

The remote for my old, recently deceased DVD player (a Pioneer SD-2007
I believe, from 1997) had an interesting feature: the more obscure
buttons were hidden by a panel, so that a typical user wouldn't even
see them, but they were there if you wanted them. That was for things
like zooming. Now, those "advanced" / "geek" features weren't
implemented particularly well, but that's another story . . .

In reference to Josh Seiden's comment about 30 buttons simply being
"too many", I think that's just a bit simplistic. Reducing the number
of buttons is certainly ONE laudable goal, but there are others. For
*Avoiding excessive "modal" behaviors (where a particular button does
different things in different situations)
*Avoiding excessive reliance on sequences of keys to accomplish a
single goal or task

Consider, for example, how much more difficult it is to enter text on a
device with 10 buttons for that purpose (a cell phone) versus a device
with 26+ buttons (e.g., a RIM Blackberry, where each letter gets its
own key, but some letters do double duty as digits or punctuation marks

I haven't used Tivo, but any TV/recording device is going to have a
fair number of core functions:
*Power on/off
*Volume up/down
*Channel up/down
*Fast Forward/Backwards
*Some mechanism for selecting what you want to record, which probably
means the ability to navigate around on-screen menus
*Digits to go directly to a known channel of your choice (at least 10
buttons right there; arguably not really needed, but I'd want to see
good data, and I imagine sales and marketing would be very reluctant to

Furthermore, some non-core functions can be a real boon to usability,
like the ability to toggle back and forth between two (non-adjacent)
channels with a single button press, and the ability to mute the sound
(a function that doesn't get used all that often, but that you usually
want to find quickly when you want it).

Still, I do like Josh's ideas for overloading certain buttons,
particularly the concept that you would have to do something a bit odd
to get the secondary function (like pushing the button extra hard).
That should help to avoid confusing new users (and users who just
aren't interested in becoming "advanced users") with the advanced
functionality. Actually, my Time-Warner Cable remote does something
roughly analogous with the channel button: when you hold it down it
starts to cycle through the channels very quickly.

But all in all, I don't think the TiVo remote looks like it has too
many buttons. I've never used TiVo, but looking at the picture of the
remote I think I probably know what each button does, more or less.
More than a third of the buttons are devoted to a numeric keypad, and
these are nicely segregated at the bottom where your finger won't
fumble on them as you try to do other things in the dark. The other
buttons have nice variation in shape, which is enhanced by the curve of
the remote itself--it looks to me like it would be very easy to learn
the position of the various buttons well enough to use them in the
dark, notwithstanding the absence of backlighting. I'm a big proponent
of backlighting, but I think it's even better to have the buttons
arranged so that you can easily learn to operate them by touch, without
needing to even look at the remote.

--George Schneiderman

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