Sunday 3 April 2011


I sit with the object in my hands. It is rectangular, long and thin with less thickness. It has symmetrical ends on the short sides that curve down with a full radius, wrapping a silver metallic facing as a shroud over a dark-grey plastic base. One end of this object has a ruby-red window insert sitting flush with the curve, on its centre. Looking underneath, there is a small swelling at one end with a larger one at the other that has a removable cover to access batteries. This cover has instructions printed on it in a fine white text. The space between these swollen ends is moulded with a central recess into a simple, longitudinal extruded waveform. This curvaceous matt underside has the pleasant ‘grippy’ feel of hard rubber, yet it is not.

The silver upper surface is covered with an array of forty-three buttons that gives it an appearance similar to Pirelli rubber flooring. Each small, silver button is labelled in fine, uppercase black text. In the centre of this array is a larger double concentric button with an ‘OK’ in the middle, complete with N, S, E & W arrows on the outer ring that make this dual circular form look like a compass. A fine polished outer edge highlights and confirms the central presence and significance of this dish shape in the overall pattern of buttons. Adjacent to this centrepiece, just below it on either side, are two buttons - they mirror one another -  that have been made slightly larger than the standard array. Each has been designed to fit into the general pattern of things by joining pairs of buttons up into oblong, single forms printed with small arrowheads and with + and – signs beside them, again in mirrored setout. Below this unique pair, three otherwise standard buttons stand out as being different by their related text that has been placed onto shaded backgrounds that form three stark, dark but small rectangles, each a slightly different size to adjust to the length of the word it envelopes.

The object looks attractive - slick and smart - with the sheen of its high-tech facing speckled with the pretty pattern of the matching silver buttons; and it feels good in the hands when the fingers discover the smooth friction-feel shaping of the underside. It gives the impression of being a very attractive piece of design as it sits on the side table elegantly poised as a floating blade with its soft, rounded identical ends terminating its presence; but it is the most frustrating thing that I have ever used. It is cursed at whenever I try to use it. It is the instrument that is meant to control the radio/DVD/CD player. It is the remote control, the bane of my life.

Why is this elegance so infuriating? The first thing that one needs to identify when such an instrument is picked up is the end that emits the infrared signal – the end with the red window. Here the identical twinned ends only confuse as the subtle, flush inclusion of the infrared opening into the shroud makes it invisible to the eye that is not searching for this detail. This plastic piece is tucked in just beyond the bold gleam of the radius, invisible to the ordinary glance. So one is left juggling the tool as Murphy’s Law comes into play – without thinking, one nearly always seems to choose the wrong end. Once this is sorted out, one then has to find the button that switches the unit on. It seems that the designer was so impressed with the sophistication of his/her design, that the identity of the ‘ON/OFF’ button has been downplayed, fitting into the suave pattern of things but made different only by its being marked by the red international symbol that is so fine it is almost impossible to read. The eye catches the radius shading beside this graphic marking before it finally reads this identification. But why should one have to look so carefully to discover this button every time the control is used? After more juggling, and perhaps some correction for wrongly pushed buttons, one can eventually get the player switched on. Then the struggle continues.

Inevitably, with Murphy playing his games yet again, the radio blares on when the CD player function is required. The first challenge becomes the lowering of the volume so that the radio noise does not confuse with its distraction. One has to concentrate to use this instrument. After a search and several trials and errors, one might get the volume down. One discovers that the designer has located the volume controls centrally between the more dominant oblong buttons and just below the core compass image, making it one of the last places to be scrutinised, even though it is labelled in tiny text with ‘VOLUME’ between two buttons, one marked with a fine +, the other with an almost indistinguishable ‘–.’ To achieve any reduction in volume might mean a few detours to correct outcomes from wrongly pushed buttons, but we will leave this aspect here for now as one does settle down a little once a task has been achieved. Indeed, one stars to feel a trifle clever, much like the experience of solving a puzzle.

But I still have to get to the CD function. I search and search and search again all the namings of the array of controls. Nothing. I look again at every piece of text and finally discover ‘DISC’ in one of the dark rectangles, so murky that one would categorise the text as illegible with its background acting as a blindfold. It is one of a set of three labels that try to identify: ‘DISC’; ‘TUNER’ and ‘AUX’ – codes that are only revealed when the unit is taken across into good, natural light and held at the correct angle. Strangely, this discovery only raises more questions: What is ‘AUX’? What is TUNER’? One assumes that ‘DISC’ refers to both CDs and DVDs, but holds no certainty in this interpretation. One is left wondering: why are such important, critical controls so hard to read? Why are they the last names a person sees on this gleaming silver surface, buried as they are in black holes? Once found, the button is pressed, but nothing obvious happens. So, as frustration grows, other buttons are pushed, making an untold and uncertain mess out of the instructions being given to the instrument when it was only needing one. By this time, one is tempted to throw the thing away but gives in to this annoyance and starts again with the ‘OFF’ switch that was eventually found again after rediscovering the first fumblings.

So I start again – ‘ON’. Good. The volume has already been turned down so something is working. Now I go to press the ‘DISC’ button and discover to my alarm – after many pushes and no results - that the designer has placed the text on the top set of buttons below the buttons, and that on the lower set of buttons above the buttons. One guesses that this is all part of the enhancement of the concept of axial symmetry that this design seems to have taken as its central concept. It is an unbelievable strategy, one that has such a subtle impact on the user that one continually forgets the ‘above/below’ articulation and falls for the trap generated by the expectation that there is some order in the location of the text - time and time again. Simple logic would have it that instructions might be consistent in one instrument – but not here. So the correct button is finally pressed – wonderful! I am a genius; but do not gloat.

How do I put the CD into the DVD player? I have already studied the controls on this piece of equipment and I know that there is no ‘OPEN’ button on the player: so I search the buttons – all 43 of them. Nothing. So I experiment and finally get the button with the small arrow (yet another one of them) to work. Bingo! But close? Yes, one discovers that it is the same button as ‘open.’ Why does it not have a double arrow? Now, how to play? ‘OK’ seems a good start because of its central significance, but no. I eventually discover, buried away in the mass of buttons, one that looks like all the others apart from the very fine text that says ‘PLAY’. So we are away, so agitated that the music can barely be appreciated; but I know where the volume is now and can adjust it.

When the music is finished, I want to listen to the news, so I search for the radio function. Is it ‘TUNER or ‘AUX’ or something else? What? Trial and error give the answer, but I need another station – on FM. The challenge becomes a dual one: how to change from AM to FM and how to change the station? There is no simple dial on this instrument, just the buttons on the control. One is left feeling like a dill, utterly hopeless in a sea of frustration without any life support. There is no FM/AM button; there s no radio setting button. The guessing approach only buggers up everything once again, so the ‘OFF’ is used to gain instant gratification and the manual searched for. After looking in ten different places for this booklet that one was sure was in each of the locations identified, the manual is found elsewhere, but it is found. “Be thankful for little things,” mother used to say.

The manual is flicked through, hoping that the section might be easily recognised – if only. The index is searched. Nothing under radio or AM/FM, so the whole listing is reviewed with every likely-sounding reference being looked up until the information is found under the most obscure naming. And, by gosh, once one is able to decipher the coded text, the answer is so simple – just press ‘TUNER’ and the ‘+’ and ‘-‘ markings on the oblong button mysteriously coded ‘TU’ a few times and bingo!! News for me.

This is all very wonderful, until next time, because the clues are so understated, concealed, confused with symmetries, blacked-out, misplaced, coded and/or just too fine and delicate that one is unable to easily interpret them; and one can never remember such an unintuitive process, meaning that the awkward shuffling and errors are repeated each time the unit is lifted from the table. Good design? It looks good to the eye but it is just a hopeless piece of design when considered in the context of the user’s body and mind – the experience. I still am at a total loss to know what the unused thirty-seven buttons on this object actually do other than confuse. One could suggest that good design might care more for people, with the operating (infrared) end of the control being self-evident in a form that one might casually pick up correctly every time, without thought or care; with an on/off button that is as clear and differentiated as the other essential controls should be. Why not conceal the 37 when they are so rarely used? Some manufacturers have solved these problems, notably Apple, but Philips – you need to do better, as do many of your colleagues.

I have four controls – they all suffer from the same problems: Pioneer – 33 buttons - is all black very much in the same manner as Philips – 43 buttons - is all silver. Sony –39 buttons – is black with six buttons in primary colours, but I have no idea what five of these are for! Sonix – 45 buttons – is silver with a large green standby button and a bright blue compass, as if the biggest and most unique button needs added special identification. I estimate that I use a total of six of these buttons on each: of/off; 3 channels (or alternatively start; pause; play); volume; mute. The remainder only confuse and confound. Of all of these buttons that I use, it is usually the most important one requiring quick attention that is located in the haystack of buttons or relegated to the extremities as an outsider – as if one has little need to use these, or perhaps should not use them.

It is a common tale that shows a lack of concern for the ordinary person - the consumer - in industrial design, in the same way as the manuals for these items do with their programmer’s language and categorisation. If one does not know the correct jargon or the method a programmer might choose to categorise things, then one is in the dark, left with the time-consuming and very frustrating trial and error process alone. It is simply astonishing that designers never seem to ponder how one knowing nothing might use the instruments they are shaping, in the same way that the programmer never seems to give a hoot for how an individual from another world might make sense of his/her gobbledygook. It is all something architects need to consider as our users are in the same realm of influence. Where is the entry? The lifts? The toilets? Do we really want to rely on signs that might look good in their pretty building? Signage is another matter too: a different subject with the same problems.

Remote controls need a greater design commitment that cares for the person, not just the indulgence given to the slick appearance of the object. Indeed, there is no reason other than neglect and carelessness, or perhaps a self-centred arrogance, that makes the design and its users so isolated - so remote. One can shrug and say, “Such is life,” but design must be better than this. The singular search for beauty aligned with the clever programmer’s mind leaves us with a muddled chaos of chance choice if the ordinary experience of the user is ignored. Numbers and aesthetics are not the only things involved here – feeling and a bit of nous is present too. If designers are not able or willing to respond to these needs, then perhaps design controls should be implemented. Sadly, we know that these never work. They only lead to 'check-box' outcomes that achieve goals, but rarely any integral beauty. The central issue is the designer who has a personal responsibility to engage ordinary people in ordinary life - everyday - in an extraordinary, almost imperceptible way. This should be the aim of all who shape things for others. Design is not a self-seeking, self-conscious performance to be pompously re-enacted by any user.

In May 2013 I purchased a Bose Wave 111 unit. It came with a small remote control tablet, barely larger than a credit card, paper thin and featherweight. The unit itself has no controls that can confuse. Everything is operated from the remote. At last I have a remote control that is useful. It is possible - by design!

If one wanted to eliminate the six preset button options and the two alarm options, (it is a clock, a radio, a CD player with an auxiliary input for other systems to connect to), the remote control could be made even simpler. There is an on/off button that can be used when away from the unit that has a touch control. All operations are managed by pushing one button, e.g. RADIO for radio. The buttons are: Mute; Radio; CD; AUX. It is so obvious. Play/Pause; Stop/Eject; Seek/Track; Tune/MP3; and Time (+ -) are all self-evident in their functions. Play Mode and Alarm are the only other buttons. Changing stations or CDs means pressing the Radio or CD button again. It is a pleasure to use, just as much as the sound is to listen to.

Still, I would like to see it made simpler. There is no reason it cannot be done other than to accommodate some sundry whimsy for options and presets.

13 January 2015
A couple of years ago we purchased a smart SONY Bravia TV, one of those clever, 'do everything' digital pieces of equipment. We had to as the analogue signal was being permanently cut off. While recently holding the remote control in my hand, I noticed that the grime had started to build up around some buttons. Interestingly, the buttons that were regularly used were clean. I realized that I had real proof of the number of buttons that we frequently used on this control.

The remote had a total of 41 buttons. The number of buttons that were regularly used on this control was 10. Why has there been no improvement in these matters? The only change seems to be that the direction of use for this hand piece has been more clearly distinguished. Why is it so difficult to design a simple control? Why are there so many 'mystery' buttons?

At least one should note that all of the descriptive button codes, the lettering and diagrams, have been located consistently above the relevant buttons. This helps a lot. It is interesting to observe that the graphic for the MUTE button has worn off. This is evidence of much stupid commentary for sports - e.g. "If that ball had gone in it would have been a goal" -  and too many advertisements. Yes, the MUTE has been used a lot! It is the cleanest button of all.

26 February 2015
The new JVC 'smart' television shows that there has been no improvement in the design of remote controls. The buttons are numerically similar, (47 with text both above and below), but the 'start/stop' button on the top left is coloured red, while the 'mute' button opposite, with equal size and significance on the top right, is coloured green. This colour coding and placement of these buttons is the antithesis of the common expectation - red is 'stop' and green is 'go;' and the mute button is less significant than the 'start/stop' one. One finds oneself pressing mute for 'start' and getting nowhere, and closing down the television system when wanting to mute it. It is all more than confusing. It is just a silly, thoughtless design that has given no consideration to basic expectations. It reminds me of instructions that come with computers. These are written by programmers with specialist knowledge who have no idea how the 'average' person might approach matters.

12 March 2015
One soon realizes why the mute is so troublesome. It is not only that it is coloured green or used frequently. On the Sony, the on/off button is on the top right and it is coloured green. One has become used to pressing the green button on the top right for the on/off function. That the JVC control has a similar button with a different function only shows how some standardization would be useful. The whole matter of controls needs to be revisited and considered from the viewpoint of the ordinary user who has little time to be concerned with the inbuilt programming possibilities. Standardization in the electronics industry needs much more attention. Consider the number of different cables, batteries, and transformers that one accumulates for all of the different gadgets. Is it too difficult to ask that these might be designed to one standard where each might fit all?

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