Universal Remotes—A Sad Story of Neglect
November 10, 2010 | by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Shocking results from a remote control survey underscore that it might be time to buy a universal remote control.
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Posted by Rachel Cericola  on  11/10  at  10:59 AM

I have a universal remote and I’m still annoyed with it. I just added a new component over a week ago, and I still haven’t added it into the remote… which defeats the purpose of the remote. I am just being lazy. That said, my remote annoys me. It has a few issues and I just can’t bring myself to buy another one!!

Posted by Alex  on  11/10  at  08:03 PM

Most “universal” hard button remotes have one or more of the following issues:
* Illogical button layouts (i.e. transport controls at the bottom)
* Missing important hard buttons (dedicated “Tivo” or “List” buttons, “home”, “return/back”, “Top menu” and color buttons for DVD/Blu Ray players, “Night mode” or “Dolby Volume”, surround sound processing mode selection for A/V receivers, “10+” or “100+” for CD players, direct disc selection buttons for CD/DVD changers)
* Poor integration of “activities” or macros with “modes”.

Touchscreen remotes are unwieldy, stupidly expensive, and need two hands to operate.  At that rate, I may as well get an iPad.

Most people are more comfortable with non-modal controls - i.e. controls that ALWAYS does the same thing.  Thus, the “fast forward” button on the VCR remote makes more sense than the “generic” fast forward button on the universal, that may fast forward the VCR, or the DVD player, or their DVR, depending on other buttons the user has pressed in the past.

This inconsistency makes using the universal remote an uncertain process…  last thing the user wants to see is unexpected behavior from their system, so they prefer to pick up the ol’ reliable device-specific remote, which always works the way they expect.

The lack of important buttons (or even having important buttons be difficult to get to, such as having them relegated to the touchscreen, or a menu selection) also encourage the user to pick up the old remote instead of using the universal.

My parents, who have been moseying along with a Harmony 676 for the past few years, have developed a routine - they use the Harmony to turn their system on and off, and to switch modes.  Then they use the device’s native remote (which, by definition, has all the right buttons) to operate it.  Automation - fail.

What most universal remote manufacturers seem to miss is that users want access to the device functions THEY use to be as simple as it is on OEM remote.  Picking up a different remote is stupid, but it’s easy.  Looking for a button on a universal that’s in a stupid location, accessible only by paging through a list, or hidden away as a custom button on the top LCD is harder. 

Alex’ guidelines for remote design:
1) Observe typical users, and note which remote they use THE MOST.  In my case, it’s the satellite receiver / DVR remote (DirecTV RC64R).  For some others, it could be blu ray player, or a digital media player, or some sort of a media center extension.

2) Using the most oft-used remote as a template, add buttons users typically press on other devices’ remotes (TV/VTR, volume, DISC MENU, Home, color buttons, etc).  Make sure ALL typical activities allowed by other devices are as easily accessible as they are on the OEM remote (i.e. accessing Netflix Online on a popular Blu Ray Player can ALWAYS be done in two clicks, make sure your remote can do it in two clicks as well)

3) Add activity selection buttons or a touchscreen LCD to the top

4) Add a few BLANK buttons that a user can label or, better yet, add a SECOND touchscreen LCD near the midpoint of the remote.  This allows the user to program the extra buttons he wants fast access to but that didn’t merit being included in the design.

Posted by John  on  11/11  at  10:39 AM

When a low-end Logitech was selling for $30 on eBay, I bought my parents and grandparents one.  I also convinced several of my friends to buy one as well.  Most people just won’t invest $50-200 in a good consumer universal remote.

Posted by Buzz  on  11/11  at  12:26 PM

Make them legible please.  I can operate everything in my AV system without wearing glasses except the remotes.  Come one—grey letters on silver backgrounds?  Remote control non-acceptance is a self-inflicted wound, with design twits making classic mistakes including putting form above function and ignoring user needs. How hard would it be to try these things out with some real-world prospective owners before unleashing them on the market?

Originally remote controls augmented core device features (tuning, volume and power) while full control remained on the front panel.  Later on, remotes evolved into the primary control panel, with device controls shrinking and becoming almost non-existent.  With that, there is a special responsibility to make them useable by everyone.  Take a cue from OXO and other “universal design” conscious manufacturers and come up with something for the rest of us.

Posted by John Lacik  on  11/11  at  12:40 PM

I think the some of the greatest deterrents to the average consumer buying a universal remote are cost and usability for the average person (or lack thereof - mostly during the programming phase).  Folks can’t comprehend spending another $200 on up for another remote when they already spent a lot of money on the equipment itself, which usually came with it’s own remote.  Manufacturers have made the programming easier for the average person to comprehend, but they are still not “plug and play”.  Until remotes are a wireless connected device that automatically interfaces to the consumer’s equipment (like the remote that came with the equipment) and can configure itself automatically (using a 2-way,  open source Bluetooth or RF standard that all manufacturers agree on), it will always be a specialty product for a small market niche.

Posted by Rod  on  11/11  at  02:03 PM

It is not just remotes that are made to be incomprehensable; I sell consumer electronics and trying to find something that isn’t made with black on black “buttons” in places that you need a map and a Boy Scout troop to find them is just impossible.

Posted by JARED W. JARVI  on  11/12  at  02:12 PM

The biggest challange I have when programming a remote for clients is working with preformatted control layouts. Manufacturers of custom remotes tend to put to many buttons on them.

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