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Grandpa and the Remote Controls

I suppose we all have stories of products from hell, where you scratch your head and wonder just who in the world designs these products. Perhaps the best example of bad design comes in the form of entertainment remote controls. Just recently I was reminded of this when I was trying to help my father-in-law, let’s call him grandpa, figure out how to operate his entertainment system.

This isn’t the first time I helped grandpa set up his remotes. The last time I helped him he had two components (TV and VCR/DVD) and 2 remotes. I was able to get him a simple universal controller that “more-or-less” consolidated his remote to one. More-or-less because the universal couldn’t handle the VCR/DVD switching function – or perhaps I couldn’t figure out how to do it?

Well grandpa added a third component to his mix a few months later, a TV set box with a remote control with more buttons than any mortal being could possibly understand much less use (and for us crowd over 50 see without a magnified glass!) When grandpa called for help, I discovered that he now had 6 remotes to control 3 devices and lo and behold, grandpa couldn’t operate any of them. Totally kaput, couldn’t even watch basic TV because the TV lacked its own control pad and grandpa couldn’t figure out which remote control did what anymore.

So why can’t the consumer electronic industry make a simple remote control that grandpa and frankly most of us average folk use? Why do the designers of these products end up with overly complicated interfaces that at best diminish the users’ experience? An added feature here in there, they think, will make this system really innovative. Wrong! It makes it really hard to use and frustrates us when all we want to do is watch our TV and DVD’s.

Doing a better job of understanding user personas is a critical step in creating innovation. Peter Drucker says that “innovation means the creation of new value and new satisfaction.” Adding functionality at the expense of usability is not innovation. Rather it is a failure to understand the user’s requirements and most likely will result in a design failure.

Grandpa just wants to be able to put his DVD in his machine, turn up the volume and watch his movie. He doesn’t really care about all the cool hidden and obscure features his entertainment system can do if it interferes with his basic “job to be done:” That is – “be entertained.”

In my previous blog I discussed the advantages of designing from a prosumer’s perspective – that is, using a product in real use can provide deep insights as to what the market and the end user really wants. Unfortunately grandpa’s remote is a case where intimate knowledge based on a narrow persona (the prosumer’s) results in a very unsatisfactory experience for a key segment of the market.

It’s a classic case of “the curse of knowledge” (see Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath & Dan Heath) where as designers we assume everyone understands the problem at the same vantage point of where we are at, forgetting that it took us too, a learning curve to achieve our current grasp of the user interface. Adding a new button and key stroke may not be a big deal to us, but to grandpa, forget it! He doesn’t speak your language!

Now grant it, consumer electronics has many issues and challenges due to the lack of industry standards and lack of interoperability between devices, especially legacy devices. But just maybe if we spend the time to really understand what the key target personas want, we will discover how to create true innovative products.

It’s not easy but imagine the competitive advantage you will have if you really understand the target persona and create a product that fits the persona’s requirements. I suspect that companies like Apple focus on VOC techniques to understand what the problems are before they create the proverbial “solution looking for a problem” product.

Nam Pyo Suh., the author of The Principles of Design, says it well: “If we know what the problem is, we can find a solution.” Good design solves real problems. Grandpa will be very grateful if we spend time observing his habits and needs, and then creating a solution that fits his understanding of how to get his job done, not ours.


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