Why are TV remotes so badly designed?

I giggled at this photo of the ‘parent remote’ on Twitter. My gut reaction was to laugh at the older generation who are unable to cope with all the buttons. Luddites! Second was to stop and think. Why are all those buttons there in the first place if you can operate the remote without them?

parent remote
I’m a UI designer for the web and usability plays a big part in my life. I’m intrigued at how we, as consumers, just accept broken design. We have this awesome technology with amazing back-end capability, yet often so little thought is given to the user journey and how we interact with an object, device or screen.


The parent remote

Remote controls are a classic example of broken design. It’s like someone laid down a template back in the 1980s and everyone keeps reiterating the same layout, just adding more buttons.

Just look at this Zenith remote circa 1950s. Imagine how your hand would grasp this little lovely and how intuitively your muscle memory would remember where to press. There is something satisfying about depressing a physical button, hearing a click.

Zenith remote circa 1950s

Compare this to today’s television remotes. The Virgin Media TiVo remote that operates my cable TV has a bewildering array of functions. I use this remote almost daily, yet there are 13 buttons I have never pressed. The remote came with its own guidebook, in my opinion completely unnecessary if the product is designed intuitively in the first place.

Cable TV remotes

I can see how we’ve got here. Televisions today offer so much more functionality. But rather than just cramming more buttons onto the 1950s remote, should we not take a step back and look for a better way? Is a small, plastic clicker really the most intuitive means of input for the modern television?


The user-friendly ATM

UK cash machines have remained largely unchanged since they appeared on the high street in 1967. The user journey that my local ATM takes you on is comical. If you press ‘CASH ONLY’ it then asks if you want an account balance, then if you want a receipt. I want CASH ONLY. It’s little wonder my granny is still scared of ATMs.


Given that you are putting a card into the machine and entering a pin, surely the machine could respond in a friendly and reassuring “Hello Geri” sort of way. A clever machine would customise the user experience based on your previous transactions. I’m a cash and dash sort of person and I nearly always withdraw the same amount. How about remembering this amount and offering it as a one-click choice on the first screen? My gran needs some hand holding and her eyesight is not so good. Big type and ongoing reassurance would really help her out. It’s interesting how we just accept the current design as the way an ATM operates.


Parking meters need change (sorry)

Another example of a broken design I rage at on a daily basis is parking meters. The machines on my high street have a digital display and offer up useful error messages such as “subsequent insertion of a coin is a contravention!”. Help! I’m contravening!

I read an interesting study (PDF) by UX Alliance who compared interfaces of cash machines around the world:

Parking meters
Given the state of some of them, I almost feel that we’re getting off lightly here in the UK. Again, the main problem is the broken user flow:

I want a ticket! What do I do first > then what do I do next
(bear in mind I don’t have 20 minutes to read the guide).

Even for a non-designer it’s not really all that challenging. It’s a pretty straightforward proposition to work through, I wonder how it’s possible to get it so wrong?


Time to stick it to the man?

I do believe it’s time for us consumers to demand better. In most cases the technology is available and it comes down to cost. It’s cheaper to keep selling us the old broken version. Personally, I would pay more for something that worked intuitively (and I’d tell my friends about it). Perhaps next time you’re looking to buy a new telly or change banks you might just favour the one who provides you with a more thoughtful design and user experience.

I'm a freelance UI/UX Designer from London.

See my work.

Get in touch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.