Sometimes the Remote Pushes Your Buttons, Too

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Photo: Jonathan Knudsen

Bad user interfaces really irritate me. Some of them are so irritating, in fact, that I’ve decided to start awarding User Interface Booby Prizes. If you perked up at the mention of “booby,” sorry to disappoint you, but I’m talking about a different meaning.

The first User Interface Booby Prize goes to the entire TV industry for sticking me with an asinine remote control. As a geek dad, it is my responsibility to deal with this thing and teach the rest of the family how to use it. If the remote were designed well, I wouldn’t have to teach anything and we could all move on with our lives.

I know I can go buy another universal remote, and I have gotten a few over the years. In my experience, they are all equivalent, except for the really expensive ones that I won’t buy.

Here are my remote’s most stunning shortcomings:

  1. I have to aim it at the TV. Really? In my family room, the remote only works from a third of the available seats. Shouldn’t it work from any place in the room? Furthermore, in the seats where it works, you have to point it just right. If I didn’t have glass doors on my entertainment center, it wouldn’t work at all. Hello? McFly? How about Bluetooth? WiFi? In this day and age, it’s absurd to have an entire industry based around infrared and line-of-sight.
  2. My remote has modes. Why do I have to press CBL first to use the number buttons to change channels when I’m watching cable TV? Why do I have to press DVD before using Play or Rewind when I’m watching a DVD? The remote is stupid, that’s why. If the remote knew what I was doing–watching cable TV or watching a DVD–it would already know what to do when I press a button.

I know I can get one of those remotes that “knows what you’re doing,” but it’s going to cost me (a) plenty of dollars, (b) plenty of time to program and debug, and (c) most of my remaining hair when somebody uses front panel buttons or the dog sits on it or somebody tries to use a different remote or the power goes out or some other tiny thing happens to confuse the remote. Again, with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and a standard protocol, the remote could figure out what you’re doing and send a signal to the appropriate box when you press a button.

Imagine if Apple created a TV remote. Oh wait, they already did, but it’s still infrared, and of course it won’t work with anything but Apple stuff, which doesn’t do me much good. I have some problems with Apple (mainly that they won’t hire me as a telecommuter, plus that whole iron fist approach to the developer ecosystem), but they are very, very good at user interfaces. Would Apple ever give you a 57 button remote for watching TV? Absolutely not. There is just no good reason for it — it just doesn’t make sense.

It’s not rocket science. Come on, TV industry, get it together. Give me a remote that doesn’t give me agita.

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