2010/10/16

Design bugs in everyday life: hall of fame

Revisiting the subject of design bugs in everyday life, there really ought to be a "Hall of Fame" for such things, which I hereby inaugurate.

As first inductee, I nominate the typical North American cable TV remote control, like the one from Time Warner shown here. It's design is so atrocious it defies comprehension.

What is it about this object that I find so contemptible? Consider two operations on a TV remote that you really want to be quick and effortless. One is "mute"... When you need it, you need it fast. Another is "previous channel" -- probably the most frequently used button. In any sensible design, these two buttons would be large and as distinct as possible. Here they are the exact opposite, they are the tiny gray dots below the blue and red buttons. They are in fact the least distinct buttons on the whole thing!

This leads to the type of thing we've all experienced: you are watching TV, the phone rings,  your focus shifts completely to the phone call and with the little attention that you have left ofter, you fumble with the remote, trying to find the $*@%! mute button, meanwhile the TV volume seems to get louder, the phone call becomes more urgent, stress rises.... You get the picture.

On the other hand, the two largest and most visible buttons on the remote are "list" (to access DVR), bright green one, and "on demand" (to access video on demand), the big white square. But neither of those features, by definition, requires any speed... In fact they are meant to be accessed at a leisurely pace, that's the whole point of them! Perfect candidates for attractive but discreet buttons. But no, they get to jump out the most, screaming at you.

Why does this object have exactly the opposite of what you'd want in a good design? There is not even a lock-in effect, as described in the previous post, to excuse it. Maybe there's a less naive reason. The "on demand" button generates additional revenue for the cable company, so that could be why it gets featured strongly. But really, it can't make that much difference. How many times will someone order movie just because they saw the button? Once? For that tiny bit of incremental revenue they are willing to get in the way of the most essential functionality? It's like giving limousines priority over fire trucks and ambulances on the road!

But let's apply Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. They probably just don't give much importance to design at all. Recall these cable TV folks are the same people who, as I've noted before on the subject of the mythical DVR+P2P, seem completely capable of suicidally stupid fear and paralysis in the face of potential innovation.

The essence of good design is to deliver functionality efficiently, and from that the aesthetic flows naturally. Form following function and all that. For committing the most egregious violation of that principle that I can find, I hereby induct the Time Warner cable remote control to the Design Bugs Hall of Fame.

While we're at it, I might as well give them the second induction as well. Just look at the program menu on your typical TV. Why doesn't it have your most frequently used channels, like bookmarks, easily accessible at all times? Most people watch a handful of channels vast majority of the time. Does it make sense to have them scroll around or enter numbers every single time to find the same few needles in the huge haystack of 500 channels, over and over again? Why not present an automatically generated list of your most frequently visited channels, like the Firefox and Chrome browsers do with web pages? It would be a huge time saver, enormous usability win, a no brainer. They haven't thought of doing that, in the decades that cable TV has existed?  Contrast that with innovation in web browsers....

Cable TV subscribers.....  which I am not one of by the way,  imagine how much more I would complain if I actually used it!  But I digress. Fortunately, Cable TV subscribers can now root for the brave new world of software-driven television. Tivo, Boxee, Apple TV, Google TV, Netflix, et al, whatever they end up becoming, let's hope they manage to wrest the user experience from the sclerotic grip of the cable TV monopolies and their business model demons.

20 comments:

  1. thank goodness you don't actually subscribe!
    my cable system (RCN) has hundreds of channels that we don't get, mixed in with the ones we do, and no way to tell without selecting the channel, thus loosing the small cache of previously selected channel and interrupting what is being watched

    also, maybe its too obvious to mention here, but the standard USB connector is a huge incremental time waster. my math sucks, but with 50% chance of putting in the cable the right way, is something like (50% t + 50% 2t) = 1.5t where t is time it takes to plug it in the right way first.

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  2. I don't have a TV, so I was very excited to have a nice modern one in a hotel I stayed at in Germany. This TV had about 1000 channels, of which about 5 were unencrypted (i.e. available for watching). Fortunately, there was a "bookmark this channel" function. Unfortunately, the "retrieve bookmarked channel" feature had not been implemented.

    Also, +1 on lazyboy's comment. Except I object to the term "standard USB connector": *which* "standard" USB connector? I don't think I've ever owned 2 devices that used the same shape USB connector (well except for the end that plugs into the computer, which is standard).

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