6 unlikely reasons for a hopelessly inadequate product

I can’t understand how this happened. Surely the product wasn’t specified this way? Maybe pure laziness? I really don’t know, but I have my suspicions. Perhaps you’ve experienced the same?

Last week I found myself staying for 2 nights in an out-of-town hotel. The sort of boxy hotel which is cloned hundreds of times across the country, perfectly clean and functional but totally devoid of any personality. Fit for purpose, adjacent to a roundabout on an arterial road close to my destination – it was just the thing I was looking for.

These places always seem to be designed to the same specification – very much a “bare essentials” approach had been adopted, with everything in its place and nothing extra. Designed to meet, rather than exceed my expectations. With the exception of the TV remote, that is.


The TV itself was a “no name” generic box (not flat screen) which provided access to a small selection of terrestrial channels – enough to entertain me for the short time I was in the room not sleeping.

What surprised me was the complexity and extent of the remote, which featured a total of fifty buttons – clearly it was capable of more than I needed from it. In a different setting it would be able to control a DVD player and possibly a set-top box. I didn’t even recognise some of the icons, so I’ll never be sure of how seriously it was underused.

After switching the TV on, I found myself needing to do only two things – change channel and control the volume – both of which were more difficult than they needed to be.

I don’t have formal research to support my view, but I suggest that volume control and channel selection are the most frequently used functions on a TV remote. Certainly more frequently used than Picture-in-Picture or Photo-viewer control.

In the context of this being a low-cost minimal hotel with access to only the most basic TV, I would expect the remote to provide volume control and channel selection effortlessly, with all other, less frequently-used controls being more challenging to use. So I would expect the volume control to be placed more intuitively, more obviously so that it could be more readily used. I’d expect channel selection to be more natural, too. And if all that came at the expense of making Picture-in-Picture controls less intuitive, I’d be happy about the compromise. Instead, every time I needed to adjust the volume or change channels, I had to make a concerted effort to do so. Not a major hardship, you might think? Well quite so, but considering the ease with which this can be solved, an unnecessary irritation.

Since returning home, I have searched for a less usable remote – without success. They all have volume control and channel selection as their prime purpose, conveniently located and ergonomically designed for maximum ease of use. All other controls are relegated to “secondary” status by their positioning and design. After all, remote controls are not new – and surely we can’t be discovering too much new about their use these days?

How did this happen?

  1. Did the Product Manager really demand that the volume control should be two discrete buttons rather than the more usual single rocker actuator? And also that they be carefully placed away from the most natural position? I doubt it.
  2. Did the Designer demand that all TV remotes should be identical in order to create some kind of consistent visual identity for this “no name” box? I doubt it.
  3. Did the Portfolio Planner define the range in such a way that every TV can be controlled by the flagship remote? I doubt it.
  4. Did the Usability Expert say that “complexity is the new minimalism”? I doubt it.
  5. Did the hotel Sourcing Manager specify that all TVs be supplied with these features? I doubt it.
  6. Can it really be cheaper to put 50 buttons onto a remote which universally serves a range of more competent TVs? I doubt it.

What I suspect is that nobody gave it a moment’s thought. Nobody in the entire chain of responsibility thought about the user, and what it looks like to her/ him. Don’t any of these people ever use their own products? Has nobody ever thought that it’s a poor solution? Again, I doubt it. I suggest that a more likely situation is that none of those people thought to mention it; nobody in the entire chain actually said out loud “Hey, this really isn’t very good. Surely we can do better than this. Let’s get it sorted“. Hard to imagine, I know. But what other explanation can there possibly be?

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