Fifteen Consumer Electronics Design Mistakes

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Remote Controls

remote controls

Mistake #4: Too Many Buttons

Device(s): TV, DVR Remote Controls

Call it Benj's Law: The number of buttons on the average TV remote control doubles every 15 years. Let's take a look at the button forecast:

1950: four buttons
1965: eight buttons
1980: 16 buttons
1995: 32 buttons
2010: 64 buttons
2025: 128 buttons
2040: 256 buttons
2055: 512 buttons

remote control
The current Time Warner Cable DVR remote control (circa 2009) already sports 62 buttons (yes, really), most of which no one ever uses. As silly as the above forecasts seem, they might be a bit too relaxed: with the way things are going, TWC might upend Benj's Law and release a remote with a button for every single channel next year.

There's simply no need for so many buttons, be it 62, 128, or 1000; many modern remote functions could be simplified through clever use of on-screen menus. My favorite TV remote of all time, for a Daewoo TV set, boasts a mere 22 buttons. You could add four for DVR functionality: record, start/stop, fast-forward, and rewind. There you go: the perfect remote has only 26 buttons.

What Were They Thinking?

There's a common design fallacy in consumer electronics which posits that things have to get more complicated to get better. The need to generate constant revenue for manufacturers results in intentionally short product lifespans. Each new generation of products must add features (that aren't always necessary) to entice consumers to ditch the product they have and trade up for a shiny new model. We tech fans call that "feature creep."

Before long, you end up with a 20-headed monster-of-a-thing that nobody wants to touch. Then Apple comes in, simplifies it, and becomes the hero. I can see it now: Steve Jobs and the one-button TV remote that senses everything you could possibly want to do with it.

Mistake #5: Inconvenient and Confusing Buttons

Device(s): TV, DVR Remote Controls

Similar to the keys on terrible PC keyboards, remote control buttons somehow end up in the least effective and most confusing places. I'll just give you one example of many hundreds:

remote control

It's a mess, but still not as bad as some remotes. It hosts a large grid of uniformly shaped and sized buttons. There are two power buttons (guess which one actually turns on the device?). And you'll (rarely) find the two buttons you want to use the most - volume up and down - in the lower right corner. I know first hand because this is the remote for my father's hi-fi receiver, and it has maddened me on many an occasion.

My father also owns a CD player remote that one has to power on by pushing the remote's "on" button while pointing it at the CD player. You must power up the remote before you can use it for anything else. So to turn on the CD player remotely, you have to push the "on" button twice: once to turn on the remote, and once to turn on the CD player.

remote control
As a subset of this mistake (and mistake #4), many remotes try to cram too many functions onto a single button, making the task of figuring out what each button does quite confusing.

What Were They Thinking?

This is just a case of plain ol' bad design, with no evidence of design foresight or decent usability testing on the manufacturer's part.


cordless phones

Mistake #6: The Chin Disconnection

Device(s): Cordless Telephones

Have you ever hung up on someone with your chin? How about your cheek? How about your hand while you were repositioning the phone? Your intrepid author has experienced every one of these scenarios as he braved 25 years of bad cordless phone design. (In retrospect, I consider it training for this article.)

If you're a member of the mobile phone generation, you might not understand: many cordless telephone designers placed "talk," "flash," or "hook" buttons or switches in inconvenient or ill-conceived places. The "talk" or "hook" button usually turned the phone on and off, while the "flash" button quickly switched over to another line to answer call waiting.

The worst scenario is when there's a flash button right next to your chin. Before phones were microscopically small and easy to inhale accidentally like they are now, people used to hold phone handsets between their shoulder and their head for hands-free operation. That left your chin or cheek perfectly positioned to press against flash or talk buttons and hang up on your friends. I can't even begin to count how many times I've done that. A friend whom I had not yet met in person even accused me of having a "Dudley Do-Right chin," which I swear is not the case.

What Were They Thinking?

They had to put all those buttons somewhere, didn't they? Some designers just put them in bad places, or used buttons that weren't recessed and were too easy to press by accident.

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