I want you to try an experiment. Pick a remote control that you use frequently and tell me what each switch does. Odds are that you can’t. I would even guess that you only use a few of them. As an engineer I love choices. The more controls you give me the better. As a consumer trying to figure out which is the volume control in the dark, I wish there were slightly fewer controls.

Designing a remote control is interesting. Ever consider how the key functions were selected? I have a book on ergonomics for engineers. It talks about how to minimize the total travel time between controls. It assigns a complexity value and an actuation time for each type of control, push button, rocker switch, toggle switch, rotary switch and so on. All of this so a engineer can design the perfect remote control for you.

It’s a great book. Lots of charts, graphs and tables to help decide on the optimum position and type of each switch. There’s only one problem. The engineer that designs your remote control probably doesn’t watch a lot of TV. To him, adjusting the pink tint on the set is just as important as setting the volume. There’s also a secondary contributor to the layout decisions. The integrated circuit on the remote is designed to accommodate a fixed number of switches. If you already have physical room on the remote and you don’t need to add more electronics, then adding more functions is practically mandatory to an engineer. Not making use of all your resources is almost criminal in a design.

When we run out of switches, we add menus. Menus are even better than switches because we can give you every function we can dream up. The nice thing about menus is that we can group all the functions into categories and give you sub menus of menus. My book on ergonomics covers menus but many of the concepts just don’t carry through. How many menus deep can I go before the average user gives up? How can I not give you a black and white viewing function so you can watch all those colorized movies in the original format? I’ll label the function “Nostalgia”, so it will be very clear what that setting does.

If the way I think you should watch TV and the way you do watch TV are the same, it’s only a coincidence.

Please understand, if I design a remote control for you, I want you to have easy access to every function I can possibly give you. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, the volume control is the second selection on the third menu. Just select the option, type in a number from 0 to 99, hit enter twice and you’re good. Couldn’t be simpler.

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