The Remote Control that gives people Fits

This is the remote control from the Mesquite conference room at our office:

photo 1

At a glance, it may look like any other remote control that you’ve encountered in your lifetime. But this thing gives people fits. Especially newbies. Why? Let me share a little scenario with you (a true story, no less) to explain.

1. User enters Mesquite conference room to host a meeting.

2. User plugs in his computer and picks up remote control to turn on wall monitor.

3. User clicks big red button on the remote: Monitor comes on.

4. User hosts meeting.

5. User unplugs computer at end of meeting and picks up remote to turn off wall monitor.

6. User clicks red button. Nothing happens.

7. User starts waving remote around at different angles and clicking red button again and again. Nothing happens.

8. People in the room after the meeting start laughing and offer a suggestion: “Maybe the batteries ran out?”

9. User takes batteries out of the remote, puts them back in, points it at the monitor and clicks red button again. Nothing happens.

10. User walks over to IT Help Desk with remote in hand and tells them it needs new batteries.

11. IT Help Desk staff search around for batteries for 10 minutes then replace them.

12. User walks back to Mesquite conference room and tests new batteries by pointing remote at monitor and clicking the red button. Nothing happens.

13. User walks back to IT Help Desk and tells them the remote’s still not working. IT assumes the batteries must be bad.

14. IT opens a fresh pack of batteries and replaces them in the remote.

15. User returns to Mesquite conference room, points the remote at the monitor and clicks the red button. Nothing happens.

16. User walks back to IT Help Desk and tells them the remote still isn’t working.

17. IT Help desk staff walks with user to Mesquite conference room and tries remote. Monitor turns off this time! IT guy smiles and points out something the user didn’t notice.

So what happened here? It turns out there’s a separate “OFF” button on this remote. The big red “POWER” button only turns the thing on. Not off!

photo 1b

Boy did I feel stupid.

Yes, I was the user in the story and that was my first time using the fancy new monitor in the Mesquite conference room. And I made that mistake several times afterwards — clicking the red power button to turn the monitor off — before remembering that first experience and locating the OFF button.

I’ve also watched a bunch of other employees and guests make that same mistake. And they also felt silly when someone else had to point out the OFF button.

Are we all crazy to expect the big red POWER button to turn the monitor on and off? I don’t think so. There’s a design principle at work here. You may have heard of “Jacob’s Law”, as in Jacob Nielsen’s Law, which states, “Users spend the majority of their time on other sites than yours.”

Jacob was talking about Web design and the fact that people learn design patterns and formulate expectations about how things should work based on their experiences on other people’s web sites, not yours. So as a UXer, you have to be aware of those patterns and expectations and incorporate them into your designs to produce something that ‘just works’ for the user.

My experience with remote controls was that when you see a red POWER button, you can use it to turn something both on and off. I double checked the remote for my TV at home. Yep.

photo 4

I took a walk to the other conference rooms in the office. Yep.

photo 3

It was only that one brand new fancy monitor in the Mesquite conference room that had a separate OFF button that worked that way. So I and the others who made the mistake weren’t stupid. Someone else was. 🙂

But seriously, there is a lesson here. I’ve seen people laughed at for making that OFF button mistake in meetings on several occasions. I saw a customer who was visiting make the mistake and have someone else in the room have to assist him. I’ve also seen people get frustrated after making the mistake several times over and over when they should know better. And they blamed the remote not themselves! “STUPID REMOTE! WHO DESIGNED THIS THING?”

Is that the reaction you want to get out of your users?

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to break convention. There are times when you can do that. And there are times that you WANT to do that. But if you’re designing something for universal usage and a convention already exists for how to do it, you may want to follow suit to produce the best result.



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