Wednesday 11 August 2010

Older people and technology.. KISS!

At the moment I have three grandparents remaining... My paternal grandparents and my maternal grandmother. They're all in their 80s. As time has progressed, so has technology and now they all have flatscreen TVs, pay TV and two of them actually have an internet connected computer.

The problem is the lack of consistency and clarity when it comes to performing tasks such as switching between free to air and satellite TV, putting on a DVD or navigating a web page.

Driving consumer information appliances needs to be easier!

In Australia, you'll NEVER have integrated Pay TV - the providers all like to provide their own set top box.
  1. Turn on TV
  2. Turn on STB
  3. Set television to STB input
  4. Adjust volume on TV
  5. Select channels on STB
    ... Remotes required: 2 (3 if they have an external amp attached)
This might seem simple to younger, more technologically literate people who grew up being the designated VCR programmers, but it's very very daunting for older people, especially with the often small type on the remote controls.

With regards to the internet, often I think web designers put a lot more effort into making things look pretty than they put into usability. Trying to explain to an older person that on one website, the search box is in the top left, on another, it's on the bottom left.. or the top right is terribly confusing.

Looking at the AV device issue, I think there are three approaches, ascending in cost..

The free approach - better documentation

First off, one needs to determine the tasks that a basic user needs to perform. Enabling surround sound and making sure they're watching the higher def version of a particular channel comes secondary to them actually being able to comfortably select content independently.

Eg. The idea of selecting DVB-T stations on one remote and DVB-S stations on another remote is too much. They want to key in stations in just one place.

After assessing the easiest and most similar way to perform the most common functions they'll require, I like to make a booklet with a page or two, covering tasks like:
  • Watching TV
  • Watching a movie
... and in this booklet I'll have a picture of their remote control copied from the manufacturer's instruction manual along with step by step instructions as to which buttons to push. This requires no additional capital investment on top of the equipment they have.

Simplifying the remote control jungle - universal remotes

Several companies ship remote controls with their equipment that can control the equipment of other manufacturers as well. In addition to this, there's a growing group of independent "universal" and "learning" remote control manufacturers such as Logitech and their Harmony range.

Having configured a Logitech Harmony One for my parents, I definitely think they have their merits for a certain audience, especially where you can configure preset tasks such as watching TV or Pay TV. This can reduce the number of remote controls from 3+ down to a single remote.

Different buttons on the remote, such as channel selection, volume control etc. are then redirected to the correct device for the current task so the user doesn't have to figure out which button to press for which task.

Where I believe this "universal remote" approach fails is that often they're still a complete sea of buttons... and some of the buttons, depending on how the tasks and appliance profiles have been programmed do nothing when someone might expect them to.

They're also, generally, still very small print, especially where they have LCD panels displaying dynamic content such as the name of tasks or additional functions for which there is no physical button assigned.

Where things need to head - better, simpler interfaces

I believe that ultimately, device manufacturers need to come together in a group such as DLNA and decide on an interdevice control protocol that would allow for the custom programming of an intelligent, large typed, onscreen menu system that handles all device switching, content selection and control.

Except for the more advanced punter, a remote control should never have more than 6 buttons in my opinion..
  • Up
  • Down
  • Left
  • Right
  • Select
  • Cancel/Power
.. similar to a mobile phone joystick, with the select button in the middle of the joystick and the cancel/power button being in the top right corner as most power buttons are placed.

Whilst I've not used it, I have seen "pebble" style simple remotes by manufacturers like Samsung before, but I'm not convinced these have been integrated with universal onscreen display.

Perhaps an interim solution would be to have the universal remote manufacturers team up with an A/V receiver manufacturer such that the onscreen menu signal could be injected into the video feed.

The bigger picture

Looking at the bigger picture, I think each place where a person views media needs a central coordinating device, like a computer has its peripherals, a home entertainment system's peripherals really need a central computer to make sense of everything. Of course, every manufacturer wants their device to be the center of attention, but ultimately I think this has to give way to usability. Devices can then be free to compete on price and how well they perform their specific task.

There is a degree of geek machismo when it comes to the number of buttons one has on their remote, but where button envy is not an issue, I think manufacturers really need to reign in their device interfaces.

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