IUI Example – Intelligent Remote Control

Picture the remote control from your TV / Cable / Satellite provider.

Chances are, the image in your head is similar to the image most other people come up with. We all know what a remote control looks like. There are rows and rows of buttons, some bigger than others, some with alphanumeric characters, some with symbols, some round, and some rectangular. There is something for power, volume, changing the channels, and a whole host of functions that you probably use very infrequently. Remote controls haven’t changed much in years… they are what they are.

I really began thinking about remote controls back in 2011 after reading the really good book Simple & Usable by Giles Colborne.

In the book he outlines Four strategies for simplicity, and he does so by describing an interview exercise that he runs job applicants through. What he does is ask them to “simplify” the remote control for a DVD player.

Back in 2011, most people probably still had a DVD player, and this exercise presents some tricky problems.

Typically, a DVD remote has about forty buttons, many have more than fifty, and, as GIles suggests, that seems excessive for a device that is used to play and pause movies. When something is that complicated, there should be plenty of scope for simplifying it. But the task turns out to be harder than you’d imagine.

Before he reveals some simplification strategies, he suggests people go off and try it themselves, and offers a template to work from. He has even posted a couple of examples of solutions that people came up with

Giles outlines four basic categories that all the solutions he’s seen fall into.

  • Remove – get rid of all the unnecessary controls until the device is stripped back to it’s essential functions
  • Organize – arrange the buttons into groups that make more sense
  • Hide – hide all but the most important buttons behind a hatch so that the less frequently used buttons don’t distract people
  • Displace – create a very simple remote control with a few basic features and control the rest via a menu on the TV screen, displacing the complexity of the remote control to the TV.

Some people, he says, do a little of each but everyone picks a primary strategy. Each have strengths and weaknesses, and he says that those four strategies work whether you’re looking at a something large, like an entire website, or something small, like an individual page. He goes on to describe each of those four strategies in more detail, and says that a big part of success comes from choosing the right strategy for the problem at hand.

Here is where I’ll let those people who are interested in learning more about those strategies go get the book

For people who own an Apple TV, you’ll notice they really embraced the displace strategy. Their remote is really nice, same with Roku, and other modern device makers – they have a simple device that displaces most of the functionality to the screen.

Those are nice, but there is a company that thought there might be a better way to solve this problem, and part of their app includes some IUI.  

The company is named Peel, and they built a smart remote control. They didn’t follow any of the four strategies that Giles outlined, they got rid of the remote altogether and put in on smartphones and tablets. They’re obviously not the only company to do that part, Logitech did the same thing, as did others, including some TV manufacturers and cable providers.

What makes the Peel remote so interesting is the interface is that they completely reimagined what a remote control could be. They brought the content down to the device, so it isn’t just a bunch of buttons with alphanumeric characters on it. They actually display imagery for the show, like the poster art for a movie or channel logos for networks.

Although a few years old, there was a report from Nielsen back in 2016 that indicated that the average consumer only watches about 19 total channels, or about 10% of the channels available to them. From an intelligence standpoint, it wouldn’t take long for a system to learn the ~20 channels someone watches regularly and make those the primary channels displayed in the interface.

But Peel goes even further, they add smart recommendations.

Instead of making people channel surf, they actually make recommendations of shows to watch. I’m not really sure the efficacy of those recommendations as I’m not much of a TV person (some news, some soccer, stream movies, etc.). Regardless of how good the recommendations are today, it’s hard to argue that the UX of the Peel remote is pretty great and, recommendations can always improve. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that recommendations are easy, I’m sure Netflix has spent a ton of money on this, including their $1M dollar competition but consider what recommendations mean in the sense of a remote control…

Think about the access they have to a lot of behavioral information, what channels people tune into, how often they change channels, recurrence (same channel at some repeating interval), etc..

As a simplistic example, they know that for the last few weeks, on Monday night, that a person has changed the channel to ESPN at roughly the same time, so about 30 minute before that time, they could display some graphic for what is coming on at the time that person normally tunes in. It wouldn’t take long for a smart system to learn about the seasonality of sports, and stop suggesting it when that “program” was no longer on.

Both of those are a bare minimum of intelligence but I think still qualify for an intelligent user interface.

What do you think?


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