TV remotes have the astounding distinction of having about half as many keys as my keyboard and one thousandth the functionality. The problem stems from the (perceived) need to present every possible function for your TV, DVD player, ect, at a glance. Back when TVs had no form of menu or interface whatsoever this was necessary, but now a TV is functionally a large monitor, often with a rich menu system for both hardware settings and content selection.

But the remotes are still the same. 50 buttons and all most people use are the navigation buttons, numbers, and content controls like play/pause/ect. Part of the remaining problem is the old, persistent model of channels being just numbers. No interface to select them, no menus, just pick a number and remember it.

Thinking outside the (set top) box, how can a remote be modernized? Apple has taken a stab at it in a way with their own remote for Apple devices, benefiting from the device's native "soft" interfaces and simple controls, presenting only navigation keys and the forward/back buttons for content manipulation.

Roku has a similar but more complex remote that also benefits from a soft interface. Roku's remote has navigation keys in addition to slightly more content-manipulation keys (a pause button).

These super simple remotes seem ideal but how can such modern UX concepts be merged with the hulking system of features and past conventions that is the traditional TV?

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    An upvote for a non web / apps / tablet question !
    – PhillipW
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 20:32
  • You should definitely read this article. It details how designers re-thought the remote for the TiVo, and IMHO succeeded tremendously well: gizmodo.com/5017972/… Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:26
  • @AlexFeinman interesting, yet their design is a perfect example of most of my complains about remotes =p. It sounds like it functions well as a "traditional" remotes, but traditional remotes are the whole problem.
    – Zelda
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:44
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    @Ben, one of the big changes they made is that rarely do you select a channel by number. You select a show, or you select recorded things that it automagically figured out for you. The number buttons are still there, but I can't remember the last time I used them. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:49
  • Another thing is the segmentation of the remote into two physical sections. As you say, people use the nav buttons primarily, so they made it easy to hold in a position which puts these readily at thumb. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 17:50

7 Answers 7


Traditionally, TV interfaces - were restricted by two things: speed (or the lack of it) and resolution / readability.

Old TVs - even digital satellite boxes - were, until recently, extremely sluggish. There was a long latency between a user hitting a key and the machine responding. TVs themselves had low-resolution displays, which meant text and graphics had to be large, and any menus could only have a few options. Therefore, menu interfaces would mean lots of layers of dialogs that the user could only navigate extremely slowly. Likely for this reason, manufacturers opted for a 'flat' remote interface where most options were available at an instant.

But that was in the past. What can remotes do now?

1. Use analogies from older Audio / Video interfaces, like Play, Pause and Stop buttons

Users are familiar with the idea of, say, a stop button halting or cancelling an action, and play proceeding. They're already familiar with fast-forward and rewind navigating large bodies of information, so they're good candidates for page navigation buttons. This helps bridge the gaps between a user's traditional expectations of the device and the new version.

2. Use context sensitive buttons

To an extent, this has already happened in digital sattelite: a set of coloured buttons with context-sensitive functions. The monitor might display the purpose of each button in a sidebar or bottom row, maximizing screen estate, which is vital for consumers still relying on low-resolution monitors (even HDTVs aren't that high-res)

3. Combine analogous buttons

Apple TV already does this - the Apple remote combines rewind / fast-forward keys with left and right buttons. This makes perfect sense to the user, and significantly improves the form factor.

  • I like the fastforward/rewind as buttons, but context sensitivity adds some complication and added navigation. For certain options like Power and Mute a user might want immediate access to them at all times. Most buttons on my remote probably should be behind a menu though, most of us don't need immediate access to all 10 potential AUX channels in one press for instance.
    – Zelda
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 14:22
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    The newer Apple remote added an explicit play/pause (essentially mute) button without changing the behaviour of the centre button which can also do the same thing in some contexts. I wrote a blog post examining why that had good traction: corvusconsulting.ca/2009/12/… Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 18:39

enter image description here

  • I like it. Particularly the concept of having a panel on the remote where you could write 'TV' / 'DVD player' 'Satellite' - rather than having to have sticky taped labels stuck on the various controllers.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 10:49
  • @PhillipW But what's the affordance of these writable panels? I think an input box would make things more clear. The handwriting like font is a nice lo-fi touch, though. The tangible interface seems odd though, appears to be some sort of dead-tree covering... =p
    – Zelda
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 14:17
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    Give credit, where credit is due, Image is from Nicolas Zurcher designinginteractions.com/chapters/4
    – jonshariat
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 16:30
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    A prank answer with 10 upvotes. THIS IS WHY WE CAN HAVE NICE THINGS
    – Kaz Wolfe
    Commented Aug 3, 2014 at 19:51

As buttons become a thing of the past, and touch interfaces take their place as a more natural way of interacting with computers and other devices, I see the remotes going the same way.

  1. A touch display on the remote presents menus and those menus can be explored.

  2. The remote becomes a pointing device (like the wii) with gestures as well as pointing at (and clicking) elements on the screen.

  3. High use functions are buttons and everything else is menu-driven

  4. Buttons can change their display and function.

  • I think a touch screen/gestural interface is probably the way forward. More and more people are used to touch screen interfaces. Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 19:47
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    Touch screen for everything isn't always best. I don't want to look at remote at all, especially for simple tasks. Feeling texture of real buttons makes it easier to find them and provides better experience than pressing flat screen. Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 20:21
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    @jonshariat true, but in this case I would still rather avoid the touch screen. The TV is already a screen, I'm effecting the TV, I should be looking at the TV. As long as the TV is capable of displaying the menu IMO it should.
    – Zelda
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 14:12
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    @jonshariat physical buttons give the brain anchor points to build up muscle memory. Most people can still operate a remote in the dark, or without looking at it for common tasks(change channels, volume control). This is why I disagree with your touch display idea. In fact, I have used a touch screen remote before(The Sony RM-AV2000) it was not usable at all.
    – Jin
    Commented Sep 24, 2011 at 18:10
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    @jonshariat engadget.com/2010/06/30/… Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 12:31

A problem with touch screens is that a remote has to be a pretty tough device.

If you have kids in the household, remotes get a lot of physical abuse.

And a remote is only as good as the UX of the onscreen design it controls.

  • Exactly why I wouldn't consider a touch screen, with the exception of a smartphone/device I already have. But even if that's possible, a TV has to come with a remote.
    – Zelda
    Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 14:15

Well, it's most definitely not going to happen by losing the buttons. How many of you look at your remote when you use it? Or would like to visually hunt down every button you need? It's kinda OK for phones but definitely not end all, be all solution.

Anyways. For remote, I'd go for stripped down design: As simple remote as possible, with only the most time critical commands on it, in order to have the user able to operate completely without looking at the remote itself, and keep the rest of it in well designed on-screen UI.


Grey functions could be achieved with keeping the button pressed for a second, or two. Program +/- (north-south) and volume +/- (east-west) are operated with "XY button".

Edit: As the first version was strictly for TV's, here's a version for DVRs/DVDs/whatnots.


No pause, as I would pause the playback when either, menu or guide is pushed (guide also includes recordings, DVD menus etc.).

Edit 2: Thought about it little bit more and decided to remove the program rocker (as it's really a relic from times when there was only so many channels). Also, decided that it wouldn't really need source button as the guide/menu button would be used for that (on-screen menu with tabs for different sources/devices). Had a play/pause button there for a while but decided against it since the navigation between devices would happen through the on-screen menu, it wouldn't be really clear what would happen if you would have say, Spotify playing and would be on DVR-tab with a recording selected.


  • While that design would pretty much work, it is not quite optimal for say a DVR, where play/pause, jump forward, and jump back are also extremely common operations, and are time critical. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 16:47
  • As for a good UI, have the most common actions not on the remote appear when you push "ok" when watching tv, with the picture shrinking slightly to compensate. Make this a fast but smooth transition. The Main picture would be a "button" that is highlighted by default, so one can quickly undo an accidential press. Otherwise, navigate to the option you want. Less common options may require entering the full menu. This could also be combined with wii-style pointing (an onscreen cursor when not in the main tv watching mode) as an option. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 16:48
  • Added new design for DVRs etc.
    – crappish
    Commented Sep 25, 2011 at 10:24

Speaking of radical improvements and rethinking the whole system, take a look at Komandor-2: http://www.artgorbunov.ru/projects/komandor-2/

It’s on russian, but they have pretty universal visualizations of main concepts.

enter image description here

  • There is an 'EN' link in the upper right corner of the page that takes you to an English version of the site. Commented Jul 4, 2013 at 21:35

There was a great article written by Katie Hafner for the NY Times on the design of the famous TiVo remote control, and a follow-up piece done by Gizmodo with the designer Paul Newby.

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