Simplifying TV remote

The existing range of Philips remote controls were too intimidating.

- Too many buttons
- Heads-Down experience
- Memorization vs. Memorability
- Not enough consistency across different remotes

This is a case study about re-imagining the TV remote control experience grounds-up.


Despite all the new gadgets that have invaded our lives that are taking the watch time share, TV is still a very important element and part of our lives when it comes to family entertainment and large screen content consumption at home.

This is a slightly older project, so let us go back to the world of 2010. This is the time when TV industry was starting to embrace the new technology and Android OS was making inroads into the consumer electronics world. This also opened the doors for Smart TVs.

While TVs were becoming "smarter", the traditional TV remotes were still very complex. Their usage only became easier with muscle memory (which is painfully hard to develop and takes time, and can be frustrating).

So our team not only wanted to re-invent the TV remote, but at the same time define the future of TV user experience as well.

What was the problem?

The question we asked ourselves was:

"Why are these remotes designed like this?".

To understand this, we talked to the product designers, engineers and product owners of these remotes.

We learned that there was a direct connection between the user interface and the remote controls. Almost all these products had hierarchical navigation menu system. This allowed only a few key features to be easily accessible. Hence over a period of time, more and more buttons got added to the remote control to provide quick access to these deeply hidden features.

Voice of the user

To further understand the user's pain points, we conducted user interviews. Some of the key painpoints we heard were:

"My main TV is connected to other devices, such as a DVD player, cable or set-top box, home theater or sound system, etc. I enjoy all of the different benefits and choices that each device provides. However, this can be cumbersome to use since every device has its own way of working, with its own menu and its own remote control. I wish all my devices could work together as one system, with one menu and one remote control."

"On my computer, I have quick and easy access to many programs, files, and other content. With my mouse, I can directly point and click on whatever I want, and I am almost instantly there. I expect that I will be able to do more things on my TV in the future. Currently, on the TV I am restricted to up/down left/right controls, which could become a limitation in ease of use. I wish I could choose my TV entertainment by simply pointing and clicking on what I want from the comfort of my couch."

Overall we found that the users were looking for:

Our users were not thinking in terms of features, but their mental model was more focused around activities.

They were talking in terms of: "I want to watch videos" or "I want to show birthday photos on a large screen" or "I want to improve the picture quality" (not increase contrast or brightness specifically)"

We then explored the possibility to re-group the menu items into activities rather than functions. With this exercise we were able to identify 5 key activities:

  • PLAY - The most critical state that the users want to be in.
  • BROWSE - Visually browse and find content.
  • ORGANIZE - Ability to take control of organizing the content.
  • LISTS - Certain types of content demanded simple lists.
  • GRID - Structures content for easy findability.

The 'Diamond' concept


Based on these findings, the team started exploring different ways in which we could re-construct the navigation system and content organization. After exploring a few options, the "Diamond Concept" turned out to be the most promising one.

This concept placed the Play State in the center and the 4 secondary activities were organized around the 4 directions. This allowed for a better memorability of the navigation. It also flattened a lot of nested navigation and brought the key functionalities up-front.

Even after doing this, we still had the need to place certain additional buttons on the remote - like Volume, Options, Play Controls, Info etc. (as shown in the image below)

One interesting aspect of this concept was the introduction of the rotary wheel in the center around the OK button. This wheel rotated, which eliminated the need to repeated clicking the directional button in the previous remotes.


Next step was to validate this design with the users. We got a lot of positive feedback, but more importantly we also received some negative feedback.

This concept was not a runaway success.

Which kind of surprised us too. Some of the negative feedback we received was:

It's confusing / Difficult to grasp / Complicated

It's still complicated

After carefully analyzing our approach, we figured out where we had gone wrong:

  • End users not engaged enough during the design process.
  • We made a lot of assumptions on the users behalf.
  • We knew the system inside out, so it looked easy and intuitive to us.
  • Rotary wheel behavior was not very obvious.
  • User research was done in a controlled environment and not in users home setting.
Where did we go wrong?

The big pivot

V 2.0

To increase customer engagement in the design process, we organized a team of designers, engineers, and Product owners to visit the homes of some of our users. We wanted to observe them in their home environment.

For the very first time, the engineers were able to see how their products were being actually used. We also asked the Philips shops to connect us with users who were buying these TV's. We wanted to observe how users setup the newly purchased products. These home observations revealed a lot of things which the team had not even thought about (like user-manuals were hardly used).

Course correction

We also organized co-innovation workshops where the users were given a greater opportunity to bring their concerns to the table:

This lead to the creation of customer journey maps with their pain points and wishes:


One of the key take away from this study was that the remote control needs to be simplified even further. Not only that, a complementary user interface is also required which will provide the users a richer user experience.

To achieve further simplicity we discussed with the engineers if they can produce a track-pad based device. There was a lot of skepticism and push-back about this request. But since we had included some key stakeholders from the engineering team in our user-research process, they themselves became proponents of our demand and were able to push this effort into their already busy schedules. After a couple of trial and errors, the engineers were able to pull off this task and they said that this should be possible.

Soon we embarked on designing the trackpad-based user interface.

The Track Pad
Simplification is not easy

As soon as we took away the buttons, we were faced with the question oh "How are we going to provide all the functionalities?"

Now that we had a completely new interaction paradigm, we had to re-map all the key events and also define all the tactile actions for the trackpad.

We started by mapping out all the trackpad actions to the features and function:

After identifying all the touch events, we started mapping out the effective 'touch zones' on the trackpad and associate them to each activity. This took a lot of trial and error. It also required us to make interactive Flash prototypes and test them with this trackpad.


The prototype really helped us map every interaction to the desired result. The trackpad events we defined were a big success in helping simplify the key clutter on the remote controls.

Based on this, we created a new navigation structure

Putting everything together

This solution was tested once again with the users and this time we got really great feedback. Since the users were already involved in the entire design process, they were easily able to understand the rationale behind the designs and most of the interactions came naturally to them.

The simplicity of the trackpad can be easily experienced in the example below where simple gestures and taps can be used to browse channel, go back, view additional information etc. very intuitively without having to deal with a cluster of buttons.

Lessons learned


You get much deeper and clear insights when you observe the users in their familiar environment.

One of the failures we encountered in this projet was due to not investing enough time to study our users in their home environment (where they mostly use the products). This mistake got amplified in our design solution when we assumed those feedbacks to be valid.

Throughout this project, actively prototyping and validating concepts early helped us explore a lot of options. This helped us improve the quality of the solution.

Go to the user

Deep familiarity of the system may lead to designers creating complex solutions without realizing it.

Knowing too much about the system led our team to design solutions that looks very intuitive to us but for the users they added more complexity.

It can be difficult to have your assumptions challenged by the users, so we must make sure that we learn about users PoV much early in the design process before making these mistakes.

Unconscious complexity