Everyday UI: Apple TV Siri Remote Critique

The Apple TV remote with Siri has a poor design and low learnability.

The Apple TV Siri Remote is a classic Apple product — it is elegant and sleek, but sacrifices learnability for efficiency and innovative design. With this product, Apple reinvented the TV remote by introducing a Touchpad and eliminating countless buttons, but their design has fundamental flaws and is not intuitive and at times, is incredibly frustrating — even for a loyal Apple user.

Historically, TV remote controls have had awful designs — there are so many physical buttons that finding the correct one is difficult for most users. These tiny buttons are so overcrowded that pressing the wrong one by accident occurs far too often. You must look at the device (usually in the dark), to avoid pressing the wrong button. Furthermore, many of the buttons are never (or very rarely) used.

Until Apple’s remote, there had been very little innovation in the design of the product. The issues with old remotes are that they are bulky, confusing to look at, out-dated, have low learnability, and are inefficient. The way that we watch TV has changed — so the remote control should adapt to this change. That is what Apple tried to do with the Siri Remote.

In their design implementation, Apple eliminated the number keypad and many other buttons they deemed unnecessary and replaced them with a multi-purpose Trackpad and very few physical buttons. Since the Apple TV does not provide the ability for users to watch live TV, there is no need for a number keypad. Instead of going to a specific channel, users navigate through applications (such as Netflix).

A Trackpad appeals to a new generation accustomed to swiping through pages on social media and on iPhones. It also allows a user to look at the TV (i.e. the device we would like to be operating) while operating it instead of looking at the remote and then the TV to decipher the feedback. Furthermore, it allows users to see the feedback from their interaction in real time.

This design pattern that embraces simplistic design mimics that of many of Apple’s previous products and is inherent to its brand. Apple seems to create products that may have low learnability at first, but because of the typically good memorability of these products, they become extremely efficient as the user becomes more experienced. The Apple TV Remote is one of these products.

I have had the Apple TV remote for over a year now and have struggled and have observed many of my friends struggle to use it.

  • For a first time user, it is extremely hard to understand how to even begin using the device

This is due to the lack of affordances for the Trackpad. It does not look like something that is swipe-able or clickable.

  • First time users make many mistakes while trying to perform basic actions and at points, got stuck

Many of my friends would be confused about how to go back a page — this is due to the fact that the “Menu” button is really a “Back” button. When you press it, it takes you back to the page you were at before. It does not take you to a menu page. Additionally, the TV icon is confusing —why is it an icon while the Menu button is represented by words? It operates as a “Home” button, but the functionality is unclear until you press it.

  • There are far too many hidden capabilities that have no affordances

The point of having so many capabilities for each button is to reduce the clutter of buttons. However, I discovered far too many features that are available while researching that I had never used before because I did not know they existed. Such features include: holding down the Trackpad while typing makes a ‘quick backspace’ button appear, clicking on the far right/left of the Trackpad moves the video forwards/backwards 10 seconds, holding the play/pause button allows you to change the audio output device, double clicking the Menu button on the Home screen takes you to the screensaver, turning subtitles on or off requires scrolling up on the Trackpad. Additionally, there is a separate application for Searching without using the Siri button — which is not clear.

It seems that the only way to learn some of the features of the device is to look them up online or to accidentally discover them.

  • Some of the device’s functions require prior knowledge of Apple products, but have different affordances

Double tapping the “Home” button will mimic the iPhone/iPad functionality by allowing you to see all open applications and quickly navigate to one. Also, pushing and holding down the Home button will ask the user if they want to put the device to sleep. I think this would be more intuitive if the Home button looked more like a typical Apple Home button.

  • The touch input is too sensitive

Far too often did I find myself trying to use the keypad and had it scroll way too fast, or trying to go to a certain place in a video by swiping just to find myself swiping too far to the left, then too far to the right.

  • The Trackpad is capable of performing too many actions that it is sometimes hard for the user to operate

It’s both a Trackpad and multiple physical buttons — it is the most important and most functional button on the remote. However, the Trackpad does not even look clickable or like it possesses any functionality at all. Also, sometimes it is unclear how a certain action was achieved due to the Trackpad’s many capabilities. There is also a lot of user error because of this, so I often find myself being extra careful when using it.

  • It is far too small and thin and gets lost in the cracks of couches too easily

It gets lost all the time since it is so thin and small. The amount of times I have lost it to the cracks of my couch is embarrassing. Because it is easy to misplace and extremely sensitive to touch input, I also find myself accidentally sitting on it and pausing or exiting out of a show.

  • It has terrible ergonomics

It is not comfortable to hold. When you try to pick it up off a flat surface, you accidentally click or swipe the Trackpad because the device is so thin and flat and there is no grip.

  • The device must be charged, but there is no indication of the battery level on the device itself
  • The symmetrical nature of the remote makes it difficult to determine the orientation of the device

This is by far the most annoying thing about this remote. Knowing the orientation of the device quickly is necessary to avoid accidentally pressing or touching the Trackpad. Exactly 1/3 of the remote is touch sensitive with buttons centered in the middle and a virtually identical black surface fills the last third of the device. While these two black surfaces have slightly different materials, they are the otherwise non-distinguishable. You must see the orientation of the buttons to determine which end has the touch input.

  • It is partly glass, so there is a chance that the device shatters

Apple assumed that by making the device small and simple, they would eliminate the frustrations of finding the correct button to press on the remote. However, they did exactly the opposite in their implementation. By creating fewer buttons with more capabilities and little affordances, they forced the user to remember more and created the same problem for their users that they were trying to solve. While the user has less choices, there are many features that are either unknown to the user or are not intuitive or easy to remember when they try to perform that action again. Additionally, operating the device seems to require an usual amount of dexterity and skill. Mimicking the iPhone’s functionality is smart — however, it was inconsistently implemented. There could be many more affordances. For example, many of my friends tried swiping back to go back a page instead of using the “Menu” button. Overall, once a user knows the device well, it is a far more pleasant experience than the average remote control and is far more efficient.

  • Be able to quickly know the orientation of the device
  • Be able to lock the device when not using to avoid accidental clicks
  • Take away ambiguities surrounding the use of buttons
  • Add a feature to lock the remote
  • Enable “Hey Siri, go to Netflix” capability without the press of any buttons
  • Add bulk, weight, and grip to enhance ergonomics and make it harder to misplace
  • Make Trackpad bigger and less sensitive
  • Show battery level on device

Sketch of my Redesign

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