Ensure that the remote control is as simple as possible, given the required functionality


Most users benefit from a simple easy-to-use design, as long as it provides the required functionality. People with intellectual disabilities or those who find technology challenging to use may have difficulty understanding and using a complex remote control with many different functions and would benefit from reduced functionality. Even people without a recognised impairment may be more appreciative of an easy-to-use design than one which contains a lot of non-essential functionality. In the UK digital switchover technical trial at Ferryside and Llansteffan it was found that:

  • Many older people would have preferred a simple remote control with big buttons for the three basic functions (on/off, channel change, and volume control) although some appreciated digital text functionality as well;
  • Across all users the equipment offering the largest remote with the biggest and best-spaced buttons (with words rather than symbols) was the most popular. The model with the smallest remote and least distinguishable keys was the least popular.

In the survey of older and disabled television users carried out for these guidelines, one respondent with a vision impairment said:

I feel there are an awful lot of buttons on the remote control that I have no idea what they do! I probably use about 5 buttons regularly, and the rest just go unused.

Guidelines survey respondent.

Given the number of different remote controls that a person may have in the home, adopting industry standard layouts can be very beneficial for users. Another vision impaired survey respondent described how the differences prevent him from being able to use all the functions:

The buttons I can use, but if I have to do anything other than what I normally do, I can't do it. I use the basics. Each remote control is completely different. So I learn the basics of them and leave the rest to other people.

Directions and techniques

Provide a logical and easily understood layout (high priority)

Buttons should be logically positioned and grouped according to their functions. The best results can be achieved by following these guidelines:

  • Group related buttons together (e.g. the volume up and down, the arrow keys for navigation)
  • Position buttons in a way that is consistent with functions, e.g., position the channel up button above the channel down button;
  • Make the spaces between groups of buttons that relate to the same function greater than the spaces within the groups;
  • Follow common industry standards (e.g. for the layout of the numeric keypad and the navigation/select cluster). For example, the Digital TV Group (DTG) D-Book describes standard recommended layouts for remote controls used with digital terrestrial television receivers in the UK.

Reduce complexity (high priority)

The complexity of the remote control should be reduced or hidden as far as possible. Less frequently used buttons can be hidden under a sliding fascia in order to reduce the complexity of a remote control during use, as can be seen in a video demonstrating some good Universal Design features of the Sony Trinitron double-sided remote control.

An alternative remote control can be provided, with fewer buttons covering only the basic and necessary functions. If this is not cost effective, it may still be possible to identify a simple third party universal remote control that works with the equipment and provide information to users on how to obtain one.

Quick access buttons for common functions assigned by the user can provide another useful way of reducing complexity. If these are grouped together, in a row for example, it can be easier for a person to remember the order of their favourite functions and press the required button without having to refer to the label at all.

Care should be taken in using coloured backgrounds for buttons, if they may be confused with standard colour buttons that are referred to in instructions or within programmes. For example, figure 8 shows a situation where an instruction to press the red button might be ambiguous, since there is more than one button that is red. This is borne out by the experiences of the UK digital switchover technical trial at Ferryside and Llansteffan, where it was found that some users experienced confusion between the ‘red button’ and the recording button which was also (mostly) red.

Figure 6. Which is the ‘red’ button?

Figure 6. Which is the ‘red’ button?

Operational complexity can also be reduced by avoiding assigning dual functionality to buttons and avoiding operations that require pressing two or more buttons at the same time.

Help users recover from errors

Provide a dedicated ‘Back’ button that takes the user back to the menu, screen or function they have just left, allowing users to undo some types of mistakes.

It’s okay as long as I am familiar with the remote controls. If something goes wrong on the TV or I hit an incorrect button by mistake then I am lost as to what’s wrong.

Guidelines survey respondent.

How you could test for this

Prototype designs can be assessed for understandability by user testing with a wide range of users, including older people and people with cognitive or intellectual impairments.

Eye tracking studies can be a good way of finding out where people look for buttons on a remote control or where they expect to find various functions. The results of such studies can be useful in determining the easiest to find locations which can be reserved for the most frequently used buttons.