The Weird UX of an Air Conditioner Remote Control | by Shachar Oz | DataDrivenInvestor

As summer is coming upon us, we start using the air conditioning again. But each time there is one big question that keeps coming up -

Using icons in UX design has huge advantages. Using an icon takes much less space than a text, thus having what designers would call a “clean” interface. An icon does not require translations on each country the product is released in. Nasco Ac Remote Control

The Weird UX of an Air Conditioner Remote Control | by Shachar Oz | DataDrivenInvestor

But obviously, this would all be possible if the user understands the meaning of an icon…

So last time I pressed the ON button on the remote, and saw that the machine is not responding, I called for some colleagues to assist me. Perhaps Italian air-conditioners are different, I thought :)

“I can’t remember if the icon of the Sun means that its going to heat, or that its the summer now, so the machine would cool…”

So we called another colleague, and another, and another. Eventually, we had about 5 engineers looking at a controller thinking which should be the correct option… (perhaps I am exaggerating because it was too hot for my brain at this point…) That’s when I knew that this is going to be a great topic for another article…

When we see these designs we immediately recognize it's for an air conditioner. This is actually quite a good reason to continue to design them in this way, since the user already recognizes the purpose of the object, and knows what to expect from its functionality.

But do we really need all these buttons and functions to perform that task?

In 90% of the occasions, we just want to either cool or heat the space. No more, no less. Since we can use that command also as a turning on for device, we can also keep only a turn-off button. The last important function is a “maintaining current situation”, which will maintain a certain temperature in a space. Here is the resulting interface up to now:

“How buttons are operated is usually defined by their physical shape”

The user should always get an idea of HOW to activate a certain button (such as: click, long press, swipe, rotate). This is usually determined by the physical shape of the button. When we see the following buttons we know which one should be turned or pushed, and how they should respond to our touch. When we design interfaces, we should make sure we use the correct button shape for a corresponding way of operation.

“Using Gestalt principles in design can help or destroy a design.”

Grouping several buttons together hints to the user that they are somehow related to each other. If this is done correctly, it can help the user understand the system, but when done badly, or without much thought it can create huge confusion.

Another quite useful principle is the Proximity of the buttons. Closer ones immediately hint us they are related.

Third such principle is the selected color of the buttons. Painting 2 buttons with the same color hints that they are somehow related. Example: the two remote controllers on the left, we can easily feel that the most important button here is the big colored one, even if this was the first time we saw this controller. On the remote on the right, we know that there should be extra importance to the “power” button and the “MODE” button.

These principles are just some out of a longer list called Gestalt, a theory that originates in psychology, but is very usable for interface designers. It originates from the idea that our brain is always trying to simplify things by grouping and labeling things. Here is a great overview of how the Gestalt principles affect user interface design.

Creating new or dedicated layouts is often quite a challenge since manufacturing department would need to redesign its flows, and this might be a costly process. As UX designers we need to make sure that the selected interface layout design transfers the message in a correct manner, but more importantly, to make sure it doesn't contradict it or present an obstacle to the user.

The harder part is usually helping the user understand WHAT would happen once this button is clicked. On digital interfaces, we have the freedom in changing the interface to focus the user on certain sections or add explanations (tutorials, popups, etc). Physical interfaces doesn't have this privilege. Remote controllers need to contain all possible functionality with a certain product.

As you can see from the simple remote control design, it doesn't have any icons, only text. Although the text explains well what should happen when user presses the button, as said before, text should be translated while icons have a better chance to be eternal… Text doesn't work well in cases where its a bit more complicated, such as there is a dependency between several buttons to perform a task.

Trying to replace all text with icons might result in something like this. Where although maintaining a certain temperature is a functionality that can be defined with a Lock button, but perhaps it is not clear what it would do… and as we already covered in the beginning of the article, even the cooling icon and heating one, were not so clear to some users.

In this kind of situation during my design process, I can see that I arrived at a dead-end, where all possibilities seem not such effective. When in this situation, I reset and start over my work.

I take the original persona and list its needs, I review the technical functionality of the product and list its features. Then I try to see which technical features are required by the persona.

When carefully reading the map, you can realize that the first two needs actually originate from the third one. The core user requirement is to feel comfortable whatever the outside temperature is. We do not really care if its going to be by cooling or heating. We do not really care what the device needs to do, we just want to be comfortable.

“At the end of the day, I just want to feel comfortable in my house…”

Under these requirements, considering some of the technical functionality of the machine, an air condition controller simply needs to ask us our preferred temperature. It already has a thermostat to check the current situation, which would allow it to decide if it needs to heat or cool.

Yes, it does not include all the other options included on the remote, like: timers, fan speed, etc. But who would need a fan speed, if the machine would know by itself the target and the current temperature, and make its own calculations…

The idea behind this article is to give some reasoning into the process of designing a user interface, how we evaluate our current situation, and what should we try in order to improve it. You can use Gestalt design principles for the design flow, but at the end of the day, you should use some well-founded UX Research work that would provide insights into what your user really wants to achieve. Only these would allow you to actually give them what they want.

Paolo Cirillo, UX Researcher and Psychologist. Worked as a consultant for Lamborghini and EDAG Italia in the aspects of interaction design and UX Research. Weird passion for playing post-progressive music. Special power to get people to talk about their inner secrets. Died in a car accident at the age of 45, leaving a wife and son.

Eran Ayalon, UX Researcher and Product Manager. Worked as Head of UX for several revolutionary products. Weird passion for collecting strange animals and unique music from the world. Special power to make people laugh. Died from a sudden heart attack at the age of 40, leaving a wife and 2 sons.

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The Weird UX of an Air Conditioner Remote Control | by Shachar Oz | DataDrivenInvestor

Wireless Lighting Control AR VR, Games & 3D Simulations, Computer Vision, Unity Developer, Instructional Designer, Emergent Tech Evangelist, Product Manager. MBA for Supercars