Zero Signal-to-Noise, or WT-Actual-F?

As I’ve written in my two most recent articles, my father continues in Assisted Living. Technology which we consider normal is extremely difficult for him. We’ve seen how actions that we consider simple are difficult for him, such as listening to music via Spotify and participating in video meetings via Zoom. Here’s another case for you.

My Dad likes to watch TV now and then.  When I was a boy, our TV only received three channels, which we selected with a stiff clunky knob. His cable company now offers hundreds of channels, plus on-demand streaming and DVR capability, but he doesn’t care about any of this crap.  He just wants to watch a little tube to relax him and distract him from the current lousy state of the world. (It’s either that or booze, and he’s only allowed one glass of wine with dinner.) 

But these seemingly-basic operations are extremely difficult for him to discover, remember, and execute. Here’s a picture of his Comcast remote. How can even a teenager, let alone a senior, use this piece of crap? The signal-to-noise ratio approaches zero. I mean, WT-Actual-F?

He knows how to press buttons for a channel, number 44. Unfortunately, this is CNN, which doesn’t help him (or anyone) relax. We gave him a printed card, with large type showing his favorite channels, (2 is WENH, New Hampshire PBS, 67 is History Channel, etc.) But he still has to find the sheet, and hold it in one hand while he presses the tiny, barely readable buttons with the other. One slip and the remote dumps him into weird modes that he can’t get out of.  This control makes complex, sophisticated operations possible, but simple things aren’t simple. That’s a cardinal sin. If one of my Harvard students did this, I’d flunk his sorry ass so fast he’d change his major to Egyptian hieroglyphics  (for which this design would clearly demonstrate that he has an aptitude.)

So I set out to make a program that could help my Dad easily select his favorite channels without all the rest of the crap. He’s already successfully using his iPad to select music channels, as we saw previously. I leveraged that design to make one for selecting TV channels.  Here’s a screen shot of it:

The power and volume controls are the same that he’s used to, being cut-and-paste identical to those in the music remote. The channel selection buttons are likewise similar in appearance. His iPad mini has room for about 8 of them.  

I do the configuration of the channel buttons remotely. The list of buttons and channels resides in a simple text file on my Google drive. The iPad app checks this file at startup time. I’m ready for when he says, “I don’t care about History anymore, but I want to watch Robert Irvine’s Restaurant Impossible on the Food Channel.”

The Comcast cable box uses infrared, which the iPad does not natively support. But I found an intermediary box from Global Cache that accepts commands via Wi-Fi and emits infrared codes.  The company provides the IR codes used by most standard remote controls. I quickly got the box to emit the commands I needed.  It costs $115, somewhat pricey for a commodity item. But that’s about a single month of his cable, which he will now be able to use, instead of getting frustrated with settling for CNN.

I’m getting this out to him ASAP. When someone is 85 years old, you don’t want to delay getting the MVP into their hands. 

And since we’re talking UX, I’m pleased to announce that registration has now opened for my fall class CSCI-E34, User Experience Engineering, at Harvard University Extension School. This year we will be emphasizing UX as a critical component of startups and entrepreneurship. Bring your idea, and you’ll have a full UX portfolio of it by December. We’ll also examine my new design paradigm of Assisted Computing™, and hear from exciting guest speakers. All classes are taught via Zoom, and are recorded for you to watch at your convenience. We start Monday August 31, at 7:20 ET. Information and registration at .  I look forward to seeing you there.

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  1. Are you sure you have the right graphic? This looks like the Spotify one, not the xfinity

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