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Design of the TiVo remote

Nice fluffy article in the NY Times about the design process that led to the TiVo remote control, complete with a thumbs-up (bing!) from usability quote-whore Jakob Nielsen. I like TiVo and all, but why does tech journalism have to be so soft all the time?

The TiVo remote has a really huge, much-discussed design flaw, namely that you cannot tell which end to point at the TV unless you look at the remote or take a few seconds to feel for the buttons in your hand (if the room is dark). I’ve been using TiVo for almost 4 years now and while I’ve learned to look at the remote before I pick it up, the symmetry problem still gets me more than it should.

Here’s another pitch that the Times let sail by in the article: “TiVo holds four design patents on the remote’s basic shape and key layout.” Say what? Trademark maybe, but how do you patent the shape of a remote control? By now, this question has a fairly pat and dissatisfying answer (“well, the busted and overworked patent system let us so we did”), but I’m tired of seeing patents like this given credibility by being mentioned in big newspapers.

Update: Neil sent me a link to the USPTO’s guidelines for granting design patents. Here’s their definition of design:

A design consists of the visual ornamental characteristics embodied in, or applied to, an article of manufacture.

If businesses buying design don’t have any idea what design is, I guess you can’t expect the US gov’t to have any better understanding.