Take a look at this photo of two Sony remotes. One remote comes with my fancy new TV, the other with my fancy new DVD player. They were purchased together as part of a bundle.
When I saw that there were DVD player controls on the TV remote and TV controls on the DVD remote I thought that Sony was looking to make my life easier. In return for my loyalty to Sony’s product suite, they’d let me control everything from one remote. Awesome, right? As it turns out, no, it’s not awesome. That’s because there’s a critical button missing from each remote to keep it from being a decent replacement for the other. The TV remote has virtually all the controls I care about for my DVD player, save one. There’s no pause button. The DVD remote has all the TV controls I care about except for channel.
What went wrong? It’s clear these remotes are following the same design guidelines. They look so similar, in fact, that I often confuse one for the other so the problem isn’t coming from a lack of consistency in design. I suspect the real problem is that nobody ever thought about these two devices being used together in a system. If they had, the lack of a pause button would have stood out as an obvious oversight.
The takeaway for those of us who design products for a living? Make sure that you understand the context in which your products are used and, when applicable, how they will be used together.