Nintendo TVii: When Too Many Good Ideas Equal One Bad One

The Wii U remote might be one of the worst UI designs in recent memory. What were they thinking?

Since its announcement, journalists and the public alike have been trying to wrap their heads around the Wii U controller. It’s a touch-screen tablet, plus it’s a gamepad that’s fitted with sticks, buttons, and triggers. It’s also a perfectly adept motion controller, like the Wiimote, that can either be aimed at the television a la cursor or gyroscoped this way or that.

I’ve finally figured out the Wii U remote in a way that satisfies my mental taxonomy. The Wii U controller is every style of controller you’ve ever seen, all stuffed into one chunk of frankenplastic. It’s Nintendo’s take on "The Homer." It’s a sundae with all 31 flavors on top. And as yummy as that sounds on paper, no one likes peanut butter and gummy worms in the same bowl.

It’s too early to say whether the Wii U will be a fun, novel gaming system like the original Wii, but this week, Nintendo debuted a new functionality called TVii. It’s their attempt to leverage the Wii into a living room entertainment box (yes, another one!). And from Nintendo’s very brief presentation on it, despite promising features like a second screen for play-by-play football and integrated TiVo support, the Wii U remote could make TVii a total mess.

It all comes down to the above picture. Look at all those virtual buttons to control video playback. Despite the fact that much of TVii’s interface features big, finger-squishable icons that are perfect for a tablet screen, all of that careful arrangement devolves into a DirecTV remote.

How many buttons are on this thing now? I count 27 on that virtual dial alone (and I’m not acknowledging the fact that the outer ring spins to reveal more). This is in addition to the 14-ish buttons on the Wii U remote’s face, along with the four, I believe, hiding on the top and backside. Despite being able to play an episode of Breaking Bad with a single tap, there are 45 buttons sitting around at all times, waiting and generally getting in the way.

Not so long ago, I talked to the head of television remote design at Vizio. I asked why our remotes were so absurdly overloaded with buttons, and he laughed, acknowledging his own industry’s ridiculousness. Then he explained that Vizio had developed a lot of very sleek remotes with gyroscopes and no buttons. Focus testers would opt for them over the old button-laden designs without fail. Then they’d take the chic remotes home, and within a week, they’d be begging for their old clunky remotes back.

For however silly our giant remotes look, never underestimate the value of muscle memory and a clickable thing that works every single time. When I look at the Wii U with all those virtual buttons, I realize just how confused an idea the Wii U remote may turn out to be. (Stay with me for another tangent. I’ll come back to this, promise.) Remember when the first iPhone came out? Everyone who used a Blackberry said the touch-screen QWERTY would never catch on because it wasn’t 100% accurate, because you couldn’t feel the buttons. Well they were right about the accuracy, a platform weakness for sure, but the touch screen came with so many bonuses—more room for content, flexible UIs, etc.—that it was more than worth the trade off. The pluses outweigh the minuses, and now every premium smartphone uses the exact same touch-typing scheme.

In combining all of these advantageous elements of various controllers, it feels like the Wii U may have stacked their UI weaknesses too high, building a superhero with unlimited promise but an allergy to not just kryptonite, but sunlight, water, and air, too. The Wii U remote might feature the worst of gamepads, touch screens, and motion controllers so much so that it overshadows all of its bests.

The Wii U remote has a bunch of buttons that are great for gaming, but they’re lousy for watching TV. They also bulk up what would be a sleek tablet, and sit around to be erroneously struck during the most dramatic climax of your favorite show.

So the touch screen saves the day. The approach makes logical sense. It offers a second screen to expand content, and it can fill in all of those specific play, pause, and skip functions that a game controller might lack. But those controls cut right into all of its fancy content, destroying that second screen’s core value. And those primary controls aren’t nearly as good as real, muscle-memory-fueled buttons for controlling TiVo anyway. The trade-off is lousy all around.

At this point, Nintendo doesn’t appear to even bother with any clever motion control stuff to solve the problem. Because motion control is generally even more finicky than the hard buttons and the soft buttons. All of this hardware, this expensive, bulky, battery-sucking hardware, is sitting right in your lap. And all you want to do is change the channel.

Maybe the Wii U will be the most fun I’ve ever had gaming. Only time and software developers will tell. But it doesn’t look to be the uber-convenient second screen entertainment revolution that it so hopes to be. No, as unromantic as it sounds, that revolution will probably just be your iPad, right alongside that horrid, trusty DirecTV remote as backup.

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  • Derek

    Wow, what a dipshit, I can't believe you're getting paid for this. Half the buttons on the wheel are channel shortcuts which you're complaining about. Basic navigation appears to be super simple. The worst part is, you're making these judgement without the TVii being released. Whatta Troll.

  • Bhegeta

    This article was no different than saying: "I pulled up this one random remote app on iphone and it had too many buttons for me even though a remote has that many buttons and everyone loves it- iphone sucks hurrr durrrrp derp derp

  • DarthDiggler

    "devolves into a DirecTV remote"

    DirecTV remotes rock, way better than Comcast ones.

    I do agree that the TVii remote User Interface looks ugly at best.

  • Doc

    As you said yourself - the first reaction to touchscreens was negative, then they basically killed the physical keyboard smartphone. At the risk of repeating what has been said already, first try the thing before your criticize it.

    And to be frank, I looked at the picture and immediately saw the utility in the design. So did my 9-year old. 

  • Kitsune Hazard

    The layout makes total sense to me. I've never touched it and just looking at the image, I can easily see why it's set up like that.

    I'm guessing you've never used a universal remote with a touch screen either, huh?

  • Al

    "there are 45 buttons sitting around at all times, waiting and generally getting in the way"

    Well, no. The gaming-specific controls aren't any more "in the way" than my phone's accelormeter and volume controls are "in the way" when I'm tapping out a text message. Humans focus. Why would I even be aware of buttons that are not in my field of vision and currently have no function when I'm doing a different task?

    As for the large number of on-screen buttons, at first I reacted very negatively. But it was a mere 5 seconds before I got it and saw that it'd be fine.

    There are 3 tiers. One is volume related, plus some very basic common controls which will quickly become muscle-memory. One is playback-related. One is channel related.

    When I'm manipulating volume, even if it's the first time I used the device, all I need is one glance to find the volume area, then choose from 3 options.

    When I'm controlling playback, I'll be focussed on the middle ring, and there are only 8 buttons I need be aware of - and if these don't have the rare lesser-used option I want, I can (I imagine) spin the wheel and go hunting, again through a limited range of options.

    As for the channels wheel, it's essentially just one UI element. Spin the wheel until you find the channel you want. At first glance, it looks like a lot to take in, but after minimal use (like 5 seconds with the device) you'll learn to ignore it except for when you are looking for a specific channel.

    Looks great to me. It's a bit in-your-face for the first 5 seconds, but people's relationship with their TV remote typically lasts longer than 5 seconds, so that's fine.

    Seems like a very, very weak premise on which to hang such extreme conclusions. "ONE OF THE WORST UI DESIGNS IN RECENT MEMORY"? "a total mess"? Seriously? 

    The arguments in this are a total mess - one minute criticising it for having too many buttons, the next showing that the most popular options do involve large numbers of clearly laid out buttons; one minute criticising it for a "throw everything in" approach, the next minute, criticising it for not needlessly throwing in a pointless use of motion controls. The whole article hinges on the idea that touchscreen controls can't take advantage of muscle memory unlike physical buttons, even when the buttons (as here) have a constant default location - but then you point out that smartphone touch screen keyboards make use of muscle memory just fine. The only sundae with 300 clashing toppings that don't work together here is the selection of criticisms used in this weak article.


    "...that revolution will probably just be your iPad".  Not everyone brushes their teeth with diamonds, just like not everyone owns an iPad.  

    iPad $520
    WiiU $300  <-- plus it's a powerful video game console (by iPad standards).

    So casual gamers who are not die hard Nintendo fans and who are looking for something with a new idea, AND is more affordable, are more likely to purchase a WiiU over the iPad.  Whether the iPad gets used more, well at that point Nintendo probably doesn't care so long as you bought their damn machine :)

  • Jacob Schwartz

    Couldn't they have faked some smooth scrolling for the sake of a promotional video at least? The motion is absolutely abysmal.

  • Eduardo Nunes

    "You really shouldn't base a whole article on might, maybe, and if. Try the Wii U then make an educated, well informed review. I really don't know why Nintendo makes you Apple fanboys scratch so much, but it is funny!"Totally agreed! I usually like your articles, but this one is just sad...

  • David Fontain

    Was it just me or did the kerning of the type used in the video look like it was done by a 6th grader?

  • Nick

    Agree with everyone below.  You should really get hands on experience before reviewing something so you don't argue invalid points such as all those buttons being on the screen at all times.  Anyone who watched the preview knows they can go away.  As for motion controls and the TVii they already stated that by tilting the controllers allows you to scroll through web pages.  How do you know motion controls have no affect on the TVii?

  • Justin 'J Money'

    I can understand your arguement regarding the amount of buttons on the GamePad screen but these buttons are not only used for playback but also used to control your TV, like a standard TV remote, so it serves more than just one function.  The outer ring of the control wheel rotates and is an easy way to select specific channels.  This outer wheel is also where you will find numbers so that you can select channels using the number rather than an icon. Nintendo is always cautious when developing products so that they are not creating gimmicks but products that are useful, inuitive and unique.  I agree with the others that are commenting here.  You should really get some hands on time with the hardware before trying to form any solid opinions about it.  During my hands on time with the Wii U I have been convinced that the GamePad and Wii U is a device that will change the way we view entertainment in our homes.

  • Robert

    You make some valid points but I agree with Paul that it'd be wise to actually try the device before reviewing it! All reviews I've read of the gamepad have said it is surprising comfortable to hold and use.

    As you can see from the video, the remote dials are not always present on the screen. The outer ring with the TV station shortcuts are programmable so you can very quickly get to your favorite stations (something that is more difficult to do with a traditional remote). I do agree that it does look like a scary number of buttons on the screen, but considering the user context I don't think the physical buttons are relevant. I am assuming they aren't used by the TVii application and don't think the possibility of them being erroneously struck is a serious threat. If you're at the climax of the show you probably shouldn't be fiddling with the remote anyway, but I imagine that accidentally hitting a joystick won't have any effect - impossible to know without trying.

    Also consider that so many people - especially those who will be Wii U owners - are already very comfortable with touch interfaces thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. I don't know that "those primary controls aren't nearly as good as real, muscle-memory fueled buttons." The gamepad does have vibration/rumble functionality (actually originally a Nintendo innovation on the N64) and speakers, so it may provide feedback when the buttons are pressed.

    This comment is getting too long. I'm not saying your concerns aren't valid, and as much as I love Nintendo I'm not trying to argue that it's going to be perfect (I haven't used it yet myself either), but I think it's just too early to conclude that it won't do anything well. Especially with touch devices, much depends on the software and can't truly be determined by simply looking at the buttons you see or even watching that video.

  • Heracles Papatheodorou

    Let us also factor the price difference and integration. An iPad / iPhone would be a prerequisite in the future Apple TV, a WiiU pad is just an extra for your current one.