Remote Controlled

During my recent trip to Fort McMurray, we stayed at the Radisson. This is such a dorky thing to write about, but I’m going to blog about the mattresses at the hotel. That’s right, the mattresses. Evidently, the Radisson is known for their adjustable mattresses. A coworker’s first question about my trip was about the Radisson mattresses. Well, here’s my review…

Mattress Control

The first thing anyone does when they get to a hotel is sit on the bed (before gingerly removing the runner at the foot of the bed). It is so satisfying. When I went to sit, I noticed a remote control on both beds. They looked kind of strange, out of place. I tried to turn one on, but it seemed broken. After playing with the other one for a couple minutes, I honestly couldn’t figure it out. I just left it. The mattress felt left like a deflated air mattress, but that’s the way I found it. It wasn’t until my last day that I realized there were instructions for the mattress control on the bedside table. It’s so weird because the front of the card implies it’s for pillow firmness:

But if you flip it over (like I did because I’m super nosy), you realize it’s instructions for the mattress remote control.

I thought this was such an odd way to represent instructions for the mattress firmness! And then I started to think about the need for the instructions at all. It’s pretty obvious the control is for the mattress. But, it’s not obvious how to adjust the firmness, and honestly I don’t know why it was so hard to adjust, but it was. I kept thinking “they don’t feel any different–how do I know if it’s actually worked? 35 seems like a high number for the ‘ideal’ firmness number, so how many numbers are there?!” I suppose they could have both been broken, which is an issue in itself.

Product Design

This experience reminds me of Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things. In it, he talks about the difference between “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Whenever we design something, we have to consider people’s cognitive loads. That is, what will we expect them to keep in their heads as they use the product, and what can we put into the world (or the product/environment) to make their experience an enjoyable and efficient one?

An example of “knowledge in the world” is the buttons on the remote controls. The remote should be intuitive for anyone to pick up and use. Whenever we design a product, we hope to design something that doesn’t require most people to use the instruction manual. If most people have to use a manual, we have probably designed something too difficult and put too much pressure on “knowledge in the head.” (There are exceptions of course, like IKEA manuals, but c’mon, that’s really not the norm!) If there is too much cognitive strain on customers, they get super frustrated with a product and don’t want to use it, like I did with the remote control. Even IKEA found the value of simplifying their instructions into more manageable chunks!

Relevance to Learning

This mattress experience made me think about “knowledge in the head” that I put on learners. Whenever possible, we should consider what is already out in the world, or what we can put out into the world, to make learning more accessible. This doesn’t mean that we are making learning too “fun” or “easy,” just that we are minimizing any needless barriers. Plus, we live in the age of The Google, as I like to call it. Most everyone has access to the Internet. If we have a question, we can usually find an answer. (Finding credible, reliable information…now, that’s a different story!) What I’m saying is we’d better make the “knowledge in the head” parts of learning interesting, challenging, and “unGoogleable.”

Another aspect to consider is course design. I’ve designed a few manuals and online courses, and with each iteration, I find strategies that put less effort on learners to figure out how to navigate through the course, and more focus on the learning itself. Here are some strategies:

  • Show students the big picture–how does starting at point A help them get to B? I like to share a short introduction, learning objectives, and modules right from the start.
  • Cut down on content, and focus on how students can process and apply key concepts.
  • Provide a job aid or reference material that is separate from the application. Teach people to fish!
  • Use a Table of Contents, headings, and icons when possible and makes sense to do so.
  • Don’t make an appendix too long. If the content is critical to learning, it should not be in an appendix.
  • Turn off features not being used. For example, if a course doesn’t have quizzes or use announcements, turn them off for now.
  • If an activity takes longer to explain that it does to roll out, consider cutting it.

Seriously, who knew a mattress remote control could evoke so much reflection!? It’s funny how some things go out of style, but the important ones, like The Design of Everyday Things, still stick. Maybe even especially so with the rise of our knowledge economy. I wonder what future learners will think when they reflect on the design of their learning experiences?


Norman, D. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things (Revised). Basic Books.

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