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Central-heating controls - research findings

What people want from central-heating controls

Our research was carried out in two stages - usability testing of 30 diffrent controls by 32 older and disabled people from Rica's User Testing Panel , followed by discussion groups. The testing took place at the Intertek test centre. All testers carried out a set series of tasks and were observed and individually completed questionnaires rating the products.

Of the testers, 16 had some form of visual impairment - half could not see well enough to read a large-print book, and the other half had difficulty seeing well enough to read a newspaper. All of the 32  had limited dexterity, reach or strength.

The discussions

The discussions focused on what consumers want from their central-heating controls. Most of the older and disabled people we talked to wanted controls that were easy to understand and operate. They often gave up on programmers that they didn't understand. They wanted built-in, step-by-step instructions for these, which made it clear how they worked.

Although most people preferred simple controls, some understood the benefits of more sophisticated systems and thought these were useful as long as they were easy to use. Some people wanted automatic controls - for example, controls that wouldn't need resetting after a power cut or when the clocks changed.

Our verdict: design could be better

Our testers found several problems with the design of central-heating controls. However, we feel that these could be put right fairly easily. Below are the main areas of concern.


Instructions for central-heating systems were generally poor - mainly because the type size was far too small. Some had a cramped and difficult to follow layout. Others were unclearly written and difficult to understand. The illustrations did not always help.

Labels on dials and switches

Print was often too small and colour contrast too faint for the lables on the dials and switches.

LCD screens

All of the LCD screens tested were small, and some models displayed tiny symbols that many people found impossible to see. LCD screens were generally criticised because the display did not stand out from the background.

Dials and tappets

Traditional central-heating controls have clock-face dials, with pointers (called tappets) that you move around to set heating times. Many tappets were stiff and painful to move, and some were difficult to see.

Switches and buttons

Light touch switches - Many controls had buttons that were easy to use because they needed only a light touch. However, few of them let you tell by touch or sound whether they'd been pressed. Many were too close together.

Rocker switches - Our testers liked the fact that these switches had a definite positive action. However, some were so small that it was difficult to see which position they were set to.

Dials - Some dials were light and easy to move, but many were too smooth to grip easily or too small to hold comfortably. Few were shaped to make gripping and turning easy.

Buttons - With some controls, you had to keep pressing a button to reach the setting you wanted - for example, to set the time of day. Many people with limited strength or painful fingers disliked this. 

Last updated: December 2012

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