IT/AV

User-Centric Solutions

Ensuring a seamless user experience is a critical aspect of deploying solutions that are cost effective and sustainable. By “sustainable,” I mean that these solutions achieve a high level of productivity and utilization, and that they’re designed to grow with the client organization and adapt to the evolving needs of a dynamic user base. In order to reach those goals, system designers and enterprise managers are adopting innovative concepts and tools, and they’re going beyond the interface to “walk a mile” in the users’ shoes.

To develop an intuitive and durable experience requires a deep understanding of users’ jobs and their institutional culture, and even some idea of the strategic direction of the client organization. Further complicating the puzzle, it’s important to include both users and system-support personnel in this analytical process. A simple example of that principle might be a town hall or any other location that requires both sound reinforcement and recording of a meeting. Audio levels can vary widely as participants face in different directions, adjust their clothing or place documents between their mouth and the mic. Although digital signal processors (DSPs) can be programmed to adjust levels automatically in a variety of conditions, controls must also be quickly accessible to compensate for the usual unforeseen circumstances.

Combining a high level of automation with rapid access to manual level control and the EQ required in this instance is not rocket science, but it does require thorough knowledge of user habits and on-site personnel’s skill levels. The need to understand the users’ entire ecosystem applies whether your users are knowledge workers, creative staff, museum visitors or even management.

Common Roadblocks

In AV/IT systems creation, the user experience is too often thought of as a simple combination of basic equipment functions, ergonomics and GUI design—but that incomplete thought process can sometimes lead to unintended consequences. In an effort to maximize project profitability or meet tight deadlines, design and integration fi rms sometimes try to save time and/or money by using boilerplate designs created for similar applications, room layouts and user populations. Unfortunately, the economics of AV/IT system deployment also encourages designers and account executives to allocate minimal resources to user-centric customization. As time and budget permit, most system designers do conduct a basic analysis of the users’ workf ow and create a map of the logic required for a useful control interface. Sometimes, they go as far as to optimize the selection and physical layout of displays and other hardware to meet specific user needs. Rarely, however, do we have the luxury of conducting a complete analysis of users’ workflows and support ecosystems, and only then commence with the design of a unique solution that is optimized to produce the best possible experience.

Roadblocks to user-centric design extend beyond the economic habits and time constraints of our industry. User stakeholders are sometimes reluctant to allocate the time and money required to develop an excellent user experience. Superior user-experience design costs more, it might put greater upfront time demands on the user workforce and their representatives, and it sometimes can be seen as an unnecessary diversion of human and fiscal resources.

Training Is No Luxury

One recent system-deployment trend emphasizes restricted user training, with time (and costs) limited to “only as much as is really needed.” That approach, combined with minimal user involvement in the development process, can be viewed as a cost-effective strategy. The reality, however, is often very different. Even extensive training won’t compensate for user-unfriendly design, and, when end-user training is also shortchanged, the results can be very unfortunate. Here’s a good example of this anti-confluence of less-than-best practices:

In the rollout of new multimedia conference rooms designed by a major New York NY consulting firm, and installed by one of the area’s leading integrators, for a high-tech company’s headquarters, user training was limited to a couple of brief scheduled sessions, augmented by laminated cheat sheets. To make matters worse, there had been virtually no interaction during the design stage with actual end users (apparently due to time and budget constraints). Because of those flaws in the deployment process, the rooms were poorly received, underutilized and quickly developed a “bad rap” that did nothing good for the reputation of either the design fi rm or the integrator. Problems included HDMI cables that were too short for typical meeting use, screens too small for spreadsheet and CAD-heavy content, difficulty establishing connections with remote sites, and even damage to “removable” wallmounted wireless touchpanels due to lack of training and user error.

Be My Guest

Convincing stakeholders of the value of user-centric design might take some extra work, but it pays off in the long run with better user outcomes and more durable customer relationships. With systems becoming more powerful and organizations becoming more diverse, and with users expecting the ease of use they get from smartphone apps, it might be necessary to move beyond some of the old, simplistic, “efficient” user-experience-design processes.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Disney Imagineering on the deployment of some of its early videoconferencing rooms. Those Imagineers are among the pioneers in the creation of seamless user experiences, and they’re masters at walking a mile in the shoes of their “guests.” I often heard them repeat the mantra of “personalization, customization, simplicity and connectivity.” That being said, they were among the most difficult “guests” my employer ever had. We finally had to put a lock on their equipment cabinets (and hide the keys) because they couldn’t resist going behind the racks and “optimizing” their systems in interesting ways that, sometimes, were anything but sustainable.

Thinking of end users as “guests” is a good first step to understanding what is required to create a good user experience. And, although most users leave their screwdrivers at home, you have to avoid anything that gives them the feeling that something has to be fixed or changed for them to achieve their work or meeting objectives. As Don Norman, the great pioneer of human-centered system design, once said, “There is no such thing as operator error.” To avoid user “error,” it’s very important to have an in-depth knowledge of users’ tasks, their workflows, the language they use to describe or understand those tasks, and even the way they perceive their work environment.

A simple thought experiment has proven useful in finding the kind of empathy required for designing seamless user experiences. Imagine yourself as the user, entering the new conference room/museum/hotel lobby, as if for the first time. What are you looking for? How do you feel? What catches your attention? But remember: You’re no longer a designer, programmer, engineer or problem-solving technologist. Rather, you are an accountant, salesperson, tourist or knowledge worker…or maybe even a technophobic senior exec.

Useful Tools

There is a variety of software tools available to organize the kind of complex information involved in developing user-focused solutions. Airtable, for example, is a collaborative tool that combines database and spreadsheet functions used for product development, user research and issue tracking that can be used to manage the kind of complex data involved in the development of transparent and enjoyable user experiences. Slack is a workflow platform that helps assure that useful communication is achieved between all the collaborators on a complex project. More specific to our field, Crestron Commercial Studio helps automate and simplify the creation of user interfaces across large or complex AV/IT systems, leaving more time (and budget) to customize UIs and even add new features based on user feedback.

Because the user-focused approach might involve some new skills and thought processes, much can be learned from reading the thoughts of innovators and practical experts in the field. A good place to start is The Design of Everyday Things by the aforementioned Don Norman, whose work was at the foundation of user-centric design and was the basis for MacOS and similar innovations. Understanding user psychology and physiology are also key components of good user-experience development, and that extends to an understanding of everything from color perception to organizational behavior. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, the user-psychology primer 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People by Susan M. Weinschenk and Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal are three popular texts that might be helpful.

There are also emerging “standards” in user-focused development. Although the idea of standardization for creating unique user experiences might sound like an oxymoron, it actually makes some sense to have at least a framework of best practices for collaborating and communicating about this creative process. The Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association (AVIXA) has begun work on a “User Experience for AV Design Standard.” It’s a great idea, and, if nothing else, it could help reverse the established industry process of thinking of the technology first, the cost second, the features third and the user experience as the icing on the cake. For more info, you can go to www.avixa.org/standards/userexperience-design-for-av.

It Takes A Village

Becoming proficient in creating engaging and transparent user experiences takes more than expertise and organizing software. It takes a team—even a community—to keep creative channels open to the needs of targeted users. Many online resources can help you more effectively move into user-experience design. The UX Collective, at uxdesign.cc, offers a variety of “curated stories on usability and design.” Recent practical, insightful favorites include pieces on conducting user interviews, as well as on creating a design principle for your team. Another useful online resource is the community maintained by the Interactive Design Federation at www.interaction-design.org/community.

Although mostly focused on software app development, there are also courses that go beyond interface design and embrace a user-centric view of creating technological experiences. General Assembly is a “school” that teaches advanced skills, such as programming AI, through online and in-person classes. It recently introduced a 10-week User Experience Design Immersive course that seems to cover all the bases—with topics such as user interviews and research, participatory design, information architecture and interaction design.

Once you start to feel comfortable in your users’ shoes, one of the first things you’ll realize is that they have needs that are different from yours—and maybe even different from those of senior stakeholders in their organizations. Another common insight: You are not designing for engineers or other system designers working in a lab—unless, of course, you are.

Consistency Equals Comfort

When people use technology to enhance their meeting processes or workflow, anything that distracts them from the task at hand is seen as a problem. For that reason, the familiar is almost always better. Many organizations (and even entire industries) often seek to standardize their user interfaces and environments. In the case of larger deployments—whether it’s across a university or an enterprise—consistency of design, layout, logic and functionality can become an important factor in assuring maximum usability and productivity.

A user who walks into a Bloomberg conference room or a Halo VC room in New York or Singapore will usually confront the same basic, familiar room layout, functions and icons that they know from their home office. Similarly, any professor at the University of Maryland will have little difficulty making a presentation, or interacting with the systems, in dozens of similarly programmed rooms around the main campus. Even a time-traveling System 7 Mac user from 1992 could likely sit down at a 2018 iMac Pro running High Sierra and be productive, almost without missing a step. Contrast that with a user confronted with an overdesigned room-control touchpanel that features layered menus with idiosyncratic icons and a logic table that only an engineer’s mother could love.

Even when a system designer has taken the time to meet with typical users in advance, and GUI drafts have been sent to customer management for testing and comments, chances are that no actual users have tried to use the system before it is cast in stone. When possible, it’s a great idea actually to pre-build a typical room, and then get some varied frontline users actually to put the system through its paces. This is even more critical when the potential user base extends beyond a single department or institution. Assembling a focus group of typical users to test-drive a system can be time consuming, but, if your client understands and appreciates the value of this kind of feedback, the results can be truly exceptional.

If you apply your skill and imagination to accommodating users’ unique workflows and creativity, it’s possible to create solutions that inspire your customers—and maybe even raise the level of your team’s creative experience.

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