Electronics and audio-visual industries have always been a type of frontier for engineers and designers alike. The market constantly demands new and interesting ways of connecting different devices to communicate between peers. Reinvention and competition shifts the landscape from year to year, and customer expectations are set by external forces. It’s a whirlwind that continues to frustrate and attract design professionals. As someone coming from a more traditional UX role (if there is one) in web development, I didn’t understand how different the AV industry is—and how it would affect my work.
Books relating to UX work typically refer to two scenarios: designing websites and software that lives on a dedicated computer and all other cases. Other is that drawer in your kitchen where you store all your bizarre odds and ends that you can’t possibly fit into any other category. Other is the enticing world that I live in, with intriguing and endless problems to explore. Other could mean embedded systems living within televisions, displays, remotes, kiosks, printers, touch panels, and appliances. The vague category name is unfortunately the best classification, as there are no standards for AV interfaces the same way that Worldwide Web Consortium exists for web. In fact, many of the principles that the WC3 represents—vendor neutrality, interoperability, and openness—cannot be replicated within this other category for specific business reasons that will be discussed below. For UX designers, the AV industry deviates from web and software for several reasons:
- Form factor and tools of creation
- User intent
- Challenges of interoperability
- Usability testing
- Greater chance of “conceptual debt”
This article will cover each of the above topics in depth to demonstrate the challenges and opportunities that the AV industry provides in respect to the UX profession.
Form Factor and Tools
Many AV companies are responsible for creating user interfaces, in addition to the hardware that the user interfaces live on. This provides a much larger range of form factors, or physical sizes and shapes, that a computing device can take. In a sense, this freedom from constraints is liberating. In a truer sense, more opportunity breeds less certainty. By now most people living in developed countries are comfortable with screen displays accompanied by mouse and keyboard inputs. However, what about a large display that sits on the wall? Is it interactive or simply informational? How can the user interact with the device? Will it accept voice input or touch input? At what height is most comfortable for the display to be mounted? Is everything the user needs to complete their task contained in one interface, or do they need to rely on environmental cues or other interfaces to complete their goals? These are just a handful of questions that will need to be addressed before product launch.
Different tools are required to design and configure these form factors. These tools often require several proprietary pieces of software to design, configure, and upload interfaces onto a device. Each manufacturer will have different protocols and methods for achieving this. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say front-end development courses are much more accessible than AV configuration courses. For those UX designers with a background in computer or electrical engineering, this may only prove a minor inconvenience. For the rest of us, we need to make friends with our engineers. Very good friends.
User Intent Is Significantly Different
User goals and tasks for AV equipment are often strikingly different from web and software experiences. Primary use cases for web and software products revolve around information seeking and editing files, while user facing AV products are much more transactional in nature and much less forgiving than their web or software counterparts.
For our web example, consider a typical e-commerce website. To be successful, the customer must investigate and compare products, and perhaps fill out a form should they determine they want to buy the product. While e-commerce websites have a transactional component, this is typically a lower pressure situation and not necessarily essential to the users goals. For instance, a user may determine they are no longer interested and have no need to purchase the product. When you use the web or personal software, you have the chance to explore, experiment, and investigate using your own device. As mentioned earlier, with AV devices the stakes are higher.
For an example of typical AV experience, consider a scenario in which the user must give a presentation in front of a class or conference room. Users need to quickly master equipment that is foreign to them to complete their goal of sharing content with a larger audience. On a web platform, if users struggle to complete their task, they feel frustrated and move on. On an AV platform, if users struggle to complete their task, they risk embarrassment in front of a group of people. Unfortunately, this exact scenario happens more often than not.
Even for those who work in the AV industry, presentations and conferencing have always been challenging. It would be easy to assume that a particular company is to blame for producing poor experiences, but the root of the problem is more complex and baked into the industry and business model itself. The issue lies in the fact that AV systems must frequently interact with products created by different manufacturers, and work with any number of constraints. The next section describes the challenges of interoperability in greater detail.
Challenges of Interoperability
Because the AV industry has traditionally been dominated by hardware products, it has several inherently different qualities from web and software design. By nature, the web was built to be accessible by many to meet the needs of billions of people accessing it from many platforms. And while websites and their designs have been monetized, the web did not begin its journey this way. Initially Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned a means to share information without requiring users to pay a fee or ask for permission. This vision has served as the foundation for the worldwide web and continues to shape its evolution. This universality and decentralized approach is in stark contrast to the way most companies do business.
As a business model, manufacturers build device integrations that work best with their own equipment. This equipment works with proprietary protocols that are reserved from the general public and most importantly competitors. The niche landscape and competitive nature of the industry allows companies to specialize within specific areas of their own products, perhaps audio, displays, or control products. And while historically this has worked to create profit for AV companies, the consequence is that it can result in fragmented experiences for consumers.
Imagine if each web designer determined different placement of menus, different means of triggering and indicating linked content, and different controls for the web page itself. Exhausted users would likely only be able to surf one or two websites a day. Thankfully, this is not how websites are designed. As UX professionals we expect the web to present itself as one medium, in which all websites follow. This allows our audience to accomplish their tasks at hand rather than spend time trying to figure out how to navigate an interface.
Ideally, AV experiences would work the same way—and they do if all of the equipment within the system is the same. A more realistic scenario is that the end experience is a combination of products from multiple vendors. Is there more than one remote sitting on your coffee table? Probably. They likely control different products and integrations, and chances are you had to learn what order to press what buttons on each in order to watch your favorite show. I am not immune to this problem; I have four remotes.
Usability Testing Is Hard
For prototyping and testing purposes, websites and software are wonderful in their self-contained simplicity. What I mean is that usually you can prototype a website and test your users within that single website experience to gauge success or failure. Likely, users will receive all their feedback from the website or application rather than relying on external forces for validation that their task was successful.
It’s common for single AV products to represent one component of an entire system. These types of products manage and trigger other AV devices. For instance, touching a button on a podium may turn on a projector or lower a screen. And sure, you can test the individual pieces, but they can’t provide as meaningful feedback for users in isolation. How would they know that their action produced a successful result? For this reason it is essential to build a working systematic prototype of an environment and not just a single product.
As an example, say you want to answer the question of how effectively can an average user be expected to make a video conference call in a conference room. This might require setting up:
- The primary interactive interface
- A display area
- A camera
- A codec for encoding and decoding large video files over an internet connection
- An internet connection
- A number or address to dial
A complicated setup also limits the possibility of running hundreds of A/B tests or gathering statistically sound data. Qualitative is the name of the game for these types of scenarios.
Greater Chance of Conceptual Debt
Many of us are familiar with the idea of technical debt, which occurs when the wrong technologies are selected to build the product. Conceptual debt is similar in that in can unintentionally cause harm and added expense during the product development process. More specifically, conceptual debt occurs when a user’s mental model deviates too much from the conceptual model. That is, how the user thinks about how a product should work is too different from the actual representation.
Since the AV industry often stands at the forefront of technological advances and how technology interacts with our lives, the opportunity to introduce new systems and processes to users is high. When this happens, a company may spend significant development time on a product that may fail from lack of user adoption.
This can occur within products where digital advances have been introduced to already existing and familiar products. Consider the telephone; most of us have mental models of a receiver that we pick up to answer, make calls, and put our friends on hold. Initially, digital enhancements such as caller ID and timers were helpful and thoughtfully designed; they didn’t detract too much from how we expected phones to operate. The advancement of telecommunications to include video teleconferencing has led to an explosion in the number of features available—so many that it often surpasses the number of buttons and defies the mental models previously created.
Consider the Polycom Star conference phone, shown in Figure 2. Can you confidently answer the following questions?
- How would you initiate a call using this device?
- Can I make a Skype call using this phone?
- Where is the microphone?
- Where is the receiver?
The role for UX designers working on existing products with a high level of conceptual debt proves frustrating, as the amount of improvements necessary generally exceeds deadlines and product development budgets. For this reason, it is essential for user experience designers to place themselves near the beginning of the product development cycle to avoid going down the costly path of conceptual debt.
With all the differences highlighted above, I feel the need to explain that the foundation of my role as a UX designer in the AV industry remains the same as it did in the web design world. A human design-centered process remains at the core of my work; research, design, testing, and iteration are fundamental. How these foundations are applied to products within the AV industry is significantly different, and at times difficult to implement.
I imagine as the UX profession grows and establishes a greater foothold in this niche industry, our roles may shift and perhaps our designs will affect products on a deeper level. I believe the next step is to effect change on the underlying organizations and structures that dictate how these products interact with each other. Until then, I look forward to improving usability, one AV experience at a time.