Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

Nov 14

Written by: Heather L. Sidorowicz
11/14/2013 2:36 PM  RssIcon

Grab a handful of AV magazines and you’re sure to see some pictures of AV rack installs. Every week I’m sure to see articles about a rocking rack in my inbox, and each year at the CEDIA Electronic Lifestyles banquet an award is given for the best rack. Maybe us industry people get so excited about racks because we spend so much time with them—terminating, testing, and troubleshooting; we know that it is the brain, heart, and brawn of the system. Yet, I find our industry’s fixation on the rack to be misguided. It is the Interface that is the true soul of the system.

Here is why:

It is the only part of the system the client actually touches. Racks tend to live in closets, basements, or equipment rooms. Maybe, the client will bring a friend into the space to show off the color-coded wires and fancy flashing buttons, but the rack is meant to be hidden. The remote, touchscreen, or app is what the client interacts with on a daily basis. It is where the magic really happens as far as they are concerned.

Recently, when walking through my clients framed house, the wife declared that she would not be using the system. She informed me that she was uncomfortable with technology and was only doing this for her husband. Their rack would live in the basement and their house was to be controlled via a remote and an iPad. After we finished the system, she called to tell me she was playing Pandora through the system using her iPad. It was magic to her and it had nothing to do with those boxes in the basement, no matter how nicely the wires were run.

If the system isn’t easy to use, it’s not worth the money. You can install the best receiver, the best speakers, and the most riveting flat screen, but if the wife can’t turn it on, the system is worth nothing. The interface must be intuitive. Think about how Apple designs its operating systems. Have you ever ended up on a new screen on an Apple device? You may think, I don’t know how to do this, but it should work like this, and BAM, that is exactly how it works.

Last night I was using the Apple remote app while watching a movie (ironically my remote was down) and wanted to fast forward (there is no fast-forward on the app). I decided to try swiping forward and guess what? The movie fast-forwarded. Swipe again and I had a faster-forwarding speed. No one had to teach me. No training had to be done. Our interfaces should be the same way. They need be so easy to use that the client can hand it off to the babysitter as they walk out the door to dinner.

Think you’ve done a good job programming? Use the “mom test.” Hand the remote over to your mom and see if she can navigate.

This is only the beginning. Our industry has taken steps in the right direction as far as user interface goes, but we’re not there yet. I wandered around CEDIA EXPO looking for the perfect GUI, and there are some good ones out there. I still believe, however, that we can do better. In this age of iPhones, apps, and Nest products, we need to focus and strive to do better. Please remember this great line from Nest’s Tony Fadell, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” The client does not need every button a receiver remote has. Keep it simple! If you just have to have those buttons available, put them on a hidden page. If you can program a 27-step macro with variables, gold star for you, but if you’re programming a slower system and the client has to wait three minutes before anything happens, then you’ve failed.

Yes, we have taken great strides. If you wanted a universal remote a few years ago the best you could get was a black-and-white icon built into a heavy two-handed block of a remote. Today, we not only have color icons (for the baby boomers) but two-way feedback! IP control is another leap in the right direction; no more lag time between when you pressed a button and when something actually happens.

Not too long ago we didn’t have options like Control4, URC’s Total Control, and Savant (we did have Crestron, but not the Crestron of today). The pieces to the ultimate interface are coming together and we are poised to make them fit. So the next time you find yourself snapping photos of your rack, remember to make sure the part the client actually uses is up to snuff. Then, let’s share that and award each other for outstanding interfaces. Not only will clients thank us, but our industry will become stronger. This is what will separate us from the mass market automation and control systems.Heather Sidorowcz
Heather L. Sidorowicz is project manager/designer for Southtown Audio Video in Hamburg, NY.


10 comment(s) so far...


Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

Great article, Heather! Spot on!

By Dennis Burger on   11/14/2013 3:50 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

You are absolutely correct. Yet we still get resistance from clients when it comes to selling a simple programmable remote. One client balked at a less than $500.00 dollar control that he and his family were going to use every day. In the next breath he was telling me about the $20K he spent on his patio this summer. The patio will be covered under snow and not useable for six months.

By George Fraser on   11/14/2013 5:17 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

The rack is the heart and the control is the brains. Both need to be healthy.

By Mike Schwarz on   11/14/2013 5:22 PM

Sell the Control of the system FIRST

(I will not discuss the double entendre of the article title, wow!)

One should always sell the "system interface" "remote control" or whatever BEFORE any actual equipment is discussed.

To the end user the "interface" "remote" IS the system.

You will close the deal on the control AND the behind the scenes hardware.

Happy Selling, Ask for the sale! You have earned it!

By Tim Sorrentino on   11/15/2013 2:04 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

I will discuss the title. Does that mean an awesome system with poorly designed remotes is a butterface?

By Kevin on   11/15/2013 3:05 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

Right on! I would only wish that software folks would listen, too. They get so close to their programs, it's easy to assume that everyone is a "power user" and clutter screens with hundreds of options. For lots of us, theirs is just one of many programs that we occasionally use. Make it easy to hide the "advanced" stuff. KISS rules!

By Bill Whitlock on   11/15/2013 3:38 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

I don't know why it was necessary to create a false dichotomy to write this article. I suppose I could write an article titled "why I care more about not getting electrocuted by my equipment than an interface", but I'm not sure what the point would be, I'm pretty sure the goal is to not get electrocuted AND to have a great interface.

Similarly, the racks are of supreme importance because they affect EVERYTHING. They affect reliability and they affect how quick and easy the system is to service, and they reflect a whole lot how well a system was installed. Does caring about that somehow stop someone from creating a great interface? Of course not, just the opposite, the company that cares about that is probably also going to care more about the interface as well.

By Jonathan on   11/16/2013 5:41 AM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

Thank you all for your comments. It is exciting to see that so many of you agree!

A note to Johnathan - I am not talking about an 'either or' scenario. I am merely suggesting that our industry tends to praise the rack more than the interface. As I stated, even CEDIA gives and award for best rack but no accolades for interface.

Yes, the rack is extremely important; it needs to be properly terminated and designed. I would just like to see more attention given to the part the client interacts with, and it seems many agree.

Thanks again...

By Heater Sidorowicz on   11/16/2013 1:10 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

Our biz is still stuck on stupid, still too many salesmen and impressionable geeks blinded by Shiny New Things.

And yeah, the title of the article is a little weird.

We need more women like Heather in the biz. As somebody who's blown labor budgets trying to impress my peers with meticulous racks and also seen many clients fumble or complain that 'the system is difficult' because the programmer made it or the company didn't really care about it, my direct response to Heather is we need more women in the biz.

The interface is where the rubber meets the road.

The manufacturers don't make money on software so it's not likely to ever be a CEDIA award entry. But it should.

By Ryan King on   11/16/2013 8:22 PM

Re: Why I Care More About Your (Inter)face Than Your Rack

I think they are both important. A rack that is a mess is impossible to trouble shoot and will have more issues then one that is done correctly. Your points about the panels are all also valid. I guess that is why we call them "SYSTEMS"

By Jonathan Herbster on   11/16/2013 9:04 PM

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