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 L. Sidorowicz is project manager/designer for Southtown Audio Video in Hamburg, NY.