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From Paper to Play

How To Design Multi-Room Control Interfaces To Meet Client Needs
Before joining the manufacturing side of the business, I ran a high-end installation company that specialized in creating systems for some of the most luxurious homes imaginable. One client in particular presented me with an opportunity to design the ultimate (for the time) interactive entertainment system incorporating the best ingredients— from large-screen TVs to Laserdisc players—all of which could be operated with the greatest level of control, right down to the most minute functions.

I was immensely happy with the outline. Unfortunately, I was alone in my opinion. The customer, who indeed wanted and could afford a rich and complex system, absolutely hated my plan. Instead of having to master myriad buttons to control as many system functions, all he wanted was a straightforward, easy-to-comprehend system with singlebutton control for all major functions. His entreaty to me was simple and subsequently became my mantra: “It’s impressive, but it isn’t what I want.” His point was simple yet indicative of a common mistake among service professionals—telling customers what can be accomplished before

Paper prototyping—the practice of creating sketches—will help sell the value of your design by illustrating all its functions and associated benefits. asking what they want to accomplish.

A control interface is one of the many elements that sets a true multi-room audio system apart from a typical listening experience. Of all the ingredients, the interface is the one that is almost entirely customizable, presenting an array of options in a format that complements the user’s level of comfort with the technology, instead of challenging them to learn something new.

The best control interfaces are as challenging as a light switch, but simplicity alone is not enough to show your customers that you have their best interests at heart. Though there are many ways to approach the design process, here is a simple outline that I’ve found to be an effective way to satisfy customers while minimizing post-installation questions and return trips.

Before designing control for a new home, take a look around the old home. If possible, I always liked to meet customers on familiar turf, meaning the home they were about to vacate. See what they like, what they don’t like, and most important, what terminology will make sense once the system is up and running. Installers may be perfectly comfortable with technical jargon, but end-users will most likely prefer labels and phrasing they use in everyday life.

It is critical to understand a customer’s motivation in every room with a keypad. Will music be a main attraction or simply background? If the latter, one button access will make the most sense, but if the room is a primary listening area, then it makes sense to design a more robust interface with a variety of options for selecting the perfect soundtrack.

A little paper buys a lot of assurance. Leave a paper trail. Paper prototyping—the practice of creating sketches—will help sell the value of your design by illustrating all of its functions and associated benefits.

I tend to approach paper prototyping as a history of writing itself, starting out in a very basic form—for example, simple handdrawn sketches on a pad—before moving onto more sophisticated and detailed computer illustrations. My reason for following this tact is simple: pencil drawings are easy to map out and edit with a customer’s input, which we all know can change a dozen times or more. Once the interface is more or less agreed upon, you have enough information to produce a reasonable prototype. A computer sketch leaves little room for guesswork while allowing you to highlight the primary features of the interface.

Once everyone agrees that the interface makes sense, print out illustrations of all the keypads and tape them to the walls where they will be placed. Think of it as a deterrent against last-minute changes. By allowing customers to see a paper prototype in place, they can better imagine what it will be like to use the keypad on a daily basis, and make last-minute changes before a single hole is cut.

At its best, a multi-room audio system is without exaggeration a work of art, with the control interface as its most visible element. However, the fact of the matter is that the customer not only gets final word, but every other word as well. It’s too easy to think in grandiose terms, and it is fine so long as the customer is on board. Otherwise, keep in mind that the most impressive audio/video system is worth nothing if the customer has trouble using it.

Apple offers an excellent example of how to design a technology product with the end-user’s best interests

It is no stretch to think of a control interface—such as this keypad that controls Russound’s Collage system—as a personal and portable player. There are menus to navigate, with all sorts of options before reaching the final goal: entertainment. in mind. While other developers were designing portable media players with scads of features and functions, Apple’s iPod includes only those features necessary for the customer to listen to music or watch videos with the least amount of hassle. The fact that it is sleek and sexy doesn’t hurt either. Today, there are still other players on the market, but the iPod is the uncontested market leader. In a perfect world, all consumer products would be as intuitive to operate.

It is no stretch to think of a control interface as a personal and portable player. There are menus to navigate, with all sorts of options before reaching the final goal: entertainment. The faster and easier it is to reach the goal, the quicker the customer actually enjoys the system, instead of simply using it.

Ultimately, an installer is working with many different elements, each with its own pre-packaged shopping list of features, benefits and, more often than not, challenges. Those of us in the business are almost too familiar with the technology, by which I mean it’s tempting to assume that end-users know almost as much about the products as we do.

It is much safer to assume that the customer knows nothing about what happens between the push of a button and the sound of their favorite songs flowing through the speakers. Early in the process, take time to talk about music as a fellow fan. Ask about how they currently listen to music when at home and on the road. Is the iPod the center of their listening experience, or do they prefer a multi-component high-end system? With this knowledge you can design an interface that is an extension of their current habits, instead of trying to change them. The smoother the planning and learning process the happier the customer and, subsequently, the better the referrals.

Micheal Stein is senior director of research and technology for Russound, based in Newmarket, New Hampshire.