Better by Design

Nothing makes a stronger first impression than a well-designed consumer electronics product.
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First impressions count, and whether positive or otherwise, they are lasting ones. And nothing makes a stronger first impression than a well-designed consumer electronics product. Products are often sold (or passed over) based on the customers instant impression of it and no amount of demonstration, selling or discounting will change their mind.

Industrial design, often simply referred to as "product design," can mean different things to different people. For many, it relates strictly to cosmetics or aesthetic style. The best industrial designs, however, often focus on ergonomics, as in how intuitive, comfortable and easy to operate a product is. It can even refer to a product that is easier or more flexible to install.

If a product is seen, consumers want the technology to serve them without looking too "technological." Product design also promotes comfort, safety and ease of use. The interface between the product and user is paramount. And, good design is even about how quickly you can get it out of the box and running, without reading the owners manual of course.

One thing that designers themselves agree upon is that a successful product design is one that integrates a partnership between the designer, engineering and the client. And ultimately for most companies, how well a product sells is a bottom-line measure of design success.

More and more consumer electronics brands are turning to industrial designers for a variety of reasons: to improve their brand image, enhance perceived value, increase sales and market share or make their products more "global." Industrial design has become more than just styling and fashion, it is good business and often critical for the bottom line and some times their customers bottom line, too.

So what does all this have to do with the residential systems market? Everything, because virtually all of the products that this industry markets, sells and installs demand simplicity and ease of use by the end user. It can be the difference between making a sale or not. Whether the customer is happy with their products also could mean the difference between repeat business and referrals or not.

Good design is important to the dealer and installer for other reasons as well. How quickly a product can be programmed, set up or professionally installed means saving time and money.

With all of that in mind, why not ask a collection of the industrys notable custom retailers and systems integrators to name one product that they feel epitomizes excellent industrial design? For this article, they were asked to consider all the types of products that they use in their business. Their preference for their favorite design could be based on any reasoncosmetic, ease of installation, simplicity of use, unique features or a combination of the above.

Final responses included a user interface, a video projector, a plasma TV, two multi-zone receivers and a complete line of electronics. The choices and reasons behind them were as diverse as they were enthusiastic. Clearly this is only a small sampling of all of the excellent product designs in our industry. However, it is useful to see how many of the top custom retailers and systems integrators value industrial design and all of the benefits that it brings to their business.

For Jeff Hoover of Audio Advisors in West Palm Beach, Florida, his response was instantaneous and aesthetic all the way. He chose the Class Delta SeriesCDP 100 CD player, CAP 2100 Integrated and CA-M400 Monoblock Power Amp. Not yet available in the U.S., the Delta Series was designed by Morten Warren of Native Design in London, England, who also designed the Nautilus Series and many other notable consumer products. Hoover, the immediate past president of CEDIA with one of the pre-eminent custom installation firms in the business, described it this way, "From the design of the box to the gorgeous final product, Class Delta Series is the best built, best thought out, best looking product I have ever seen in our industry. To me it is what defines industrial design."

In the multi-room audio product category, many people agree that the most important component is the user interface. For the end-user it represents the system and is what will be shown to the neighbor or brother-in-law rather than the rack of equipment in the closet. User interfaces, including keypads touchscreens and remotes, must be attractive, intuitive and above all easy to use. If they are not, the system may never get used. Perhaps of all products in custom today, UIs have received the highest attention to industrial design from all the major brands of multi-room systems with many excellent examples.

Richard Scholl of Worthington Distribution, a full-service, value added distributor based in Northeast Pennsylvania, agreed on the importance of the user interface. Scholls idea of excellent industrial design was the UNO keypad by Russound, with industrial design by Allen Boothroyd of Cambridge Product Design of Cambridge, England.

"UNO is simple elegance," Scholl explained. "[It features] just enough buttons to not intimidate Mom but with enough buttons and the right amount of feedback to control the Russound CAV6.6 and six pieces of A/V gear. It also fits into a double gang box, the LCD display is large and easy to read and the backlight is selectable to either green or amber."

On the other end of the system, video products continue to be a main driver for residential systems and industrial design is also highly valued here as well. Video products must not only produce an impressive image on the screen but often create an high-quality image in their own right.

Richard Millson, of Millson Multi-Media in Vancouver, Canada, raved about the new Sony Qualia 004 SXRD projector and described it as "one of the most beautifully designed CE products I have ever come across." Though most new projectors are not nearly as large as the big 3-gun CRT versions of yesteryear, the Sony Qualia is large by todays standards of DLP and LCD models. Yet despite its size, Millson described the Qualia as having a "soft curving form with a sculpted almost floating look and feel when it is installed." Millson went on to add, "This projector absolutely exudes quality. Every detail has been thought out to the point that I can honestly say the fit and finish are more reminiscent of a fine German automobile than a piece of consumer electronics."

Of course the hottest category in video continues to be plasma TV. Because plasmas are such a focal point in the home, aesthetics, ease of installation and simplicity of use are just as important as picture quality. And because they are enjoyed in a variety of locations, designing a plasma to be easy and flexible to mount is of real value to the installer.

Brian Hudkins, of Gramophone Ltd. in the Baltimore, Maryland, area has been of one of the industrys top custom retailers since he opened his first showroom in 1976. As his example of outstanding industrial design, Hudkins chose the Loewe Spheros 42-inch plasma TV and its associated mounting systems.

"The Loewe Spheros plasma is a simple expression of flat-panel TV design. The silver trim provides a high tech but elegant look, and the piano black frame around the viewing area adds a touch of luxury and at the same time enhances the perceived picture contrast."

Hudkins added that the various mounting systems available for the plasmas all provide extremely smooth operation as well. "The wall mounting bracket is counterbalanced and allows the TV to be easily and smoothly tilted toward the viewer," he explained. "The motorized table stand and motorized floor stand are truly useful luxuries that allow the TV to adjust automatically towards the viewing area when turned on and then to return to sit square with the wall behind when the TV is turned off."

Not all great industrial design is about cosmetics, though. Ease of installation, ergonomics and simplicity of operation are critical in todays market of high-tech gadgets. Consumers are bombarded with so much technology that they readily appreciate a piece of electronics that is user friendly with easy access to the features that they want when they want them.

At another top custom retailer, Bjorns Audio Video in San Antonio, Texas, their favorite product based on industrial design is the CT610 multi-zone A/V receiver with remote keypads from B&K Components (www.bkcomp.com). The CT610 offers switching for nine independent sources of composite video along with two-channel audio and dual AM/FM tuners. Out of the box the receiver will accommodate six zones and is expandable to 128! Yet despite its comprehensive features, Tom Howell of Bjorns points out that the CT610 is user and installer friendly.

According to Howell, "In spite of its high level of sophistication and extensive range of capabilities, the CT610 is fairly easy to use. The CK1.2 system keypads, used for remote locations, can be easily programmed so that everyone in the home can enjoy one button access to dozens of favorite entertainment options."
Howell added that "setup of the unit is done on a PC where the configuration can be stored for backup purposes and used as a template for future installations.

Yet another A/V receiver that won accolades for its ease of use was the Integra DTR6.4 digital receiver. Dennis Sage, of Dennis Sage Home Entertainment in Phoenix, Arizona, chose the Integra unit for several reasons but highlighted its ease of use for his customers as a primary factor.

"Clients have a very easy time navigating through the receivers many features," he explained. "Plus it has a wide variety of applications for custom installation and connects easily to other products, making it easy for our technicians to integrate into our systems."

Highlighting the importance of customer feedback in the design process, Sage also emphasized that, "Integra asked their dealers to tell them what we needed and their engineers and designers made it happen. To me that shows real passion and commitment."

For these dealers, industrial design is clearly a major factor in their decision making on which brands and products to support. Their reasons and preferences vary and they recognize that outstanding design is a combination of many things that can have different values to different people. Yet most of all they agree that the best designed products are a careful balance of art, science, experience and communication.

Peter Hoagland is an industry marketing consultant based in Warrenton, Virginia.

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