When it comes to selecting or designing a user interface for a client, perception matters. Just ask Chicago-area integrator John Baumeister.
We all perceive and interact with things differently. Some people like remotes that are touchscreens, while others are more tactile, and prefer buttons. Some want to be able to use the remote with one hand.
When it comes to designer-effective user interfaces for owners of residential AV systems, its important to step back and think like an end user. Often what a veteran systems designer thinks of as intuitive is actually foreign to a client.
I would think that everyone knows the icons for Play, Pause, Stop, and so forth, Baumeister said. But I cant tell you how many times Ive found that people have no idea what those icons mean. This suggests that if youre using icons, you probably want to label them for reinforcement.
In Baumeisters estimation, getting to know your clientreally coming to understand their habits and lifestyleis key to creating a user interface that will fully meet their wants and needs. Thats a point echoed by Joey Kessler, manager of multimedia development for control systems manufacturer, AMX. It sounds simplistic, Kessler said, but up-front communication with that user is the most important thing.
Pete Baker, sales and marketing VP for control systems manufacturer RTI, said that an interface designer must always consider who will be using a particular interface. Not just in terms of the obvious choiceslike the husband, wife, mother, father, or children in the familybut also guests who might be coming there, or babysitters, or grandparents, he said. In that context, its really critical to find the simplest path to getting the results that youre looking for.
In talks with a number of manufacturers, integrators, and graphical user interface (GUI) specialists, it proved surprisingly easy to find consensus on best practices that integrators could follow to maximize the effectiveness of the user interfaces they deliver to their clients. High on their list of recommendations was communicating effectively with a client, as well as creating simple and consistent designs.
COMMUNICATING WITH THE CLIENT
When a sales person for an integration firm sits down with a client, he or she will typically run through the homes floor plans, figuring out what kinds of systems they want throughout the house. At that time, the most important thing is to understand what the client is expecting from the control of that home, noted Dustin Clinton, managing member in Visual Commands LLC, a Crestron-authorized, independent programmer (CAIP) firm based in Bellevue, Washington.
During these upfront sessions with the client, Clinton said, youll be explaining, and, if possible, showing them screen shots of how the screens will look, as well as explaining the control flow[such as] selecting this button takes you to this page in the flow chart of program flowand explaining whats happening in the background when a certain macro is activated. Clinton believes that this all helps set expectations, so that the dealer and client are on the same page in terms of what the finished system should do.
Visual Commands UI specification and detailing process closely parallels the steps Niles Audio takes when developing a new UI. We spend a lot of time going through [the UIs] and storyboarding them, and showing them to other people in the company and to focus groups, said Keith Kennedy, Niles director of new product development. We want to make sure that we havent missed things, that the UIs are going to flow properly, and that we are giving people the ability to get to the things that they [want] without having to go through unnecessary steps.
All of this may seem like a lot of extra work, and some dealers are inclined to speed quickly past it to get into the programming. That mindset, Clinton noted, can be a dangerous trap for designers. You need to have a detailed understandingshared with the clientof how the user interface will work, so that everyone agrees on what constitutes being done. Without agreement on interface parameters, there is no finish line on the project; theres no completion.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
When talking about overly complicating an UI design, AMXs Kessler often uses this example: Most people use about 10 functions on their DVD players remote. But the DVD players specification requires that the remote be able to execute 40-some individual functionsmost of which a typical user never actually uses.
Its easy to have a simple control system for a device that only has a few functions or options. Todays home, though, can contain many systems with a lot of gear associated with each one, many sources, many destinations, etc. With so many devices and so many options, how do you maintain simplicity?
Automation is a big part of the answer. Macros or scenes can trigger a complex series of events with a single button press. Beyond this, consider how many of a devices functions you really need to incorporate into your control system. If that device has a number of calibration options, how often are these realistically used? If its only once every few months, then consider leaving those options out of your planned control system. Achieving simplicity means thinking about which choices and activities your user will be selecting most often, and keeping them readily accessible. Rarely used options can be moved to lower levels in the screen hierarchy.
Dan Wiersema, multimedia specialist and interface designer for control graphics design firm GuiFX recommends making important, frequently used buttons oversized so that users can find them quickly. Even though a large screen allows you to pack a lot of buttons onto the page, that doesnt mean you should do so. Clutter is the antithesis of simplicity, and users easily become confused when there are too many buttons on a single touch screen page. Most savvy designers use the drill-down approach instead.
How do you satisfy users whowithin the same familymight have dramatically different ideas of how they want their control system to work? One approach that Baumeister has used is to give different members of the family their own remoteone that is very simple and that contains just the controls and functions that user wants, while having one remote that is fully feature- and function-laden.
Translating this custom-controls approach to touch panels might mean that the main screen is a sign-on page. Along those lines, Baumeister uses biometrics and notes that one of Crestrons touch panel models has a built-in finger scanner that allows different family members to identify themselves to the system with a swipe of the thumb. For panels not so equipped, the main screen could be a sign-on page with a button for each user. Once the system knows who the user is, they can be taken to whichever user interface theyre most comfortable witha basic one, or one for power users. Eric Smith CTO of control systems manufacturer, Control4, offers a variation on this theme where the default user interface is the simple one, but a button placed in an unobtrusive part of the screen lets power users get a more feature-laden page by pressing it.
Consistency is also a key to an effective user interface. Volume buttons, for example, should always appear on the same place on each screen. Button placement should also be consistent from room to room.
There is also the need to take particular care that sensitive buttons are not accidentally used. Take, for example, a VCR, Kessler explained. If you have Play, Stop, and Pause, control icons, and you were going to add a button for Record, you wouldnt want [that button] to be physically near the other buttons. And, you wouldnt want it to look just like the Play button. You really want it to stand out. Kessler suggests that interface designers graphically separate such a crucial button from the other buttons as well as keeping that button in the same place from one page to the next.
For control systems manufacturer Exceptional Innovation, consistency means holding true to Microsofts Media Center interface, around which EIs Life|ware control software is based. Nicole Gersper, the companys director of product management, said that the companys number one belief is that that television is the central user experience in the home. Consumers are certainly heavily experienced with television, and more and more of them are gaining experience with Media Center, as well. EIs Life|ware lets users control their home with the same interface that they use to access music, photos, and videos. As its presently implemented, Life|ware doesnt offer a range of customized looks. For reasons of consistency and to leverage user experience with Media Center, Gersper said that EI follows Media Center 100 percent. And if Media Center moves forward to become skinnable, for example, or offers different options around that, wed move forward in conjunction with Microsoft on that, she added.
On the ergonomics front, Kessler raised the issue of catering to an aging demographic. If you have an older customer who might have diminished eyesight, youll want to make larger buttons and text labels for them, he said. This is a case where sacrificing some aesthetic properties for the sake of visibility and usability would be a smart choice.
And, as it is true that users come in all sizes, so do fingers. Designers, therefore, have to make sure that the user interface design is a good match for end users.
The graphics that can be applied to touch panels is part of their appeal, and in that sense, helps sell the overall package. But if taken to an extreme, where theres a different design in each room of the house, this is clearly going against the consistency best practice. GuiFX has approached this issue with what they call their Flex templatesa set of designs that gives four different graphical looks, but all share the same controls layouts, navigation, and other crucial features.
Flex might offer an NFL theme in one case, or a wine theme for the kitchen, and a pool theme for a game room. But the interface is still consistent from one room to another, Wiersema said.
AND THE AWARD GOES TO…
Its easy to design user interfaces with flashy, arresting graphics, but its much harder to come up with ones that users will come to love and depend on. Accomplish the latter, and youve hit pay dirt, as Apple can attest. The ideas mentioned here are some of the fundamentals of this goal. Though often overlooked, they are crucial to the ultimate success or failure of a system design.
As Dustin Clinton noted, you may have racks and racks of equipment in a clients home, but the user interface is the part that the client sees and feels and works with. So it counts for a lotboth to your customer and to you.
Alan R. Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a networking consultant and freelance writer covering the fields of communications, networking, and digital entertainment.