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It’s all about the experience

User experience is not just about designing interfaces. It touches on all aspects of designing spaces or systems and incorporates elements of both research and design. Greg Jeffreys, chair of AVIXA’s Standards Steering Committee and Visual Displays founder, explores UX and its future relevance to the AV world.

It’s all about the experience

User Experience (UX) is a term that’s entered common currency in recent years. Having spent some years in a strategic focus on understanding and celebrating what good user experiences comprise in AVIXA, they’re in the final phases of publishing a new User Experience Design for Audiovisual (UXD4AV) standard, on whose task group I serve. UXD4AV has the potential to have a significant and strategic impact upon the AV industry – in excess of any other standard we’ve previously produced, underlined by its connection with the human-centred and wellbeing imperatives of our now indefinite co-existence with global pandemics.

Since lockdown started, I’ve been writing, interviewing, discussing, presenting webinars – and generally had my thinking cap on. Of all the polling, the discussions, the feedback, there has been virtually nothing that does not connect directly or indirectly with UX and its future relevance to our AV world. These are my personal views, not AVIXA’s, which I need to make clear as some views expressed by qualified observers don’t always make for comfortable reading. User needs from AV are changing hard and fast now, needs that can be filled by our industry, if suitably skilled-up in UX, but is far from a foregone conclusion.

UX has already entered the consciousness of AV professionals through a number of routes, such as user interface and control panel design. But UX is not just about designing interfaces. It touches on all aspects of designing spaces or systems – both physical and digital – and incorporates elements of both research and design.

Let’s be clear what we mean by ‘UX’ or ‘User Experience’. The field of UX derives mainly from Human-Centred Design (HCD). There’s an ISO standard that’s the go-to reference point here (ISO 9241-210:2019(E)). It self-describes thus:

“Human-centred design is an approach to interactive systems development that aims to make systems usable and useful by focusing on the users, their needs and requirements, and by applying human factors/ergonomics, and usability knowledge and techniques. This approach enhances effectiveness and efficiency, improves human well-being, user satisfaction, accessibility and sustainability; and counteracts possible adverse effects of use on human health, safety and performance.”

Some UX practitioners prefer to use the term User-Centred Design (UCD), which distinguishes itself from HCD by reducing the element of user psychology and emotions. Bearing in mind that AV professionals will start from a position of inexperience, UCD is probably the most appropriate starting aspiration: we tend to be more engineers than psychologists! In any event, HCD’s ISO standard was a key benchmark in our UXD4AV task group, and we’ve been working to versionise it for pro-AV, with appropriate balance between simplicity and complexity.

UX concerns reverse engineering, relative to mainstream AV specification practice. It starts with identifying different types of user group, then researching, conceiving and defining good user outcomes and experiences for respective users and their intended use cases, then working iteratively and interactively to express these in hard, unambiguous deliverables and work through the processes required to procure, deliver and certify them. It doesn’t end there – which is the point – but how do we get these first steps right? How can we be secure we have captured what ‘intended use’ is? One UXD4AV task group member is Adam Banks of, who worked for many years at Google as a leader in AV and then UX. According to Adam, the AV industry has a way to go yet:

“I’ve run a lot of user research into use of AV systems in corporate environments, and the predominant feelings that come through are frustration, annoyance, confusion, and various other negative feelings. Most AV systems are not very user-friendly; they are designed through an engineer-led approach, rather than being user-led. The design process is backwards… the AV industry starts with engineers and systems and boxes and eventually gets to users… the entire process needs reversing so that the first questions asked are ‘What do users need? What are their goals? What do they already do? What are their frustrations?’ (amongst many other questions).

“Designers of AV systems should focus on helping users to achieve their goals, not on making a system just work. The difficulty for users in working with most AV systems is not intentional – it arises from a lack of focus on user goals, and on lack of knowledge and experience within the industry.

“No user has the goal to ‘use a meeting room’ or ‘control a video conference’. Their goals are much more high-level, such as ‘communicate with my team’ or ‘present a proposal’. Or, at a higher level still, ‘get a promotion (through better communication and collaboration)’. Only by starting with these types of goal and working backwards – and being willing to learn from research and iterate on designs – will the AV world progress into user-centred design.”

Adam’s comments reminded me of a recent conversation on a university campus where a friend runs the AV, recounting a visit from their integrator’s account manager, who arrived singing the praises of the then new Samsung 85” display. Changing the subject quickly, he was led to a completely new space, where a fresh approach had been requested by the teaching staff, and was given a twenty-minute briefing. The second this was over; the account manager didn’t skip a beat: “I think the Samsung 85” display will work really well here.” Some of us are old enough to remember the Not the Nine O’Clock News BBC satirical sketch show (long before Rowan Atkinson visited Mr Bean upon us). One sketch had a Marxist cell of activists sitting amongst Molotov cocktails, earnestly studying Marx’s Das Kapital. The lumpen prose, haltingly read by their leader, proved too much within a couple of sentences, upon which he declared: “Sod this, let’s go and kill someone!”

It’s hard when you’ve designed apparently successful systems for many years, not to come to the conclusion that what the client really wants and needs is something which bears uncanny resemblance to what you’ve always supplied. And, having received the client briefing, it’s tough not to reach straight for our technology toolkits. So, before we storm into a system design, there are two key non-negotiable UX elements we need to highlight. They might seem threatening and foreign to some of us AV veterans, so let’s address them head on.

Firstly, it’s essential to talk to users: not just to procurement and other key stakeholders, but to users. Adam Banks adds some detail:

“There are two broad areas of user research – quantitative, and qualitative. Quantitative research is about numbers, data, usage stats, sensor information etc, which can provide insights into WHAT is happening (e.g. how often are people using a room or system, or pressing a certain button for a specific feature).

“Qualitative research focuses on the WHY. Why do certain things happen: why do some things work; why are some ideas / features / systems popular? This knowledge can only be gleaned from one source, namely users. We can observe them, talk to them (in structured ways), use surveys or feedback systems. It’s all about learning real insight from real users.”

Secondly, UX design is an iterative process. Not only is it iterative in the research and development phases, it’s iterative even after systems are installed. Yes, it never ends! This is a difficult thing to square when an integrator is selling to end users: won’t it look like we can’t get it right first time? Henry Ford famously said that if he’d asked users what they wanted before he produced the first production line car, they’d have asked for faster horses. As miraculous a step-change the Model T Ford represented, drivers appreciate progress: design doesn’t stand still, it develops and evolves. Car users enjoy the comfort, speed, safety and reliability present-day models provide, resulting from continuous user feedback. The moral is that no matter how good a solution is today, tomorrow you can improve it. This attitude shift in the way AV systems are sold and executed is not a threat to the AV industry: it represents a significant opportunity.

Let us consider the two points together: talking to clients, then systems being iteratively improved before, during and after installation. Leaving aside talking to users BEFORE designing systems, how often do the designers talk to users AFTER the system goes in? Once in a blue moon, maybe?

So, here’s the opportunity. ‘Dear client, by talking to your users before designing and installing your system, I guarantee that this will not only improve the result I can give you, you can be confident that we’ll already have the buy-in of the people actually using it. However, part of the deal is that you have to give us the maintenance contract. But if you do, I will also guarantee that we will keep talking to your users and will continuously develop and evolve your system so it’s always bang up to date and providing best value.’ The opportunity is not only to make more money from happier clients, it’s to make your company an essential part of their team and infrastructure – and to engineer out the possibility of your competitors inveigling themselves through the back door.

UX is a recognised industry in itself now, with a mature market of technology and products to create ‘UX labs’ which streamline and facilitate the processes of UX research in temporary and permanent spaces. Adam Banks and his business partner, another UX researcher formerly at Google, used their combined decades of UX AV and UX lab design to form four years ago. Globally there are several such UX specialists who can help AV professionals expand their skills into this domain too.

AVIXA’s new UXD4AV standard not only offers the chance to get into the higher levels of system planning, it offers the opportunity for AV teams to be included at the earliest project planning phases. The standard follows four phases, which should be seen as a continuous cycle:

  • Research and gather as much information as possible about users and stakeholders. Use open questions to elicit their real needs and avoid making suggestions that can influence responses.
  • Plan/specify. The AV design team must clearly understand and define the priorities and requirements of the user before they begin designing or prototyping solutions. Additionally, buy-in and agreement must be obtained on behalf of the stakeholders to ensure no misunderstandings or assumptions have been made by the AV design team. From this produce a Project Purpose and User Requirements Specification.
  • Prototypes allow testing of different solutions to determine how well specific design challenge is being solved. To ensure the best alignment of the solution with users’ requirements, generate a wide range of ideas for prototypes that might solve the design challenge identified in the Project Purpose and URS.
  • Formally capture and measure the design/prototype’s ability to meet the documented user requirements. End-user feedback on prototypes is essential. There are several methods to gather that input. The easiest is simply to explain an idea, using a rough prototype, and ask users for their reactions. (Remember, a prototype can be as simple as a sketch or Post-It notes.) As prototypes become more refined, it is possible to watch users interact with them and ask for their thoughts during this process. It is also possible to measure a user’s speed and acuity of task performance with a highly refined prototype. Each of these assessments provides a different level of confidence in the proposed solution to the design challenge.

The complexity with which the standard is used and the number of iterations used throughout the processes will be a practical choice that the UXD4AV standard’s users make themselves as appropriate. There will be a user guide published in tandem, for which the task group has the ambition for it to be the go-to practical reference work.

As AV moves to position itself to be regarded and respected as a profession on a par with IT, adding UX design and awareness into the AV marks a positive and practical step along this road. I’ve read with interest recently articles approving of IT’s ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) and ITSM (IT Service Management) standards. When landing probes on Mars, scientists look for indicators that life can exist. What are the vital signs of life that any given profession exists? Processes and certifications that mark every step from pre-planning to end-of-life and continuous improvement of IT systems is proved to the outside world by the existence of ITIL. UXD4AV can represent a landmark milestone in demonstrating to users that AV has robust and scalable processes – for projects and systems up to any size or complexity.

A colleague who, until recently, ran the AV and media for a global bank, made this point forcibly. He recounted how, when assessing responses to major tenders, these were effectively reviews of the rigour and substance of the tenderers’ processes; much more than being granular analysis of line items and costs.

We have to work on the assumption that we’re in for a punishing recession. The AV industry may suffer, but it’s apparent that AV will be ever more essential when users are spread out over wider areas within rooms and spaces. Lisa Perrine, CEO of Cibola Systems, a pioneer practitioner in using HCD in AV, and another task group member in the UXD4AV standards development, is clear about the benefits available to AV professionals and the users: “The current pandemic and social unrest underscore the need for change, and new constraints will fuel creativity for those willing to embrace that change. We in the AV world will only be as relevant as our stakeholders perceive us to be. Co-creation is now more important than ever.”

Henkel Academy, California
Lisa Perrine, CEO of Cibola Systems Corporation based in California, is a member of the UXD4AV standard task group and has been a pioneering practitioner in Human-Centred Design. Perrine is a Faculty Member of the Design Thinking University Course, taught at many campuses across the USA and teaches multi-day design courses in the days leading up to the InfoComm shows (another sad casualty this year of the Covid-19 pandemic).

Cibola was retained by Henkel Academy in Culver City, California for this challenge: How might we create a single, shared learning environment to promote our seven brands, and still allow each of the brands to differentiate themselves with their customers?

Using the principles of human-centred design, Cibola began by studying online artifacts that included photographs of Henkel’s existing experience centres around the world. Initial interviews with Henkel’s leaders posed open-ended questions about the importance of training to brand promotion, the flow of training sessions, and the common threads amongst the brands. The interviews provided critical insights into the importance of light, colour, interaction and engagement.

Prototypes played a critical role in this project’s development. Initially these included storyboards for multiple use cases and 3D renderings of the space. As the design developed, on-site equipment mock-ups helped Henkel’s leadership make decisions about direct view LED display pitch, tracking camera usability, and signage system functionality.

Henkel now has a space that is digitally brandable at the touch of a button. The seven partner brands use the space for a multitude of activities, including internal meetings, training, product launches, Facebook Live events and photo shoots. Within a year of moving to this space, Henkel moved up to the number two slot beauty company in the US.

Client: Henkel North America
Location: Culver City, California
Architect: Ware Malcomb
AV Consultant and Integrator: Cibola Systems

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Posted: 7th September 2020

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