Familiar Face

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Since the introduction of the first programmable touchpanel in 1988, audiovisual system integrators and consultants have been given a blank slate to determine how their customers will interact with a system. While this technology introduced the audiovisual industry to the world of software development, unfortunately it also allowed consultants and integrators to wait until the last minute before detailing how the user interacts with a system.

There is a fundamental mismatch between the ways we design hardware systems versus what is required to design a successful "soft" interface. This has been demonstrated by numerous unsuccessful system interfaces this industry has produced over the years. Now it's time for audiovisual designers to rethink the way we sell, design and build systems. We need to develop complete and thorough interface designs much earlier in our design process and then, later, choose the hardware necessary to support these interfaces.
"Soft" interface tools such as touchpanels or PC-based GUIs have become the standard in controlling the complex elements of an audiovisual system. Unfortunately, because of our inability to design effectively for them, too many users have had to endure many frustrations and failures in making their systems function.

To the user, the interface is the system. The only interaction the user has with an audiovisual system is through the interface, and it is through this technology portal that the system meets their goals-or not. A perfect image or great sound still depends on the ability of the user to make the system show their DVD, for example. Our inability to adapt our design techniques to meet the user's goals may be severely limiting the audiovisual marketplace due to our customer's reluctance to buy another "complicated system" that frustrates and does not meet their needs.

There are three fundamental problems in designing with these "soft" tools:
1.) They allow the slightest suggestion of an interface design (or none at all) to be considered adequate until too late in the build process.
2.) They allow an infinite variety of final possibilities in how the interface functions and looks.
3.) Most people doing the final "designing" of these interfaces have no training in user interaction design, which is a combination of industrial design, graphic design and cognitive psychology skills.

The enabling technologies of these wonderful tools are paradoxically also the source of difficulty when using them. When the problems listed above converge, so-called "completed designs" are nearly unusable. This often leads to a high level of service calls, frequent user errors, embarrassing moments of confusion and system redesign.

The solution to these problems may be no less than the redesign of the entire design process. Designing software interfaces for audiovisual systems is very similar to the design challenge of making great software. Unfortunately, the same design mistakes that are made in the audiovisual industry have been made in the software industry for years. Software makers often focus on the code, while audiovisual designers focus on the hardware-both at the expense of good interaction design.

In his book, The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper writes about software programmers: "They say, 'Sure wait until we're done, and then do all the design you want.' Unfortunately, design has to come before construction, so the programmer's openness to design is largely ineffectual. It's like a cement truck operator telling the carpenters they can build all the forms they want as soon as he is done pouring the concrete."

The solution to making great systems in this digital age is to first define the goals of the end-user and then design an interface to meet these goals. The hardware (and supporting code) will then be determined by, and be in complete support of, the interface design. Specifications and block diagrams that are routinely supplied to define the system would be replaced with a detailed model of the interface. This design might take the form of UML "use cases" paired with paper mock-ups (see the book, Paper Prototyping, by Carolyn Snyder for some ideas), or actual working mock-ups using the tools provided by the AV and software industry. In pre-sales I have found that showing the users a customized mock-up of their touchpanel is a clearer way to describe a system and can lead to a smooth system handoff when it is complete.

Today, product capability is increasingly residing in the "soft" aspects of its design. At the same time, the hardware is getting simpler. The simple "black boxes" that enclose audio DSP engines, for example, are in contrast to the system complexity they allow. We are sometimes fooled into thinking that as the hardware becomes simpler, so does the design. But, the opposite is true. System possibilities have increased significantly, making design decisions more difficult and requiring a different design approach.
The skills necessary for designing effective systems are also changing. True interaction design skills that have been developed in the world of product and industrial design for decades are required.

To increase your design knowledge, the work of Donald Norman, Jef Raskin and Alan Cooper is a good starting place. Each of these authors present an aspect of the digital-age design techniques that will lead our industry on the path toward making better systems in our new digital landscape.

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