User experience design: Separating ’˜wants’ from ’˜needs’

What clients want often isn’t what they need. Tim Kridel explores how integrators and vendors are overcoming that and other challenges to providing the best possible user experience.

What do your clients want from the AV systems they’re ready to buy? Asking is an obvious way to find out, but that approach comes with a host of drawbacks, many of which come back to haunt integrators and vendors post-sale.

For starters, clients often don’t know what they want, or they do but don’t know how to articulate it. Both can lead to a user experience (UX) so frustrating that the client never wants to use that integrator and vendor again or inundates the firm with enough callbacks to vaporise the project’s profit margin. 

Another challenge is that the people interacting with the integrator and its vendor partners often are the people who approve AV designs and budgets but don’t use those systems on a daily basis. That’s why it’s critical to get input from end users—sometimes the more, the better, as Stouenborg did with one education client. 

“We had workshops with almost 200 teachers,” says Anders Jørgensen, the firm’s project chief. “We talked about how they actually educate people.” 

It pays to ask questions

That’s a lot of research, but Jørgensen and other AV pros say it pays off—sometimes literally. An example is when a client reviews the findings and realises that the budget needs to be increased significantly to deliver a system that perfectly matches its goals and workstyle. 

One Tierney Brothers client is a large university that was building a hands-on learning space to host students visiting on field trips. The school initially had an AV budget of US$10,000 (about €9,380) based on seeing the cost of four 80-in LED TVs at Walmart. 

“They thought that was all that they needed,” says Tom Gust, regional sales manager. “When I started talking with them about how the space was going to be used, we uncovered the need for voice reinforcement, videoconferencing for distance learning and recording features. 

“They also stated that they would be renting out the space for corporate events to help them self-fund their programmes. This would mean that the end users would need the room to be oriented differently and would need large screen projection, a presentation podium and an easy-to-use control system. They would also need a separate interface point to get content into the displays.” 

Obviously all of that is more than four consumer-grade TVs can provide. But the school wouldn’t have realised that shortcoming—until it was too late—if Gust and his team hadn’t looked beyond what the client said.

“We ended up with a project that was over $100,000 [about €93,850],” Gust says. “Even though the budget was blown tenfold, they were happy because we provided what they really needed.”

Tierney Brothers’ experience isn’t unique, either.

“I’ve had customers say that if we look at our three most important points, security is number one, function is number two [and] a distant third is price,” says Stephen Patterson, Biamp Systems EMEA sales development director.

Patterson says some clients will double their budget if the recommended solution is shown to meet their security requirements. Yet many integrators and vendors will focus on price because they want to undercut the competition. Instead, Patterson recommends showing how the extra budget will solve business problems, maximize security or ensure a great user experience, such as by citing similar solutions deployed for other clients in the same vertical. 

“That’s something that’s not always perceived by the integration community: If they deliver what people are asking for, price becomes irrelevant to a point,” Patterson says. “As an industry, we’re almost apologetic for how much a piece of gear is.” 

One solution rarely fits all

Another drawback to simply asking clients what they want is that you’ll inevitably get conflicting answers. That’s because no organisation is homogenous. Whether it’s an enterprise or university, most organisations have diverse demographics, and each group has different needs and wants when it comes to how they use AV.

For example, younger employees often prefer iPhone-like control user interfaces (UIs) with lots of options, while their older colleagues sometimes feel more comfortable with pushbutton-style panels that cover just basic functions. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon for some employees to have needs, wants and workstyles that are significantly different from those of colleagues who are in the same department or demographic. 

“That’s a huge challenge,” Patterson says. 

To identify the UIs and other technologies that best fit those diverse needs, Mechdyne holds an initial series of conversations with a variety of stakeholders—such as end users, including those who have a history of being averse to new initiatives—rather than just, say, the AV manager or CIO. Getting beyond those executives sometimes is difficult, but it’s worth the effort.

“Being able to adapt our UIs to the needs of the users is critical, and may require a multi-UI approach.”

“The group responsible for the implementation is hesitant to expose their team to us,” says James Gruening, Mechdyne senior vice president. “This is one of the biggest challenges we face. 

“But it’s so important that all our clients’ users are confident in the solution so that they don’t feel intimidated or uncomfortable. By taking the time to interview all of the key stakeholders, we identify the common goals and themes, and ultimately provide a flexible system for all parties.”

One way to convince clients to grant unfettered access to end users is to cite research showing the cost of not doing so. The latest example is a Mitel-commissioned Webtorials survey of North American and European organizations. It found that inadequate collaboration tools cost businesses an average of $11,000 (€10,000) per employee each year. 

Sometimes the way to meet diverse user wants and needs is to install multiple interfaces, as Biamp did for a media company client.

“They put in a mixture of traditional dialpads for those who are comfortable with that and an HTML-based solution for those who were more comfortable with that,” Patterson says. 

Mechdyne sometimes takes that approach.

“Being able to adapt our UIs to the needs of the users is critical, and may require a multi-UI approach,” Gruening says. 

Even so, there are some preferences that apply to specific verticals. For example, Patterson says financial services and legal firms tend to be conservative in their technology choices, including AV.

“They never, ever want to be the ones who lead the curve in deploying tech,” he says. “The challenge is there is how you maintain a meaningful UX.” 

Security and huddle rooms add to challenges

Part of the challenge relates to security, which is inherently at odds with UX simply because it forces users to do certain things certain ways. Those requirements can undermine ease of use, with expensive ripple effects for the client such as having to put a tech in each meeting to hand-hold participants, or adding help desk staff to field more calls.

In theory, huddle rooms should be easier from both a security and UX perspective simply because they have less gear and thus less stuff to secure. But some AV pros say it’s just the opposite. 

“I think the huddle space is more challenging from a tech perspective,” Patterson says. “Yes, it’s a computer at one level: a screen, a webcam, a keyboard. But as we push more into UX, you’re looking at calendar integration, LDAP, is the room a person or a room, and how do you manage that? In some enterprises, it would need to be both. Right now, I don’t believe there’s any product on the market that enables that.” 

On the plus side, a huddle room can be more user friendly if it leverages devices that users already have. This aspect also highlights the importance of asking end users about their workstyles, such as whether they have a company-issue laptop. If so, then their organisation might be a good fit for a huddle room solution that lets them plug their laptop into a USB port to give presentations, make Skype calls and so on. Familiarity breeds content.

“It’s an interface you’re familiar with because it’s your desktop,” Patterson says. 

If the vendor or integrator already has a lot of clients in that vertical, that experience can be useful for narrowing the options. 

“Very often we say: ‘Here’s what someone else in your market sector has done. Let’s take that as a starting point,’” Patterson says.

Gimme that gadget


Sometimes the starting point is outside the office. That’s because end-user expectations about what’s preferable and possible in the workplace often are influenced by their experiences as consumers, such as with their home theatres. 

This leads to situations where clients want specific devices, as Stouenborg found in its education focus groups. So the firm questions users to ferret out the underlying reasons why they want those devices. 

“Every time a presenter said, ‘I want that gadget,’ I said: ‘Can you describe what you actually want to benefit from that gadget? What’s the cool thing you can give your students with that gadget?’ Jørgensen says. “Most of them couldn’t actually explain what they wanted.” 

Mechdyne often goes through similar experiences. 

“Often we'll meet with a client, and they immediately start talking to us about all of the latest and greatest gadgets they want for their AV system, whether it is for a conference room, collaboration space or command-and-control room,” Gruening says. “They have a technology vision in mind, but they may not be considering workflows or the end-user experience.” 

Mechdyne avoids talking about technological options in the initial client conversations and instead steers the discussions toward workflows and organisational goals. Those conversations involve a variety of stakeholders—such as end users, including those who are known to be averse to new initiatives—rather than just, say, the AV manager or CIO.


“I’ve had customers say that if we look at our three most important points, security is number one, function is number two [and] a distant third is price.” 
“We start by asking ‘why?,” Gruening says. “This question is the catalyst for a collaborative discussion that helps us understand our clients’ goals and workflows prior to recommending technology solutions. The process of stopping the technology talk and instead focusing on the end goal has helped us meet and exceed our clients' expectations time and time again.” 

End users aren’t the only ones who sometimes get enamoured with everything a gadget can do. Case in point: control systems, which keep getting more flexible and sophisticated. That can tempt programmers into delivering more bells and whistles than the client needs.

“Historically we would sell a control system on the basis that it can do anything you want it do: We’d sell the dream,” says Matthew Buck, Crestron UK sales manager. “But often the programmer is a very technically savvy person and feels as if the user will want to use it in many, many ways.

“We’ve done two things to try to combat this. First, we now offer graphics courses to help guide our integrators and programmers as to what is a good touchpanel, what is a good layout and what a customer would consider a good UX.” 

Crestron also developed .AV Framework, a platform whose capabilities include the ability to generate a touchpanel layout that then can be delivered to multiple rooms around a client’s facilities. This ensures a unified UI even when control systems are deployed by different integrators at different times, which typically leads to fragmentation that requires end users to ponder a panel every time they enter a new room.

“That gives you a very clean, very tied-down UX that’s the same across multiple rooms,” Buck says. 

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