This is personal

Corporations must deliver a good experience for staff using presentation and collaboration technologies in meeting rooms to keep their workforces happy and productive. Anna Mitchell finds out that the process starts with the user.

When it comes to room control the interface options are vast. Pushing buttons, swiping touch panels, accessing technology via fixed panels, wireless devices or even your own phone, tablet or laptop are all possible. However, the choice on the market often distracts from the fact that when it comes to control: the method doesn’t matter; it’s the experience that counts.

When we talk about experience the conversation needs to start with the user.

People that work in knowledge industries; whose jobs require them to use and process information and data as well as collaborate with colleagues, clients and suppliers in sharing, analysing and presenting that information rely on technology every day. That technology has become increasingly powerful and an ever growing asset to these businesses. However, as workforces grow ever more reliant on technologies - such as videoconferencing, displays and sound reinforcement - there’s an increasing expectation that they will be present, that they will work and that they will do what is expected of them.

When those technologies work, they’re just as much part of our daily lives as a PC or a telephone. When they don’t they’re noticed and that’s what AV technology providers and managers need to avoid to keep clients and employees happy and productive.

“It’s not a question of control, it’s about automation,” says Robin van Meeuwen, president and CEO of Crestron International. “You are managing people and technology and Crestron wants to be the glue that sticks the technology, the facility and the human aspect together.”

“If the climate is comfortable and the lighting adequate, a typical user will never think of interacting with these systems. There is an expectation that if they need to adjust anything it can be done quickly and easily,” reiterates Patrick Murray, a control system programmer and owner of Controlhaus Systems Design, the company behind a recently released control app called AV GUI.

AV GUI supports AMX Enova DVX All-In-One Presentation Switchers, Crestron DMPS3 Presentation Systems, Extron DTP Crosspoint 84 and IR devices using Global Caché connectivity products. The app interfaces with complex systems but “users should not be required to consider technology at all,” notes Murray. “They should always have the option to easily control anything affecting their comfort and productivity. Simple controls to assist with collaboration should be obvious and automated where possible.”

“Users should not be required to consider technology at all.”

Intel has recently entered this market with Intel Unite, a connectivity system powered by an Intel Core vPro processor based mini PC.

In addition to tools that allow users to manage technology from an app, Intel says that Unite’s flexible plug-in architecture allows technology and facilities managers to use a common platform and customise it according to the technology in a specific room. The collaboration hubs can also be remotely managed by IT staff using Intel vPro technology.

Kaitlin Murphy, Intel Unite product manager, argues the case for increased automation of technology operation: “With meeting attendees focused on the topic at hand, it is often beneficial if other decisions and actions can be automated. For example, we’ve seen Intel Unite users build simple lighting control plug-ins. When the presenter starts sharing content with Intel Unite, the lights in the room automatically dim. When the presentation is over, the lights re-illuminate.”

“If the room is simple enough, you can remove the UI completely,” continues Ben Hackett, co-founder of Jydo, a control provider that offers a system based on a centralised network service and designed to be an attractive system for ‘IT people’. “We can monitor APIs in third party videoconferencing software for example. Instead of having a separate controller for room control, we can make the assumption based on their actions that they’re making a video call and turn on a display and unmute microphones without the user having to control the technology in a room.”

“With meeting attendees focused on the topic at hand, it is often beneficial if other decisions and actions can be automated.”

But when it comes to this level of automation, how can you accommodate the diverse range of users and processes within any business?

“You want to be careful of designing the system around specialist processes rather than focusing on the 80% of the system that is required every day,” warns Derek Joncas, manager of product marketing at Extron, a manufacturer of AV control and system integration products. “You need to ask yourself: are you suiting the needs of one user or facilitating the goals of all users of that room? There’s a balance that you need to strike and doing so requires wisdom from experience and knowing the right questions to ask.

“It is in an organisation’s best interest to design a UI that makes life easier for the people using it because people will use the spaces that deliver them a good experience.

“User expectations are often driven by other items they’re accustomed to seeing and using and there is a great difference between a personal device and public use device. When you are delivering control technologies for systems in workplaces you have to decide how bleeding edge you want to be and, crucially you have to be able to support what you offer. 

“When it comes to different room functions there are some stark choices to make. Will a customer want to use a mobile device, do they want to bring their own device, does the customer need the benefits of touchscreen or do they want a button panel with a fixed number of functions and features that is smaller and easier to implement? Do they need a blend of those technologies? Does every participant need to interact with content? Are you looking to videoconference with other colleagues and do you need control of the far end or just local control? There are lots of little decision points and not all of them have to do with technology. Sometimes we have to be careful of implementing technology for the sake of it as it’s not always the best long term decision.”

“You want to be careful of designing the system around specialist processes rather than focusing on the 80% of the system that is required every day.” 

Van Meeuwen says that technology developments are currently so fast paced that its hard for anyone to keep pace with what can be done. “[Crestron is] constantly driving workshops with end users to influence them as to what they need. Increasingly, I think that message needs to come from the manufacturer.”

“We want to put the meeting owner in control of the overall experience,” says Intel’s Murphy. “Starting meetings quickly and offering tools to increase productivity is critical. Given its plug-in architecture, the Intel Unite experience can be extended so customers can tailor the experience and the elements they want to control based on what’s important to them.”

Personalisation is a double edged sword. Extron’s Joncas makes the point well that it’s crucial that control systems are usable and benefit the majority. When personalisation is offered there is much consensus that designing for what individual users think they want can be bad route.

Joncas does note that it should be easy for integrators to be able to offer a range of options to access control. “If you were to walk into a conference room and control it with your mobile device you shouldn’t have to do anything more than open an app. One of the things we’ve tried very hard to do at Extron is make sure that when people want to use apps that they are able to do so with our control platforms and without any extra effort by our integrators.

“Integrators don’t have to design a user interface specifically for an iPad for example. There is no customisation required. Sometimes customers decide late in the day that they would like to integrate with mobile devices and that can be hard if you need to return to site, it can mean extra costs. But with our configuration based platform we do it from the beginning. It’s designed for browsers, IOS devices, a touchpanel and it’s saved automatically.”

When we talk about personalisation it is important to note that there are growing list of technologies that we are used to using that are not just intelligent but have the ability to learn and react to behaviours and processes in order to deliver a seemingly personalised experience.

end user using Biamp systemChris Fitzsimmons, product manager at audio systems manufacturer Biamp, has overseen the development of Oreno, a mobile control software application for the company’s Tesira platform. That design process saw the company pile resources into extensive research of user behaviour in meeting and presentation environments.

“I don’t see why someone with a high level of programming skill couldn’t deliver a system that learns,” he says. “If you are identifying yourself to a system then you need some kind of user account. That could easily come from something like an Outlook log in, effectively your corporate ID. So there’s no reason why a tool can’t monitor and learn from your activity.”

But, Fitzsimmons notes: “That’s a fairly advanced solution and there has to be a business case to offer that kind of capability. Programming is expensive. You need a customer who wants to invest in it first before you can sell it to anyone else. The integration community is full of great people with smart ideas but they don’t have time and money thrown at them to do things like that. Everyone knows they have less and less time to design, install and complete.

“But, the other side of all that is wouldn’t it be nice if a system did it automatically? That’s where vendors come in. They can drive that development cost and, assuming they can monetise it and get a return on investment, they’re in a better place to invest than a systems integration company.

“With Oreno we designed a system for a specific purpose: to offer a fast and efficient tool for getting a conference room up and running. You get level controls, mic controls, a dialler and some pre-set recalls and you can construct that in about four minutes.”

Similarly Hackett from Jydo says the company has had a great response from the integration community because it’s offering a service that removes the need for programming knowledge and time. Hardware within the room can be added or removed and users can re-configure without taking the system offline.  “It’s about creating something that works out the box,” he says.

“The ideal situation is you don’t have any custom programming. That’s how it currently is for us. We do the customer programming if they need a new driver that’s not in our database. All of our UIs get rendered depending on the UIs that get deployed. And if you have a crazy use case and you need some customisation, that’s all programmed in Python, [a common programming language],” adds Hackett.

Biamp and Jydo aren’t alone. A number of manufacturers highlighted systems that reduced the programming requirements placed on the integrator such as Kramer’s K−Touch tool that helps installers easily design room control systems using iOS or Android touch devices.

There are many routes that integrators can choose in delivering systems and there are arguments both for and against how much programming expertise they will want to draw on to deliver each project. The good news is that manufacturers are working hard to reduce the burden of programming and remove that need for projects where a high level or programming skill is not available, required or cost-effective.

But, most importantly, integrators must keep their eye on the end goal: to create a system that delivers a great experience for all the people using it. Achieving that goal requires careful questioning  and preparation to understand a company’s work practices, knowledge of workplace psychology and an approach that starts with people and not technology.

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