Meeting room design has evolved over the past few years, and the addition of new facilities and equipment means that sometimes, the technology gets in the way of the user experience. As system integrators and designers, we have to make sure we don't get lost in the thrill of implemnting cool new toys, that the end-user can't access because it's just too complicated!
I remember reading Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Steve Jobs when it came out, and there were many fantastic insights into what made the man tick. By the end of the book, I found myself both liking and disliking Steve, in almost equal measure- a strange characteristic of his complex personality.
However, one story that impressed me greatly- one of many- was about the meetings around the design of the original iPod- apart from no-one believing that it would take off at all, the original design team's demonstration of the user-interface was met with a stony silence from the great man. He instructed them to go back to the drawing board, and redesign the interface, with no single feature being more than three button-strokes away. This just a few weeks before the target launch date! Of course, the design team protested, said it couldn't be done, and argued for maintaining the complexity of the prototype's design. But you don't argue with Steve Jobs for long, and so a few weeks later, they presented a new design, meeting his golden rule. They worked long and hard, tore up the script several times, and eventually, came up with what was a beautiful user-interface, and a huge contributor to the success of the device- it was simple enough that anyone could use it.
What I like about that story is that with determination and vision, Apple produced a device that became a universally accepted music player, and a huge contributor to the success of Apple. It's controls were clear, simple, and intuitive, and so anyone could find their way around it without a training course!
The point about the story is that it's complicated to make something simple. In the world we all live in, technology is a great enabler of virtually every aspect of our daily lives, from our smartphones, to our cars, to how healthcare is delivered. There is virtually no area that is not impacted by the modern technology around us- for both good and bad. But as users of technology, we all crave for a simple to use, effective user-interface, that we don't have to spend ages getting to grips with. Google's early success in the search-engine arena was because not only had they a great back-end algorithm for harvesting the search results, but the user-interface couldn't have been simpler. But the amount of vision, engineering, and back-end processing that made it so simple was phenomenal, and it's a great example of how huge effort in the background is needed to ensure simplicity in the foreground.
And so it is with our own area of business, in particular, meeting room and conference space AV design. Many factors affect the success of a meeting room, of whatever size- the room décor, lighting, acoustics, air conditioning, and of course, the audio-visual facilities. Whilst the building structure is something we often (in fact usually!) have little influence over, the AV facilities are right within our domain. And, regardless of the core function of the room, certain common features are critical:
Are the screens to be installed of the appropriate size, resolution, and type?
Is the audio system clear and well-balanced?
Are any video-conference facilities reliable, high-quality, and integrated to the rest of the facilities?
Is the room control system effective and easy to use?
Many of the above elements are relatively straightforward to ensure. There are well-defined rules to determine the appropriate size and resolution of screens, (for instance ANSI/INFOCOMM V202.01:2016 Display Image Size for 2D Content in Audiovisual Systems) which can help to ensure that the displays are appropriate for the room and it's intended use, or the use of acoustic modelling tools to ensure that the audio system is properly calibrated and set up. But some things are more subjective, and among these is the room control system.
All the major control room manufacturers- think AMX, Crestron, Extron for example- have great tools to both control the various systems you're likely to encounter, and to provide a slick user-interface- be it on a dedicated panel, touch-screen, tablet, and even smartphone. But the integrator, usually in consultation with the client, has to provide the programming and the front-end user-interface to make these systems work.
Now, I like to think of myself as pretty technically-competent, and fairly good at understanding the expectations of the client. But I'm no GUI designer, and I'm no graphics designer either. Designing a front-end for your control system that can control the myriad of connected systems, whilst presenting the user with an elegant, simple interface, is a challenging process, and as I've headed this article- it's complicated to make things simple!
In a recent large project, with more than 50 meeting spaces of various sizes- from small, 2-person huddle-spaces, to a large 36 seater boardroom, to a 100-person conference room, we were charged with the task of designing a control system that presented a similar interface each space, albeit with varying levels of depth. But the goal was to provide the user with a similar experience, so that whichever space they were working in, they could access the technology without having to figure out how this room works.
So our design team spent several weeks, prototyping and refining the design, until we had a design that we felt might meet the objectives. Our engineers spent a lot of time with the client, and we used our own in-house graphics designer, to tweak and refine the design until all the stakeholders agreed that the design would be easy to use, functionally deep, and pleasing to look at, of course customised with the client's own branding.
But ensuring that the control system – in this case AMX, but equally relevant for other systems such as Crestron- could control all the elements in the system, in every space, meant that the back-end functionality and programming had to be very deep, and mostly hidden from the end-user. To provide access to features that were not relevant to the casual user, we built in an engineering-mode, accessed through a rights-based admin screen. This enables, for instance, access to set up the profiles in the Audio DSPs, select projector or monitor inputs, set mic priority levels, and so-on. But at the front end, the user-experience is very similar in all spaces, and so the goal of a unified design was met.
Of course, if the back-end engineering is wrong, then regardless of the design of the front-end, the system won't function as expected. So this is where the complicated bit comes in. In some cases on this project, there are meeting rooms that can be reconfigured for different purposes- for instance, the 100-person conference room can be divided into two 50-person spaces – so we needed to have the ability to control elements of a system that might be used in either a single unified space, or split between two rooms. We designed an interface that enabled a single button press to select which mode the system was being used in.
In another area, the boardroom, we had to ensure that the DSP was configured for a full-scale board meeting, with 30 desk-mounted microphones, ceiling mounted speakers, integration to Skype for Business, and of course video conference facilities- but equally, could be used when there was a sub-committee meeting of 5 or 6 participants, with the audio levels, and mic levels, re-configured for this application. The user had to be able to select the operating mode without having to think about what was happening in the background.
By careful consideration of functional design, user-experience and input, engineering requirements, and physical environment, it is possible to ensure that the experience for the meeting participants is rewarding, and effective, whilst in the background, the system is doing all the hard work to ensure that the user has to be unconcerned with any of the technicalities of the system, and meets the goal of being simple to use.
Kevin Moore is Managing Director of Eurotek Ireland, and has over 40 years experience in the broadcast and AV industry.