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Building User-Friendly Systems

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Peter Kowalczyk:
Hey Comrades-in-Audio...

I have had the dubious honor of designing and installing a variety of Audio and A/V systems over the last 10 years or so.  My background is in live production, and I've learned a bit about the video side of things over the years.

I'm curious to hear people's design approach ideas for building systems that un-trained users can operate easily, correctly, and intuitively.  I've found that one of the greatest challenges is to K.I.S.S. and somehow balance high-capability and flexibility with user-friendliness.

Coming from a live production background, my first systems were based around typical bar-band-scale PA hardware.  This approach generates a lot of questions and urgent support calls from bar managers and other novice users. 

I'm doing more systems that are built around networkable matrix processors (whether or not integrated with an amplifier), with fewer interface points and fewer controls.  That is clearly a more streamlined approach, but eliminates some capability for advanced users. 

Now I'm being asked to incorporate more video hardware and distribution in my hybrid systems.

I recognize that there is a lot I still don't know about, e.g. Crestron, QSys, and other high-level AV control systems.

What design philosophies have guided your most successful installs?  What product ecosystems have you found to be easiest, most economical, and most user-friendly?  ... TIA

Brian Jojade:
These days, there's a ton of equipment available that you can use to create simple to use systems but have virtually unlimited flexibility.

But the key point is it's got to be ultra simple to use.  If you make the system TOO flexible, that just confuses most users.  Determine the features that are absolutely necessary and present ONLY that to the end user.  The rest can be hidden away and enabled if necessary for specific cases.

Caleb Dueck:
Great questions! 

When I transitioned from live production/small touring to full install, a very wise man told me I needed to forget everything I thought I knew, and truly learn the physics of audio.  Along with that, how a wide range of users interact with each system - zero-experience, pros, and everyone between.  That's been invaluable advice. 

There is no one size fits all.  The more you learn, not just the products, but the design philosophy behind products and system design - the better you'll be. 

Some quick points:
Input processing (mics, lines, various analog or digital sources, EQ, compression, mixing, automixing, routing, etc) is different from output processing (speaker-specific crossovers, EQ, FIR, multi-level limiting, dynamic limiting and EQ, etc).  The ideal from what I've found is to have a box do the input processing - such as QSys, Xilica, Tesira, even AHM; and have the output processing in the amplifiers.  That way the output processing can real-time monitor the amp outputs and adjust dynamically. 

Different users need different types and depth of control.  Something very common in the HoW world is the ability for a non-tech to have only fader/mute control over inputs; often but not necessarily via touch screen of some type.  This is why QSys, Xilica, etc have custom GUIs where you choose what parameters are provided, password protection, and the overall look.  Like how Apple designs their products.  Then if the system is used by professionals, there's a way to push a button on a touchscreen (password protected) to switch modes, and they interface via a sound board and computer(s). 

Also look at corporate boardrooms - zero tech skill users.  You have to think through what capability they need, program that into the GUI, in a way that is fast and intuitive.  Do they need to adjust the knee on a comp?  Nope - they have no clue what that even is. 

You'll want to really understand QSys and Extron; Crestron only if you're working with a big Crestron user.  Also get to know various other simpler control systems, like Kramer Control, FSR, Extron, as well as what's possible in the install DSPs - Xilica, Tesira, and such (which is quite a bit). 

Just like audio - think like a non-tech touching an iPad.  What video capabilities are actually needed, which can be combined to macros (one button push does many functions).  How integrated can you make that one iPad/touch screen - with pages for audio, video, lighting, and streaming music control in one guided access app. 

It's going to be a much steeper learning curve than pro audio!  You'll then have a much deeper understanding, and you'll be able to bring some of that back to the pro audio world. 

Powerful and user friendly does not equal cheap.  Cheap means you have to give up capabilities or ease of use (or both).  There's a lot of cheap residential stuff to stay away from, like Control4 and most of that market. 

Learn to script in Lua, or have someone who you can subcontract that can.  Learn how to create very well thought though GUIs (something I'm awful at!).  Think like Apple.  Learn the quality/standard brands, like QSys and Extron, so you can evaluate the various cheaper brands to see if they're "good enough".  Get certification for QSys, Xilica, and a few others; the more you know, even if you don't use their hardware, is invaluable.  Find someone to bounce ideas off, or even do full system design reviews and offer comments, while you still have flexibility to swap products and even concepts out. 

Adam Kane:
I had begin typing a reply, then saw Caleb's. It's pretty much what I was thinking.

The biggest thing we try to convey to potential customers is that you can pick any two of the following three criteria: a) Easy to use, b) Capable of complex things, c) Inexpensive. It is NOT possible to have all three.

We have made Qsys our go-to for just about everything nowadays. The only time we opt for something like Ashly or Symetrix over Qsys is if the current or future use case doesn't warrant the more complex stuff that Qsys inherently offers.

When designing interfaces, you really have to try to think like an unskilled end-user...then maybe go even a little lower. There are many time I've assumed someone would know what a control label meant, only to have them completely thrown off by it. When quoting the job, make sure to figure in time to sit down with them during the interface design phase, as well as time to go back after they've had a chance to use it a few times and have a list of things they would like changed and/or relabeled.

Peter Kowalczyk:
Thanks @Caleb, great details. 

I've done a number of systems now with Ashly PEMA amps, which allow you to easily create a custom iOS control app.  This has been great for multi-zone 70V Bar BG music systems.

Recently I've been doing more in the world of Allen & Heath AHM systems.  Two down in the last two years, bidding a third.  Really liking this ecosystem.  The last one follows your advice to put the input processing (and mode selection, etc) into the matrix DSP, and put output processing in a DSP-equipped amp.

Sounds like I need to learn Qsys.

As the thread title, and your comments note, the real challenge is making things easy for unskilled users.  As simple as I try to make things, I seem to keep getting tech support questions.  For this last job, I spent many many hours writing up a manual in an attempt to prevent some of those questions.


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