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Interface Design Standards

A few years back, I toured the product development area of a major office systems furniture manufacturing facility as part of a campus procurement advisement committee for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. In the middle of this tour, I noticed something rather striking and somewhat out of place ? a full-scale mock-up of a mid-1950s Chevy dashboard...

A few years back, I toured the product development area of a major office systems furniture manufacturing facility as part of a campus procurement advisement committee for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. In the middle of this tour, I noticed something rather striking and somewhat out of place — a full-scale mock-up of a mid-1950s Chevy dashboard, including the steering wheel, seat, and pedals. The executive leading the tour was happy to explain this seemingly strange occurrence — the idea was to remind employees that the products they create should first and foremost be “drivable.”

People are used to (and comfortable with) a steering wheel located in the center of their automobiles, followed by gauges across the middle, gas at the bottom right, etc. In the furniture business, a table typically has four legs, a large flat surface, and is approximately 28 inches off the floor. With the assurance that the furniture was drivable, this manufacturer then further stressed to its employees that the successful design was in the details of implementation.

Taking this trip at a time when I was in the middle of developing a Cornell University touchpanel “standard,” I was immediately struck with the relevance of this concept to the AV industry. I asked myself, “Where is the framework for AV controls that make our systems drivable?” Thinking of industry buzzwords like “intuitive” and “easy to use,” I came to seriously question to what degree any control interface could achieve such lofty goals for AV systems, in the absence of promoting a “universal” common user experience. While my organization could create its own internal standard, I was still left with a nagging problem —even if Cornell standardized its controls, what would happen when faculty traveled internationally or presenters visited the Cornell campuses, only to find much different systems? As a result, I looked to newly expanded professional opportunities and resources through the International Communications Industries Association (ICIA).

Making the case

That furniture manufacturer tour took place about four years ago. This year, ICIA has formed a special cross-industry committee to explore and develop the “Dashboard for Controls” — a project built on the basic premise that operating a professionally installed AV presentation system should be as easy as driving a car.

By way of standardization on some basics of user interface design and identification, as well as grouping of fundamental AV system functions, the environment of the future will increase end-user confidence in system operation by having the most frequently used functions presented with a common look and feel. Advanced features or specialized systems will still be served by custom interfaces unique to a particular application.

As an individual specializing in AV instructional/presentation technologies, specifically equipment configurations and room design aspects, AV controls have long been a challenging part of the job — we've all seen end-users trying to find basic things like the volume control or getting confused by incorrect or inconsistent feedback from the interface. On the other hand, I've seen other end-users independently manipulate relatively complex AV systems, thanks to bug-free touchpanels.

Like many in the industry, I've tried to discover the holy grail of AV controls — controls that are simple and intuitive to use, adaptable to changing system components, and 100 percent reliable. At the same time, it's important to recognize that AV controls are the glue that ties various combinations of AV components together to contribute to overall system functional needs. Fortunately, there are many great products on the market today that fill this niche. However, with the rapid change of technology and pressures to seek even better solutions, these products also constantly evolve with new features and functions.

The dashboard initiative

Another way to think of the Dashboard for Controls is a comparison to the VHS videotape. What the Dashboard seeks to accomplish (albeit with not quite the degree of engineering precision) is to furnish the blank videotape (the Dashboard for Controls) such that the plastic shell (the Dashboard Templates) will work with any manufacturer's VCR (touchpanel and/or control products) so it can have a custom produced recording (using Dashboard best practices) by specialists in consulting, programming, and integration so an end-user can buy it, push play, and enjoy the program.

Using the car dashboard as a metaphor, the Dashboard for Controls strives to embrace the following action points:

  • Assume that end-users may need to be trained on the system interface at least once prior to first use. However, after that time, and by exposure to similar “Dashboard” implementations, a user will rapidly gain confidence for what to expect in future dashboard-observant systems. In short, reading the manual should not be required to present to a live audience using a compliant touchpanel interface.
  • The final Dashboard guideline (for AV interface product designers and developers) should include a text-based document listing recommended “best practices” (i.e., use of color, shape, size, font, symbols, etc). However, potentially of equal importance will be the graphic “overlays,” showing the basic regions and components of the Dashboard and possibly sample graphics showing how they might be applied.
  • Like the automotive dashboard, the Dashboard for Controls will embrace the uniqueness of application and style of the implementers. While maintaining compliance with the guideline, creators of new systems will have sufficient latitude to create “signature” control interface products. Some controls will comply and look very utilitarian; others will comply and have a refined graphic appeal.
  • The Dashboard can be implemented as the exclusive interface to an AV system or alternatively as a secondary interface for users to “ask for by name” via a system welcome page option selection.

Early on, the ICIA Technology Managers/End Users Council identified the following factors as critical to creating new guidelines: It's a guideline, not a standard; it's optional; it's free; and it's easy to implement and use.

Is it real?

Like me, many folks identify with being experts in common problems with existing AV user interfaces. Perceptions of the root problems can vary as well as the exact solutions. However, I've only run across two people so far that insist the Dashboard isn't necessary. In that same timeframe, I've encountered at least 75 that insist that it is.

The ICIA Dashboard working group has developed two templates for the basic user interface guideline. The templates (shown at left) are intended to provide a framework for the general orientation of primary AV controls and indicators — similar to how a stamped sheet metal dashboard houses various controls and gauges.

The committee has also developed a “Best Practices” document, with the intention of providing a centralized resource for developers. All of this work goes with credit and many thanks to the ICIA's staff and ICIA's industry volunteers from Councils of Technology Managers/End Users, Independent Programmers, Independent Consultants in Audiovisual Technologies (ICAT), manufacturers, and systems integrators. The official rollout of the Dashboard will take place at InfoComm this year in Las Vegas at the “Meet the Dashboard” forum. ICIA is also working on a dedicated website presence (www.infocomm.org/dashboard), which will be the information resource for everything “dashboard.”

Greg Bronson is classroom technology project leader for Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and is leading the Dashboard for Controls industry initiative as a member of ICIA's Technology Managers/End Users Council. He can be reached at gb47@cornell.edu.

 


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