A process for interviewing and communicating with clients is paramount. The panel designer can guess what people like, but that is not a good way to create a good user experience.

Human Interface and Panel Design/Layout

Stephe Blansette | Intelligent Systems, LLC

HomeToys Interview
Stephe Blansette, Intelligent Systems, LLC
Human Interface and Panel Design/Layout

A process for interviewing and communicating with clients is paramount.  The panel designer can guess what people like, but that is not a good way to create a good user experience.

1. Why is the topic of human interface especially important in our industry?

Our ability to bridge the gap between technology and the human interface has plagued not just the custom integrator, but many other industries.  The need to make a touch screen, keypad, website, or any other interface "user friendly" typically means the success or failure of a particular product.  Look at ATM's, do you remember ever being trained on how to use the interface to get your money?  If that interface was not intuitive and simple enough for everyone to use we would still be going to the drive up window.  When products add convenience, safety, or comfort and are simple to use they tend to be the most sought after products.  People want their home to conform to them, not the other way around.  We have a responsibility to make the transition for our clients as seamless as possible.  If we create an environment where there is little or better yet no learning curve for a new product, we will open the door for other technologies.  This means the adoption of technology into our lives, and this should be the goal or our industry.

2. What challenges must be faced by designers and installers in terms of panel layout?

This is always a catch 22.  A simple interface means less functionality most of the time (the exception going to Apple).  The features and options are typically stripped away as you clean up and simplify an interface. Removing buttons to simplify an interface, means that the functions that those buttons provided are gone as well..  We design our interfaces with two user types in mind, the first being the lowest common denominator of user (a non computer user for example), and the second, the power user, that wants every option they could ever imagine.  We overcome this obstacle by starting with a simple layout that has a link or button to take the user to a more comprehensive set of features.  That way either user would  have the ability to use the interface any way they want.

3. How does panel design effect the usability of advanced technologies?

I have been into many homes where other companies have installed systems, spending $25,000 or more, and the clients are not using them.  But the home owners are not using them because they are too complicated to use.  I have a hard time with these situations because it really hurts our industry.  The interface can be fixed but the problem is the re-programming costs are much higher the second time around especially if you are using a different integrator.

4. What is most commonly overlooked in regard to human interface?

The fact that people are different and they process information differently. This is generally overlooked in our industry.  Some people like pictures, some like text, some prefer colors and others like sound. Everyone has a different preference for a design and texture.  The size and shape of buttons for example can mean that some people will never be able to proficiently use the interface.  All of these things must be kept in mind when designing the layout.  Integrators all like to use stock layouts to reduce costs to the client, but they need to be cautious because there is no universal design that works for everyone.  We can start with a template, but we need to modify the interface to meet our clients' needs.  Otherwise we are not really custom integrators.

5. What role, if any, should the homeowner play in the selection of panels?

I will answer this and the next question together

6. How do you get the homeowner's input for the panel design?

A process for interviewing and communicating with clients is paramount.  The panel designer can guess what people like, but that is not a good way to create a good user experience.  I tell my clients that the entire process is an intimate experience.  The interface needs to reflect the client and my job is to understand my client so they see that when they use the panel.  I like to spend and evening sitting and talking together in a natural informal setting to help develop the insight necessary to good design.  As far as selecting the right panel, it really comes down to size and location.  The panel is a major component in the system, and it should meet all present and future needs of the client.

7. What are some of the more common questions you receive from the homeowner during the design phase of the panel?

On the initial design, we talk about what they like, who will be using it, how it will be used etc…

My daughter likes to watch TV at out kitchen counter on one of our touch screens.  It is sometimes hard to know how a panel might be used, so we talk with out clients about how they might use it outside of an basic input device.

8. What are some of the more common questions you receive from the homeowner once they have their hands on the panel?

Usually we get e request to move a button and change a layout color scheme.  We go into the process understanding that it is an evolution of refinements until we make the client happy.  This is not always the cheapest way to do thing, but it is the right way.  Programming fees can add up quickly, but ultimately that is the most valuable part of the overall system.  Anyone can sell the hardware, it is the custom interface that sets one company apart from the others.

9. How much time do you allocate for training the homeowner on the operation of their home?  

This is where I find out how well we did our job, before we go through the training.  If a client can turn on music for example, without giving them any information on the system, then we have achieved our goal of making a intuitive interface.  I like to say that we work to making the interface so easy to use that they do not need to be trained.  That is the true mark of achievement.  While we do provide training, we focus on the interface so that training happens as they use it in their daily lives.  

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