Find an Easier Way to Bridge the Gap With End Users

Readers of the “Bridging the Gap” column will notice a new name and a sharper focus, beginning with this issue.

Our goal of bridging the gap between manufacturers, integrators and end users is still as important as ever, and you’ll continue to find real-world, common-sense coverage of issues that concern all of these parties. We’ll be focusing more on issues that apply to larger or more complex systems and the special needs that these projects bring with them.

To do this, we’ve been given more space and will be able to illustrate our subjects with examples, case studies, photos and more. If you work with these types of systems — or want to someday — this column is for you.

‘Ease of Use’ Gains Priority
When we evaluate a group of products to select the right one for our application, there’s usually a pretty specific list of features we are looking for. Network bandwidth, number of simultaneous users … even power, weight, and length of warranty are all important factors, and this list can grow or change depending on the type of product.

Way down on that list is occasionally an item called “ease of use.” It’s very subjective, doesn’t lend itself to a comparison matrix and is difficult to define — but we know we should be looking at it. But truthfully, it’s probably nowhere near the top of your list. Until recently, it wasn’t at the top of mine either.

Ease of use is directly related to what’s called the “user interface.” Evaluating the user interface for many projects is the No.1 consideration, and this trend is clearly on the rise. The reason is simple. Manufacturers are flooding their products with advanced features in an attempt to differentiate their offerings, and end users are moving security products further down the line to people who are not as technically inclined as the traditional security user.

The resulting disconnect — products that are more complicated being used by people who are looking for simplicity — is a recipe for disaster. In fact, the only way to avert a problem is to seek out products that are designed to be used by people with the skill set that your end users possess.

Making a Good User Interface
One myth that needs to be put aside is that a technically advanced product cannot be easy to use.

A TiVo is a very sophisticated digital recorder, and children typically figure it out without any instructions. Pick up any cell phone and you’ll be making calls without reading the instructions and will likely figure out advanced features in time. Nobody looks at the owner’s manual in a rental car, and alarm clocks, microwaves and televisions generally don’t require any directions for immediate use of key features.

What do these products have in common? They all have a set of baseline features that are very accessible. They invite experimentation, build on concepts you are already familiar with, and will perform some level of limited functionality for a beginner or novice without any training.

It’s true that there are lots of features on your cell phone and you might not be able to use them all, but you can pick up a strange phone and make a call instantly. The rest may take time, but you were able to use the product right away.

This should be our goal with any user interface, whether it is hardware- (front panel buttons) or software-based (on-screen controls). A novice with no training should be able to get the unit to perform basic tasks without extended instruction.

Once the camera/monitor concept is explained, a matrix-switching system should be intuitive enough to call a camera to a monitor, control it with a joystick, follow a person around a room or parking lot and acquire a preset or target. A DVR user should be able to play back video, search for a certain time, view live images and select different video streams with little training.

Sadly, this isn’t always the case in our industry. On several recent product “shootouts,” I watched end users evaluate products and ultimately select units that were not on the top of their feature lists. Their reasoning was sound: “All of these products have more features than we’ll ever use,” one client explained to me, referring to a group of five different high-end DVRs. “While I prefer the one with the advanced networking features, I’ll gladly give that up to reduce the number of support calls I’ll have to handle. Give me the one that my people can figure out by themselves, any day of the week.”

Easy to use in this case did not mean de-featured. Systems can often have layers of complexity, allowing access to advanced features for those who take the time to read the manual or care to experiment with trial-and-error menu selections.

Software-based products should have some intelligent assistance — on-screen help, tool tips (boxes that pop up with an explanation when the mouse hovers over a button) and dialog boxes that are written in English, not jargon.

Hardware-based products should have readable legends on the buttons, symbols that are easily understood and some sort of feedback — display or buzzer— to alert the user when they’re doing something right or wrong.

Direct Users With Consistency
All products need consistency. If a product uses the word “exit” on one screen, it shouldn’t use the word “close” on another if they mean the same thing. If there’s a “help” button in one dialog box, it should be there in all dialog boxes. In this manner, if you figure out how to do something, you should be halfway there in figuring out something else.

One thing Microsoft™ Windows® has given us is some consistent, well-documented user interface elements across applications. If you’re evaluating a product and it seems “foreign” to you, look closer. It may not conform to any of the standards you’re used to, forcing you to adapt to the product instead of building on your experience. That’s good enough reason in my book to throw it back.

Sometimes the quest to build one product to serve several international markets creates its own set of problems. Manufacturers try to develop front panels with as many symbols as possible to avoid having to ship different models with different silk screening.

These symbols may seem intuitive to the engineering team that developed them, and can often be figured out quickly by experienced users. Less sophisticated end users can quickly put a product in its place and should therefore be a vocal member of any product evaluation team.

Recently, I worked with a client that was looking at a product that included a digital zoom feature. As they went through the front panel buttons, trying to figure each one out, they stopped at the “zoom-in” and “zoom-out” buttons and pointed to the little icon that represented a magnifying glass.

“What does the tennis racket button do?” they asked.

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