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Cynthia Wisehart on System Design

Conferencing and collaboration is communication. That seems obvious, but is it? It’s very easy to miss the communication part when focused on the technology. That means meetings can be defeated by bad (mostly illegible) audio. But it also means that in planning, designing and deploying a system, the focus on signal management, wiring, GUI, etc. can distract from the core purpose. Clients are often so PTSD from meetings, that they also tend to focus on technology when they talk about what they want from a system. They want their past pain points to go away.

This is where designers matter. Good designers have a skill to elicit people’s real needs, below the layer of their frustrations or beyond their own self-described aspirations. For example, I had a graphic designer gently correct me once by saying, “Don’t tell me you want something to be ‘big’; tell me you want it to be ‘important’ and let me figure out how to communicate that.”

So in systems design, empathy matters. It’s a skill to help people say what they want (more than what they don’t want). It’s a skill to get them to name the goals for the room, how those goals tie to business goals. What do they want to experience in this room? What do they want to accomplish in this room? How would they describe—really describe—an ideal interaction?

Right now there is a lot of knowing what people definitely don’t want: fiddly cables, long boot times, complicated interfaces, obvious and ugly technology….Weirdly I hear all those things first, when what I would expect is for people to say that most of all they want to see and hear the other people clearly and be able to communicate as naturally as possible with each other. They say a lot about “big” and not as much about “important.”

Part of it is the loathing of conferences and meetings which are of course a pathology of their own. We can’t fix managers. But we can contribute to fixing them, through systems that prioritize human comfort and communication. There is even a growing understanding that a system doesn’t support everybody’s voice equally it could be a disadvantage in the power dynamic of a meeting. Perhaps more than anything that will move the needle. Feel free to suggest to your client that political survival in a meeting may depend on who has the best echo cancellation.

Technology is increasingly available to support clear communication. There is an openness now to room coverage and audio quality as a value. This month I see beam-forming ceiling tiles, and Extron-enabled Dolby phones just to name two examples coming to market.

On the visual side, one of my favorite examples is the “collaboration staircase” that Conde Nast built at their London headquarters (see p. 46 of this issue). Maybe it’s too out there, but the idea that AV-enabled collaboration can be part of the entire culture and design of a building, that it can have spontaneity and style…ok I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, let’s at least get the rooms to communicate. Let’s ride a seeming wave of interest in actual communication—not because we have smoother technology, but because someone thought to ask the core questions: how do you want to feel about collaboration when you use this room? what kind of communication needs to happen here—political? Productive? Connecting? What kind of communication are you trying to support, and to what end? More than ever, when people answer those questions, we have the gear to back it up. We can make things they really care about be “important” and resonate in the room.

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