Why consider the end-user?The best sounding system doesn't sound goodif no one can figure out how to turn it on.
Jan 20, 1997 12:00 PM, By David E. HomaHoma is with Acentech, Cambridge, MA.
Sound systems do nothing until people use them. At some point, a person will interact with the systems we design and install. Whether this person is the full-time operator, a visiting lecturer or even the service technician, systems contractors must take into account how these individuals will interact with the design. This can be a daunting task. Not all of the people who come into contact with the system will have the knowledge you possess. Even full-time operators have personal preferences, styles and needs. The venue itself will dictate the general system functions and configuration, but the system's operational requirements are dictated by people.
When designing or installing a system, we must devote a large portion of time to the serious decisions defining its functionality. Where will the owner or architect let us put "those ugly loudspeakers?" Is there enough coverage under the balcony? Should the system have a graphical or parametric EQ? These all are important decisions affecting the overall performance of the system. But many times, one of the most important criteria is overlooked. How easy or difficult will the system be to operate, interact with or service? When someone wants to use a tie line, are both ends easy to identify? Are patch cords available that reach from any patch jack to any other jack? Does plugging into a floor box remove several layers of skin from your knuckles?
Some of these issues may seem like common sense, but others can be more obscure. A great deal of sound-system equipment has already been designed with hard-to-read displays, impossible-to-understand notation and tiny recessed trim pots that adjust from DC to light. Considering that many systems may be used on a daily basis, seemingly inconsequential elements may be the most important. The best sounding system in the best of acoustical environments doesn't sound very good ifno one can figure out how to turn it on.
Be the user firstSo how do you design a system for the end-user? You spend some time thinking about what the system is going to be like. This sounds too easy, but it's true. Consider the situation where an unsightly microphone input on stage is hidden out of sight. Perhaps you notice how difficult it is to solder the connector in place because you can't see it very well. Once the receptacle is in place, connecting the mic cable is a piece of cake, right? It may be for you; you know how to plug in an XLR connector. But what about a novice user?
Listen to the users. After the system is in operation, gather feedback from the end-user. It takes time and money, but it will be time and money well-spent producing happier customers and thus more business.
Because the users will live with the system day in and day out, try to find out who they are. This is not always possible, but some of the best systems are those that had design input from the users. If the operators are novices, help them understand what they want. If they have specific requests, use your judgment and experience to consider whether certain features are too specific. System operators don't stay at the same venue forever. What good is it to have a special "dog patch" connection if it only means something to one operator?The operators or the person responsible for the system should be able to tell you some of the system's uses. Will the primary use of the auditorium be performance or lecture? You must translate user requirements into tangible sound-system options. If no full-time operator is available and teachers will be giving lectures in the space, the venue may require an automatic mixer. The client may not be able to articulate what she needs; your job is to anticipate specific needs.
Thinking ahead can be invaluable. A console with a meter bridge can be a wonderful thing for an operator, but if it is in an auditorium where the seating rake is steep, the console is big and the primary operators are high-school students (i.e. shorter than the average adult), seeing the stage may be a problem. The system may sound great, but the drama director is going to hate it. The operators will either miss their cues or stand up, blocking people's view of the stage. It can be very difficult to identify some of these issues before the installation begins.When clients don't know what they want, suggest options, don't just assume you will do it your way and it will be fine. Arrange things the way other people would use them. Because you like to put all the amps of one size together doesn't mean that it's the only way. Some people like amplifiers arranged to coincide with zoning. Try to make decisions collectively so the owner knows what to expect. Even if the only input you get is that a volume control should be next to the big red door, the owner might love the system because she got what she wanted.
Designer on stageDuring the design process, act it out to determine whether elements will actually work and fit. When I'm in my office laying out a rack, I get out my tape measure and make marks on the wall. How high should the CD player be? If it is too high, short people can't see in the drawer. What about patch panels? If they are above the CD player the drawer may get caught on patch cords. When I'm planning to use playback loudspeakers in a small presentation room I often take a look at the 2 foot — 2 foot (60 mm — 60 mm) ceiling tiles in the office. If the people are going to be 20 feet (6m) from the front wall loudspeakers, I count off 10 tiles. Does it feel like an acceptable distance? How high should the loudspeakers be? Imagine them, or even tape a piece of paper on the wall. An experienced designer will have a good feel for what is right. It's a great way to check what your computer program, calculations or sketches on an architectural drawing have told you. If you're laying out a preview monitor on a control desk and you think it might be too far, try it out. If you have a computer monitor on your desk, sit at the proposed distance. Does it feel too far? Could you reach it if you had to adjust it? What view, if any, will it block? Act things out.
The users aren't going to use the system you draw in CAD or on paper; they are going to work with this thing in the real world, the world of touch and sight as well as hearing. It is difficult to think about how things will work when you are drawing functional diagrams or placing an order for equipment. Try to remember the last time you used a particular device. Were there any functional problems regarding its usability? What about devices you've never used before? Perhaps they are similar to something you know well. If possible, get your hands on a demo. You could just run a loaner device through its paces and listen to how it sounds, but there's more. Take notes on the product's level of usability. Mount it in a rack. Use all of its connection points. If the unit is digital, try to program as many of the functions as you have time for.
If buttons don't work well or labels are confusing, write the problems down. Keeping a log of equipment tests and field experiences is especially useful if your company has many employees. As a manager, ask your field technicians what they think of specific units. If you are a field technician, relay practical information to those responsible for choosing gear. If a consultant was involved, save a big list of complaints for the checkout. Detail the reasons why certain units are difficult to use or install or why you prefer others. If you bind the list in the exact specified owner's manual format, maybe they will be less grumpy when you give it to them. It is important for designers to get as much feedback about their systems as possible. As sound-system designers, we are good at anticipating the acoustical performance of a system before it is built, even though we can't hear it before that point. We should do our best to extend this ability to the visual and tactile portions of our designs.
Usability and controlSome systems require a more concerted effort regarding their usability. Many sound systems today use computer interfaces. If the user will control the system by way of computer, consider the human-computer interaction. Many new systems require the designer or installer to arrange the control screens. Designing for computer control is similar to designing control system touchscreens. The best thing you can do when developing this type of system is to run a quick usability test. These are well-known in the computer industry. Plan your ideas or screen layouts, perhaps on paper first. Ask someone to use the mock system. Try to find someone who has a level of experience that is similar to that of the end-users.Don't just explain to them how the system will work. Let them try to complete a task. For instance, give them a sheet of paper with the main screen drawn on it and ask them what steps they would take to lower the volume. Did it take them a long time to find the control? Could they find it at all? Remember that the problem may be in your design, not the person testing the system.
This form of testing has been used extensively to test airplane controls. Even the best pilots sometimes make dangerous mistakes, not because they are bad pilots, but because the control layouts are unclear or confusing. It can be difficult to admit that your design is flawed, but it is better to find out now before you expend too much effort. As a rule of thumb, the person you choose as the usability tester should be confident and someone whose opinion you respect regardless of their audio experience.
So why consider the end-user? Aside from the listener or viewer, the end-user will be the person most dramatically affected by the design decisions you make. Will your system be easy to use, or will it be confusing? Use the tools you have available to work out as many details as possible before it is too late. Pretend you are trying to use the system before it is built. Ask users what works and what doesn't. We can't anticipate all of the little problems associated with operating one of our systems. We can, however, design for the user as best as we possibly can and listen when users tell us what they like and dislike. Most of all, understand that our way of doing things is not necessarily the only way.