Refining the user experience
Author: Clive Couldwell
A familiar sight at user group and AV association gatherings, the former InfoComm president – the first from outside North America, founder-director of Paradigm AV, and now Visual Displays Ltd (VDL) talks to Clive Couldwell about AV, ‘good’ standards and UX.
In the true tradition of AV, after a few years of scratching a living with gigs and session work for songwriters, adult responsibilities forced Greg Jeffreys into the world of ‘proper’ work. “I started Exhibition Services, installing exhibition stands. I sold this business to its main client and went to work for them in the one and only proper job I’ve had in my life. I ran sales and marketing but also its nascent AV business which involved making a random access device for the then ubiquitous Kodak Carousel projector,” he reveals.
Jeffreys started Paradigm AV in 1985 and gradually turned it into a focused rear projection company. However, this pivoted on a life-changing piece of luck. A sequence of chance encounters led to meeting two Danish consultants. They had been brought in by print and optical technology company Dai Nippon Printing to run a company they’d acquired near Copenhagen – renamed as dnp denmark A/S and which owned significant IP in optical rear projection screen technology.
“Large screen TVs and displays were rear projection and dnp all but owned this space globally. They were adding large screens for the professional market and hired me to consult in this project where we used the UK market as the testing ground to roll the products out internationally,” says Jeffreys. “They paid me what seemed to be fabulous sums, which I used to hire two people in Paradigm, and invested in developing the design and manufacture of rear projection mirror systems.”
Jeffreys says he became obsessed with creating hard metrics into image quality evaluation, completely frustrated with the subjectivity used in making critical judgements. “The dnp R&D resource and factory contained a group of driven and talented engineers, and I immersed myself in this world, learning as much as I could. When we achieved dnp’s success criteria in the UK I became their exclusive distributor in the UK and Ireland, something that stands to this day.”
In search of good standards
Jeffrey’s next piece of luck occurred when he met Professor Geoff Levermore of UMIST (now the University of Manchester) who had a freelance consultancy project for BP to specify a new control room. “We worked together over coffee and sandwiches one Saturday where the deficiencies in current knowledge on projection unexpectedly turned out to be the theme of the day,” says Jeffreys. “He effectively challenged me to come up with the goods and followed up by asking me to write a module as visiting lecturer on a new postgraduate MSc course (he initiated in 2002) on sustainable electronic building design. For someone who had failed to achieve even a first degree, I had a real ‘why me?’ moment.”
But research soon defined the issue, says Jeffreys. Although there were good standards that related to system components such as screens and projectors, there were none that addressed the real user need, namely a standard that related to the delivered image quality. “I suppose Geoff was used to pointing students and academics in directions they lacked the wit to work out for themselves, but I don’t know if he ever realised how significant his mentoring was to me.”
When his UMIST assignment finished Jeffreys felt there was still a raft of work needed. With the dnp team, he invited consultants to work on a possible new projected image standard, running the inaugural event in Denmark at the beginning of 2004 and which brought together an international team for discussion and to use the dnp labs for research.
“From the UK we had Jason Brameld who has gone on to become a significant player in Standards in his own right, and John Eden-Green who has since left consulting and gone to the Dark Side of manufacturing at Extron,” says Jeffreys wryly. “I remain close with Jason, but both guys are bullshit-free zones and brought a rigour and practicality to the project I found inspiring. InfoComm’s director of education then was Terry Friesenborg and he took four flights from Dayton, Ohio to join us at dnp. His participation and support proved to be a significant factor in what has happened in my life since then. InfoComm (now AVIXA) became the most important part in my professional life, a significance that continues to this day.”
Matters moved relatively swiftly for Jeffreys from this point as he wrote and co-wrote best practice and technical papers on projected images. InfoComm became an ANSI-accredited standards organisation and Jeffreys joined the inaugural management committee. One of the first standards started was PISCR (Projected Image System Contrast Ratio) which Jeffreys co-wrote under the leadership of Alan Brawn. It duly hit the streets in 2009.
In 2008 Jeffreys became Chair of the European Council giving him a seat on the Board of Governors, a large and unwieldy roomful, with the real decisions being taken by an Executive Committee. “Like turkeys voting for Christmas, our job that year was to vote ourselves out of existence in favour of a new streamlined professional board.”
In 2009 Jeffreys was appointed as one of the new board of 12 directors. Late that year he was asked to stand as officer in 2010, a four-year appointment, moving in yearly steps from Secretary Treasurer, to President Elect, to President, to Chair of the Executive Development Committee – the idea being that if you weren’t ready to be President by that third year, you’d never be ready, recalls Jeffreys whose year duly went by in a flash, marked by InfoComm’s CEO Randy Lemke retiring.
“Having my business here in the UK facilitated being able to spend significant portions of time in unpaid volunteer work, although this came at personal and financial costs,” adds Jeffreys. Buoyed by his business learnings from InfoComm Jeffreys had split Paradigm into two, creating Simulation Displays in 2011. From 2013 bereavement and divorce upended the status quo, leading to the sale of Simulation Displays and the Paradigm team morphing into the current Visual Displays company.
Of course, an integral part of Jeffreys’ current AV obsessions and work is the real Brave New World of the UX (User Experience). “It speaks to a knot of issues that are inextricably linked and go a long way to explaining the frustrations and objections of AV professionals,” he says.
“AV and IT might be stablemates, but they are different – critically different. AV delivers the auditory, visual and sensory cues that create the user experience but IT is the conduit between the source and the AV. One reason that AV can get knocked so far down the food chain and becomes a late and messy add-on in a project is that the industry lacks the conviction of its rightful place in the technology-enhanced environment and, more critically, lacks the tools with which to assert its claim. This is where standards in general and UX, in particular, come in,” Jeffreys maintains.
User experience design
For some time now, InfoComm (now AVIXA) has focused on what comprises an outstanding user experience, looking for outstanding examples for guidance. The pitfalls here are that highlighting great installations doesn’t necessary mean we identify why they are so good and that we use vague language in describing it, says Jeffreys. So here comes AVIXA’s new User Experience Design for AV standard.
“The UX industry, although long-established, seems to exist in a parallel universe, one which most of us are blissfully unaware of. It comprises disciples and practices with the common theme of human centred design – but it suffers from similar shape-shifting in definition and application as the concept ‘collaboration’ does in AV,” he says. “For those within AV who do have an awareness of UX, their association tends to be with the specific of control panel interface design. This is not incorrect, but it is like saying Formula 1 racing is about engines, not that engines are a component of the F1 universe.”
In Jeffreys’ practice as a specialist consultant for AV-enabled spaces it’s typical to see that, say, 150 per cent of the real budget needed has been spent in achieving 60 per cent of the required functionality and user experience. “The usual cause is that elements within that space, such as furniture, lighting, surface finishes, acoustics and AV are considered in partial or total isolation. I think our new UX for AV standard will have a significant impact in helping project teams to get better results and be able to demonstrate real cost benefits.”
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