Best Practice: Is There a Perfect Interface?

​For as long as I can remember, there has been an Industry quest to find that single perfect user interface (UI).

That one interface to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them). This obsession has lead to the touchscreen becoming the default interface in the minds of both technology professionals and clients alike. Fuelled by the perceived cool factor of a mobile device being able to control a house, has the industry fallen into a style over substance trap? This trend is now being further perpetuated by the rise of IoT-connected ecosystems that mostly use mobile device-based apps for control.

For most spaces, there are three possible usage modes for a UI

  1. Entering or leaving a space. When entering or leaving a space, the lights need controlling. This can be done automatically using presence detection in transient spaces (A transient space is one that you pass through or  do not stay in, such as a cloakroom or hallway), or with a simple light switch in most spaces. Simple is the key here with the rule being that it should never take more than one push on a UI to turn the lights on or off. If you have to touch once to wake up a screen, touch again to get to the lights page and finally touch again to turn the lights on then you have a total user experience fail. Whatever the other functionality of that UI on a wall, only one push to turn the lights on please. You can also include more advanced control on this UI such as audio, and climate. Though control of AV from a UI on a wall is useful in areas where the users are standing most of the time, such as kitchens, consider how useful it is in an area such as a living or dining room where people are mostly seated and would be better served by a handheld remote. Always try, however, not to dilute the simplicity of simple light control.

2. Watching TV
Watching TV should be simple. This is why we unify that pile of remotes into a one simple remote with control macros to simplify control of multiple boxes. When watching TV (or any AV system), simple hard button-based remote controls are far superior to a touchscreen. Here’s why:

  1. You don’t have to look at a handheld remote to use it. Touchscreens need a user to look at them to ensure that your finger hits the correct button. They have no tactile feedback. You can hold and use it in one hand. Touchscreens generally need one hand to hold them, and another to interact with them. This is just not ergonomic. They are always on. Press a button and it just works. There is no screen to wake up or app to switch to if you’ve been playing Angry Birds on the iPad.
  2. The battery will outlast even the longest Game of Thrones binge watching fest.

Many handheld remotes combine hard buttons for often used common functions (I love those that have the four colours as hard buttons), with a small touchscreen that can be customised for different functions.

Aylett_Some remotes offer the best of both Worlds - Hard buttons for simple control and a touchscreen for more advanced functions

3. Browsing media
For graphically rich interfaces such as Sonos or Tidal, there is no substitute for a tablet. Though many of these interfaces can be accessed via a TV, it is usually more appropriate to not turn a TV on for audio-only applications. Additional graphically rich applications include viewing CCTV cameras and video-based access control.

Though many customers’ first concept of integrated control and automation is that they can do everything from their phone, this is rarely the best solution. When discussing the best design for a particular building and its users, put yourself in the users’ shoes and with your client, use a set of plans to virtually walk through the building and describe its use scenarios. Discuss exactly how a room may be used and make the case for the correct UI in each and every area.

The above three UI modes point towards a future where technology professionals and consumers alike will question the need for a control system. A lighting control system can look after lighting (and even HVAC control and door entry if chosen correctly), simple programmable handheld remotes operate AV systems, and a phone or tablet can be used for more graphically intensive control. For lesser used (once or twice a day such as adjusting temperature of requesting the hot water stay on for longer) use an app. An increasing amount of technology professionals are leveraging software such as ITTT to create automatically triggered complex interactions between IoT systems and devices.

All most customers really care about are system touch points, displays and speakers. All that stuff we do in racks and with cables just makes the touch points, displays and speakers work. When discussing UIs with your customers, don’t accept the ‘iPads for everything’ paradigm but ensure that the chosen design is truly ergonomic and user focussed.

Peter Aylett is a world-renowned speaker and lecturer in residential technology, and the Technical Director at Archimedia, a multinational high-end residential integrator in The Middle East. He is also currently Chair of CEDIA’s International Technology Council Applied Content Action Team, and a regular contributor to HiddenWires. 

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