Eliminating friction for a smooth ride

Michael Heiss explores the myriad friction points custom installers may encounter on a job and offers tips on how to head them off to ensure smoother project delivery and happier clients.

Look up “friction” in the print or online dictionary of your choice and you’ll probably find something along the lines of “…the force that opposes the relative motion or tendency of such motion of two surfaces in contact.” That is certainly a valid description, but in more popular, non-technical, sense friction is often used to describe the resistance that is felt when something impedes the completion of an activity or perhaps a job.

For example, in the world of user interface design one of the goals is often to create an experience that is as “frictionless” as possible. No, that doesn’t mean putting something slippery on top of a touch screen or remote. Rather, it means designing something that there is no reluctance to use or “resistance” or difficulty when using.

As a community of people who design and install all sorts of devices and controls that people use in a variety of ways that is the type of friction we need to be aware of. To help with that, in this issue we’ll talk about identifying friction points and suggest some ways to avoid or eliminate them for both staff and your clients. As always, some of this may be obvious but others not so much. The goal, however, is to make you aware of friction and avoid it when possible. After all, you might sense some friction, but have you thought about how to eliminate it at the root cause?

 Did the designer ask the client if they watch TV while in the kitchen? If the answer is yes then they forgot something and there will be friction

Avoiding friction with things they may not consider

Here, the “they” is both the client and, particularly for higher end or spec jobs their interior designer. Being married to an architect for the past 42 years, it is inevitable that whenever we see an open house, particularly for new construction, we must stop for a visit. That’s particularly true for new houses in our area where ridiculous sums are being spent to buy a perfectly solid, albeit old, home just to tear it down and build a new one. From our different perspectives, my wife Leslie and I often remark that many of these new houses look good on the surface but seemed to be designed for show and not practicality. THAT can be a major source of friction with the ultimate buyer.

Here, the friction may result from things that were not perhaps evident in design or renovation, but which might definitely cause some friction down the road in the form of blow back to you as the system designer/integrator. It might possibly require you to deliver system updates at little or no profit. This may also lose some referrals due to dissatisfied clients. If you see this friction coming, it is often best to lubricate and stop with a generous application of knowledge, skills and good business judgement.

One “it’s right in front of my eyes but I didn’t see it” friction point is often what you see in a room intended as a home office or the desk area of a teen’s or second bedroom. It’s easy to see why an interior designer would want to place a nice desk in the middle of the room for a sleek appearance. Great, but they don’t have to work there, the client does!

Has your plan insisted that there are proper mains outlets embedded in the floor where the desk will be? We don’t have wireless mains power yet and if those aren’t there the friction will come from someone complaining about having to run power strips and cords to the desk, or even worse, tripping over them. Work with the client to make certain that this is accommodated within the bounds the floor covering permits.

Same for provisioning wired broadband connectivity in these rooms. Some might say that we are now in the “wireless era”, but what about the security high end business-oriented clients might request for security from WiFi hacking or cloning. Not one of the houses I’ve seen with prices listed well north of $3,000,000 and if the buyer can afford that price, it’s a safe bet that they might want hard wired connections in some places.

There is another place in the home where the sleek look many designers are fond of might also cause you, not them friction. The kitchen and associated areas are natural gathering places and these days wherever people congregate in a home they want both connectivity and information. Sure, the designer might say, that’s what smart phones are for. Perhaps, but what about when everyone is watching their team’s match or taking a glance at the news over a morning tea or coffee. That’s when having a separate and perhaps slightly larger screen comes in handy.

If the desire is for a tablet, at least make certain that there is a stand and dedicated outlet for a charger. Even better, how about a 24- to 32-in TV on a fold-away mount? If the client has still not cut the (cable TV) cord, don’t forget to have the kitchen people put in a J-Box in the backsplash or under the counter for the feed from a set top box. The “friction: from cutting a hole in stone surfaces after the fact is something you definitely do NOT want.

Enough lights are enough! Did someone avoid friction by configuring enough dimming zones?

Things to add to your pre-bid questionnaires to avoid friction later

Times have changed, but has your pre-bid questionnaire?

One example is the impact that EVs will have on the home ecosystem. Yes, your firm may not do the mains electrical system, but you should have a say in EVs. The easiest example for renovation and new products is to ask if the client has or is considering an EV and provision accordingly. Besides, if they don’t have an EV now, they likely will eventually.

Here, your avoidance of friction may go down to the base level. Add a question about what type of EV they have and see where the charging inlet is on the car. Some are on the rear quarter panel, some on the front, some right in the front nose of the car and who knows where else. Right side or left side of the car? Make sure that the outlets for the charger are where they need to be and to work with the electrician to even add an overhead swing type cable to move from one car to another where needed.

Equally important, particularly when the garage is far enough removed from the main residence is there WiFi where the charger is? Almost all contemporary chargers depend on a solid WiFi connection for notifications and charging history. If the charger can’t communicate with its app you’ll get friction later on.

Particularly on retrofit and update bids, it is worth asking if there are any older analogue phone lines that need to be replaced. Here in the US, we call them “POTS”, for Plain Old (Fashioned)Telephone Service. Also here in North America, and presumably throughout the world, phone companies are beginning to shut them down and that is something to think about.

At this point your clients will have likely switched their main phone lines to VOIP or just use cellular, but what about the “hidden lines” that may still be analogue POTS. How about the alarm system? How about the dedicated line to an older gate or entry control? How about the fax machine that many still have? Be sure to ask about these and work them into any communications systems plan before it’s too late. My fax and alarm lines are still POTS, and I have to change it to VOIP and cellular, respectively, before the end of the year. A hint to the wise here.

Does your questionnaire ask which streaming services are subscribed to? That is a key one, as there will inevitably be one service that the users’ smart TVs or streaming boxes won’t have. See what they want and plan the devices accordingly. A suggestion: have at least two in the plan, just in case to avoid friction later.

Here’s one more odd one to ask: Is the client or anyone in the household family a “DIYer”? Beyond what you provision do they like to tinker and add devices themselves? This may result in friction later one as newer WiFi systems (I’m particularly talking to you, eero 6 models!) default to 5Ghz WiFi even though they are fully capable of the older 2.4Ghz transmissions. If the client buys and attempts to install a new “2.4 only” device on their own it won’t automatically connect unless they know how to do it or have read the manuals. Fat chance on the latter!

The solution is clearly to explain the tricks for this beforehand or, even better, include the installation of new things they buy on their own as part of your monthly maintenance program!

Do they REALLY want that many lights outside the house and under the eaves?

Avoiding friction from things they might want but which might cause friction on a number of levels

Let’s call this a collection of things that “seemed like a good idea at the time, but…”.

One is a trend that is very prevalent here in the Los Angeles area, but I’ve seen it in new home magazines from all over: an overabundance of lighting. Particularly as the whole topic of lighting has become an important part of the work of many integration businesses’ work but one suspects that sometimes the lighting design goes overboard and that is where you might reduce some friction.

Think about it, how many lights are needed in a given room or outside the house? I say in many cases, too many. That’s where you come in. Let the designer put in all the lights they think are wanted; you make certain that there is enough control in terms of dimming 

ability, zones and timing. After all, does a house really need all those lights under the eaves as some here have? Make certain that there is enough control to make certain that the neighbors don’t complain…or cause friction.

The same for outdoor speakers. Great in the yard or near a pool, but when they get close to the street, even when the speakers are in the property line, the homeowner will inevitably get complaints. Give them the control they need to avoid that. Even better, just make certain that there is enough WiFi coverage so that they may bring a portable speaker to feed content from a server, or just use Bluetooth from a phone or tablet app.

Our last point of friction for today is to remember to temper clients’ requests for something that is not really needed. A current example of that is WiFi 7. Based on what was on display at CES there is a growing number of products for 802.11be products. Your part of the ecosystem is the access points and mesh boxes and there are a few, though not many laptops and phones currently have it. Yes, having WiFi 7 right now is a hedge against the future but what if you add it to a system and the client doesn’t see any real-world download or upload speed?

That’s where you need to reduce the friction by explaining that, at least from a speed standpoint, there won’t be a discernable benefit, particularly if the WiFi 7 isn’t accompanied by an increase in the service provided from their ISP. The delicate balance here and often elsewhere is the same as not applying enough lubricant to stop the friction on one hand and glopping on so much grease on the other hand that things start slipping.

When an outdoor speaker was asked for in a small patio close ot the street do they really think it could be played LOUD without complaints form the neghbours?

Here's a suggestion: Calm the fears with a good explanation, and unless the speed is available and the devices compatible perhaps the best path is to suggest waiting out until the technology matures a bit more, prices go down, features are added and there are more brand and model options. After all, sometimes you don’t want to be the first one out when things are still at, or just past beta. As with all new technologies, even if the base line gear is good there will likely be numerous updates for bug fixes. Sometimes it is just better to wait.

There you have it. Friction is sometimes good, such as when you need to light a match. Other times, of course, it can slow things down or totally derail them. If this has done nothing more than make you aware of what friction points might be in our industry and how to identify them then our job is done. Perhaps it is best to leave you with what I like to call the “Golden Warning” for anyone who deals with consumers by providing products or services.

I’ve said it many times here before, but it remains true: “The last one to touch something is responsible for anything that goes wrong whether it is their fault (which it often isn’t) or not.” By discovering friction points, evaluating the cause, finding a way to eliminate them, and have a good explanation for them you can be known as the firm and staff that eliminates friction rather than the ones to solve it.

Top image credit: fran_kie/Shutterstock.com

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