Part III of the 99% Invisible series

The design narrative of a technology or physical space dictates how it will be used (if it is used at all), and it should be simple and straightforward. In many cases, technology design can be almost subliminal, and once a paradigm is established, it is hard to break. If faculty members think classroom technology is complex, unreliable, and hard to use, that perception will change their approach to using the technology in the classroom, even when the technology has been upgraded to a more user-friendly design. By that point, the narrative has already been established and only a radical break will force them to reevaluate that narrative.

At the end of the day we are talking about a human interaction, not a technological one. Historically, technology frequently dictated its own narrative, sometimes unnecessarily and sometimes because of the limitations of the technology involved. However, with the advent of smaller, lighter technological solutions, it should no longer do so. We now have the opportunity to reintroduce the human narrative into the technological one; to bring the human back into human-computer symbiosis.

Questions Flow ChartThere is no longer any excuse for overly complex technology. All new systems need to be simple and intuitive to use. Getting to that point, however, means striking a delicate balance and landing somewhere in the “Goldilocks Zone,” the part of the spectrum where technology is complex enough to nurture creativity and learning, but not in a way that creates a barrier to entry.

In this part of the series, I want to demonstrate how we have attempted to find the Goldilocks Zone in our own classroom technology designs at Houston Community College. This has involved a complex process of continuous iteration and close cooperation between technologists, architects, furniture vendors, contractors, and, most importantly, the users. This cooperation continues to be a challenge because, as I am constantly reminded, making that kind of design leap is difficult unless you have a broad perspective on the problem. Few people have a perspective broad enough to form a narrative that encompasses the array of issues that come up in technology design.

In a recent interview, Ted Nelson compared Steve Jobs, a master of design thinking, to a movie director because he directed the Apple team the same way a director directs the cinematographer, actors, and set designers, in order to create his vision of the movie narrative. Nelson also pointed out that Jobs’s real genius was that his narrative vision was intuitive in understanding the users’ needs rather than their wants. A needs assessment is therefore a good starting point for understanding our own design journey.

In our case, this consisted of three tasks that faculty have expressed the need for. They are to:

1) Turn the system on;
2) If they brought their own laptop, to toggle between the podium PC and their laptop; and,
3) Control the volume in a movie or audio clip they are playing.

If you think about it, these tasks could be done with two rocker switches and rheostat, which can be purchased for $5 at an electronics store. However, amazingly, Crestron did not offer this simple solution in 2006-07 when we were installing our first iteration of classroom technologies. The interface at the right is what we ended up with for $150 per room (note that none of these switches are rocker switches, they are pushbuttons).

crestrontoosimpleLet’s think through how long it would take to accomplish the three tasks with this interface.

Task 1: Push the button marked PC and wait for the system to spool up (projectors take time to react, and the button has been known to get out of sync with the projector).

Task 2: You have to depend on an autoswitcher to work properly and flip the input to the laptop. You do this by plugging in the cable hanging from the side of the podium. The video switch is only useful for VCRs and could not be repurposed as a laptop switch. Very few faculty have ever used VCRs with these systems. The problem with this part of the system is that if it fails to work the user has no idea why and there is nothing they can do to troubleshoot other than to assume that the “magic” failed to happen.

Task 3: The volume control may be the only intuitive part of this interface.

The lesson here is that the narrative interface presented to the user appeared to be simple. However, in actual practice, it turned out to be opaque and unintuitive for the tasks it was designed to facilitate.

The next most expensive option at the time (~2007) for $1500 more was to use the PC to control the system and run software called XPanel. $1500 per room is not a trivial amount when your project requires outfitting 150 rooms (that’s $225,000 more). As I wanted to make sure I outfitted all of my rooms uniformly, that was never a realistic option. Cost aside, this system is no more effective than the first in achieving our three tasks intuitively and elegantly.

Let’s go back to the three tasks (Click on images to enlarge). In the first screenshot, which is the desktop when you wake up the computer, where is the software to make the system work? (Hint: The red-green-blue icon in the toolbar.)

The way to turn on the system is not entirely apparent. Now, lest you say: “Why don’t you put an icon on the desktop entitled ‘click here’?” We did. Everyone moved it around so you couldn’t find it most of the time.


The system is better for switching once you have the software launched, as the second screenshot illustrates. However, there are some issues with buried menus and the volume control is less intuitive and somewhat fussy. At the end of the day this system requires as much training and support as the “simple” system (and costs a whole lot more to boot).

We get as many, if not more, support calls in the three rooms in which we installed these systems than in the more basic system. The lesson here is that higher cost doesn’t necessarily result in a better-designed system.

Our new systems offer a much simpler interface at only slightly more cost. At first glance, it looks low-tech, but that was the intent. In Make It So, designers Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel note, “new interfaces are most understandable when they build on what users already know.” (p. 19).

mpcm5The closest analogy for the multimedia classroom is probably the TV remote. From the user’s perspective this interface is merely a TV remote attached to the wall. The design is simple, clean and efficient. Everything is out front. The three tasks all have their own set(s) of hardware buttons. Once we got that right, the number of calls from these rooms plummeted, and the users were much more satisfied with their experience in the classroom.

The other thing well-executed systems do is increase the reliability of the rooms. They are very simple to build, maintain, and upgrade. These systems rely on the TV for most of the switching and therefore have very simple basic functionality on the back end. This makes them far more reliable and quicker to troubleshoot. However, they are also very expandable to encompass new technologies as they emerge and to add additional functionality the users might need without disrupting the basic narrative of the three tasks outlined above.

All of these factors make the narrative of the classroom much more about possibilities than limitations. Users can access the technology in an intuitive way. They can rely on it to work a high percentage of the time, and we can add on new features fairly simply, such as wireless instruction with iPads or other mobile devices as they become viable within the constraints of our network. This means that the faculty and students can focus on learning and innovating. In this way we are actually augmenting their experiences rather than hampering them.

In the next installment of “99% Invisible,” I will dive into what part layout and furniture choice play in the classroom narrative. Stay tuned!

> Read Part II of the 99% Invisible Series

Photos & images via Tom Haymes and Bigstock Photo

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