There are a lot of different factors to consider when you’re making a technology purchase, whether you’re getting something for yourself or selecting the right solution for a business application. Having the right technical capabilities is obviously important, as is the ease of use and ability for managing and monitoring it. However, aesthetics is one feature that is very important for our personal technology purchases, yet it is sometimes overlooked in corporate AV purchases, because it can be difficult to express the real benefit to organizations.
In recent years, this has shifted somewhat with the aesthetics of technology like AV becoming more important. To find out why this is, I reached out to Paul Krizan, Solutions Manager, Corporate and Michael Saadeh, Product Manager, Collaboration and Management Software for HARMAN Professional Solutions.
[SKD]: There has been an increased focus on aesthetics in recent years, as AV has gone away from the “black box” approach for every piece of gear in the solution. What’s driving this trend, in your opinion?
[PK]: It has always been important to businesses to attract and retain talent. In recent years, they have come to recognize that one of the ways to do that is by providing an environment where it’s nice for people to come to work. There are a number of ways they can do that, of course, but one of the ways is through the design of the workspace. We’re seeing a trend where the role of interior designers and decorators is increasing. No longer limited to just furniture and paint colors, decorators have greater influence over the technology that goes into a space, particularly when that technology is visible or when it has impacts on the furniture.
[MS]: Organizations are aligned to focus on and accomplish their key objectives. They’re trying to get the most productivity out of their employees, and they’re trying to get the most value out of the real estate square footage that they have. Oftentimes, deployments of technology are balanced with input from several key stakeholders.
Of course, you have the influence from IT or AV departments, but you also have interior designers, architects or even end-user groups that are weighing in as well. So, they want to install powerful technology in a given space, but they desire it to look pleasing and function simply. Expectations have never been higher. The personal technology that we use every day is seamless and often effortless. We can download an app to our phone and instantly know how to use it. When we walk into a meeting space, we want the same thing. I want to know how to use the technology in the space right away as well. Clean spaces that have a really simple experience go a long way to achieving those objectives.
[PK]: The consumer world, as is often the case, is informing what people expect in the business world. As the hardware is becoming increasingly commoditized, the consumer product world is shifting toward design to differentiate. Bluetooth speakers like the JBL Flip are available in a number of different colors to fit your décor and color preferences, and products like the Harman Kardon Invoke are made from premium materials. So, people will ask, “If I can buy my phone or Bluetooth speaker in a number of different colors, why can’t I have the same flexibility with commercial hardware for my business? If technology for my home can look good and still perform well, why shouldn’t I expect the same in my office?” Your IT manager might not be as concerned with that, but your interior designer and executives will definitely be thinking that way.
[SKD]: So, how does that affect the way you design the product? How do you go about creating a product that technologically does the job while looking good as well?
[PK]: One of the challenges is that “looking cool” oftentimes brings manufacturability challenges or material challenges. You still have to pick materials that won’t interfere with product performance. Take the AMX Acendo Vibe, for example. To achieve the look we desired, we wanted to pick fabric that looked more like furniture fabric to cover the speakers. However, as an audio product, it was critical that the fabric be acoustically transparent. There are also some design elements we had to forgo, because we couldn’t obtain the right materials and build the product without impacting performance. And, we had to choose to make some parts of the product fully self-contained, so they would operate well without being impacted by the product design.
[MS]: It’s important to remember that visual design is just one part of the overall industrial design of the product. The way the product is built, even the size of the product, can affect the overall look of the product, particularly when it comes to mounting. For example, our table connectivity solution, the AMX HydraPort, has extremely compact but powerful retractable cable modules that don’t take up a lot of space underneath the table. This lets you put these modules in smaller spaces or rooms with more open furniture without compromising on the technology that we can bring there or the look of the solution once it is installed. While there are occasional compromises between the look and the functionality, there are also ways in which the industrial design can improve the look of the product as well.
[SKD]: Now, aesthetics and style are concepts that are ultimately very personal. Everyone has their own opinion of what looks good. How do you go about designing products to ensure the aesthetics match what customers want?
[MS]: First and foremost, we focus on what the product is like to use. A really simple and easy-to-use product can really drive everything else in the design. At the same time, we know that it is very difficult to have a “one size fits all” solution, so the amount of flexibility that we build into our platforms is key. If you take our AMX Modero touch panels, for example, not only is the platform itself designed to be customizable on the software side, but on the hardware side, there is also a wide range of mounting options that you can deploy for a given space. The same is true for the Acendo Vibe soundbar. To best fit the décor of a given space, there are three different colors available and two mounting options – either on the wall or on top of a credenza – both of which enable a great room aesthetic by not requiring bulky technology to be placed on the meeting table. So, it’s important to not only get the design right, but also build in a certain level of creativity and flexibility as well.
[SKD]: You mentioned the need to have a platform that is customizable. When you’re talking about a software platform—whether that’s a device, like the AMX Acendo Core, that offers background customizations and the like or something like an AMX touch panel that you can design from the ground up—how do you strike the right balance of allowing customization while also helping ensure the customer ends up with a good-looking final product?
[MS]: Our customers usually have a really good idea of the experience that they want their employees to have, and HARMAN’s diverse portfolio really lets us deliver on that. Whether they want to go with a product that delivers a consistent experience, perfect for global technology rollouts, like the Acendo product family, or a more custom design like we offer with AMX automation on a touch panel, there are a wide array of options available.
Of course, there are also middle-ground options as well. With AMX Rapid Project Maker, you can customize the functionality and the look without the overhead of custom programming. We really try to deliver a spectrum of solutions to deliver on those customer needs.
[PK]: Even on our products that are not fully customizable, we try to ship with “sane defaults” that deliver functionality and a look that we think people might want. However, depending on the tastes and policies of the company, we offer the ability to change those defaults and adjust the look and feel as they see fit. We get a lot of input on what those “sane defaults” need to be directly from our customers. This lets us provide something that will work well and look good in a majority of cases, while also providing the customization options if people want them. That way, the solution looks good and works the way they want it to for any situation.
I would like to offer a big thanks to Paul and Michael for taking the time to speak with us today. Do you have insights on how to address the issue of aesthetics in AV? Share them in the comments.