Do Not Overlook the Importance of the User Control Panel

In a recent series of blogs, we reviewed the AV components that should not be compromised on. Perhaps conspicuously absent was the user control panel which may very well be the most important piece of equipment in a meeting space. Regardless of shape, size, or other characteristic, a control panel should, above all else, be as easy to use as possible.

What Is a User Control Panel?

The control panel is a universal remote control (on steroids) for any type of conference/collaboration system. It ties all of the system devices together via an on-screen user interface.  The interface presents relevant controls for the particular devices which are needed to accomplish the workflow in the room. The touch panel also shows the current state of the system to the user.

A control panel should offer an easy to use, fully functional interface to the capabilities of the system. In general, the control system’s user interface is like a company’s IT department. When things go well, everything runs smoothly and you almost forget it’s there (even though it is doing all kinds of stuff in the background, it’s out of sight out of mind). When the user interface has been poorly designed, users have nothing but frustrations, constant headaches, and lack of confidence with the system.

How Control Panels Work

There are two parts of a control system: the control panel and the central processor. The control panel usually sits on the table in the conference room or is mounted on a wall. The central processor is usually integrated into a rack with all of the other pieces of equipment that drive the room. The processor talks to all of the devices in the rack over various connection methods including network, serial, IR, relay, and more. The control panel presents easy to follow graphical interface on a touch screen. When users press a button on the touch screen, it talks to the controller to send commands to the devices to perform the relevant action. In the background, the central processor is talking to devices to maintain communication and confirm state of the system.

Picking the Right Control Panel

Control panels offer a wide variety of features and benefits. Deciding what control panel to use depends on your use cases.  How the user interface is programmed should always be based on use cases and the intended workflow in the room. The most important feature to have is an easy to follow user interface to avoid user frustration.  Frustrated users will request support, complain to others or simply stop using the room, all of which impact productivity and ROI on technology investment. 

The control panel should present an intuitive set of choices and selection paths to accomplish the room’s workflow. It should clearly show common use cases and reduce control to as few clicks as possible. Certain control panels are able to automate commonly used functions of the room and automatically set the room to work in the optimal scenario (not relying on set it and forget it, but controlling all components to ensure they perform the correct actions). A control panel that represents the state of the system in real time, so that the devices can’t get out of sync with the interface, is beneficial to ensure that users don’t have to “figure out” what the system is doing. Built-in troubleshooting and diagnostic features are helpful tools for those setting up and servicing the system.

Important to note is that an intuitive user interface is not shipped with control panels.  Designing an interface specific to the workflow requires in-depth consultation and programming by an accredited vendor/integrator. The integrator should also recommend the control panel technology most suitable to the tasks.

A well designed control panel will enable meetings to start on time and function smoothly. There won’t be any post-it-notes, handwritten instructions on the whiteboard or printed out instructions sitting on the table to tell users how to work the system.  There won’t be a mess of equipment remotes sitting out on the conference room table. Users should have confidence the technology in the meeting room will support and aid them instead of hinder their productivity.  

If you see hand written notes or remotes on tabletops, hear grumblings or would like to avoid these occurrences when upgrading or planning a new space, the control panel may be the place to start. Consultation on use cases and recommendation of appropriate equipment are critical to productivity. 

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