The Media and Design (MAD) Studios in the EEJ College of Education and Human Services provide resources and support for the entire college. Their mission is to improve the appearance of the departments, labs, clinics, and centers. MAD Studios offers this service in order for these sections to invest research dollars into research.
As the lead designer in the Media and Design team, I was assigned to take over a difficult project for TV slideshows throughout the college. As we have been integrating technology more and more in the college, different departments wanted a TV where they could showcase different events and research awards to those passing by. Some TVs are in the hallway, some are in reception areas, and we are planning on putting many more in the new building going up. Being the lead on this extensive project made me want to make management as simple as possible, yet look fantastic during the presentation.
Simplicity is key with each of these TV slideshows. Instead of us putting on every image on every TV, we could have the receptionists update the slideshow themselves so they wouldn’t have to put it in our queue. In my experience, receptionists are not as tech savvy as me or my co-workers, so I needed a program that would be easy to use. I also wanted to make sure that there was an inexpensive solution per TV. I investigated into how other places around campus achieved this.
What others bla bla have done around campus was using an expensive and difficult program called Digital Signage Studio. A co-worker in a former position introduced me to the program, and gave me his input on what he liked and what he didn’t like about it. To me, the program seemed complicated. Yes, it was a powerful machine that could do a lot, but it was a confusing program that I didn’t want to use. Another drawback to this method is that there must be a dedicated computer that will be running every time this screensaver is on. They were using a large desktop modem, or even an old laptop.
Another solution someone found was using some sort of small computer built by Intel. This small computer just plugged into the HDMI of the TV and could be remotely managed. The machine however was expensive and stopped working after a few months. This is also more technical for just anybody to learn.
After researching who would be using the program, and how it was used in the past, I set certain requirements that our solution must include:
After brainstorming with some co-workers, we came up with a few ideas that we wanted to try. The first one was using a USB drive that would plug into the TV. We started this knowing that we would need another solution for the TV slideshows, but it was something that we could learn from. One benefit of this solution is how inexpensive it is. USB drives don’t cost much money, it was conceptually easy to do, and it is a quick fix to a complicated problem. However, it falls short in too many areas. Such as:
One thing that we learned from this prototype was that you can save slides from PowerPoint, which was much easier for people to do than using large software like Photoshop. It even provided the correct aspect ratio (although setting up the right resolution was trickier). We also learned that we needed more control over the timing of the slides. Our next solution was using the USB with a Raspberry Pi, which would be connected to the back of the TV. I found a quick software for the Raspberry Pi that would give more control for timing, which would have helped. Although a better option than the USB, this also had stome drawbacks as a usable option:
After going through these prototypes, we decided to make our own web application. This would fulfill all of our needs with it being simple to use, easy to update, enough control over different functions, and lightweight. The concept has this software completely web-based, light enough to run on a Raspberry Pi browser, and possibly even a smart TV browser. With all of the information that we gathered, I began to sketch out mockups for the user interface. I started out with some rough wireframes, received feedback from some end users and developers, then moved on following the same iterations. I found some features that may take additional time to develop. After all, we didn’t really have very long to get these slideshows running. I used sketches to create high quality wireframes for about 20 different screen options. I had passed these around and received enough feedback to begin developing the front end when I thought of something we didn’t try before.
I wasn’t even at work when I thought of Google Slides. We used PowerPoint to create the images for the slideshow before, but we never tested to see if we could simply use Google Slides. Google Slides allows you to loop a slideshow to run with 1 second up to a minute per slide. It allows you to update the slideshow from your machine, then refresh the page on the TV. If you are close enough, you don’t need to leave your chair to update the slideshow. And since PowerPoint has been a pretty standard software, and user friendly for a long time, there is very little learning curve to using this software.
We implemented this solution and it has been working very well for a few weeks, which gives us more time to focus on other projects rather than re-inventing the wheel. As an added bonus, our program fell short of Google Slides because you would have to upload an image rather than have a built in editor (which Digital Signage Studio also had, but their version was very difficult to use).
So we didn’t end up making our program. It would have been a fun learning experience, but I still learned a lot from this project. One of them being “fail frequently, fail fast” (IDEO). We knew that the first run wouldn't be anything ideal, but we learned what we needed to keep, and what we needed to replace. Another important lesson is why you need to take users into account. Sometimes we think that everyone understands technology as we do. After all, we are the tech department. We need to keep things as simple as possible for our users. I reflect back to Donald Norman, where he teaches that experts will not complain about a program being too simple, but novices will complain about a program being too complex (The Design of Everyday Things, Chapter 6). Maybe we will create a new web app for this solution, but I think as we wait to see what problems arise with using Google Slides, we will be able to pinpoint even better how to design a better solution.