Too Much Information

Unfortunately, you still need to attend training and become certified to install some of the leading IP video solutions out there. I don’t understand why. Well. I do. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am fairly convinced that this market can and will be disrupted.

You don’t have to go too far back to realize how little value NVR manufacturers put into the user experience. Sure, everyone understood that a good UX is better than a bad one, but when it came to plunking down the cash, and making the hard choices, they seemed to run scared, and instead bet on adding another 5 cameras to the maximum camera count, or add more knobs to turn and things to adjust.

Remove Options!
In my humble opinion you should strive to REMOVE options from the interface. A good example is the quality setup for a camera. Almost all (if not all), differentiate between “compression”, “codec” and “resolution”, this means that someone could pick 3 MP for resolution, and then turn the compression all the way up, causing the quality (and effective resolution) to actually go down. Add VBR or CBR to the mix, and why not RTSP/UDP or RTSP over HTTP, just to make it even harder to make the right choice?

Let’s COA
While it may seem tempting to conclude that the manufacturers are just giving us a wonderful smorgasbord of options that we should all enjoy, it could be interpreted as just covering my ass. Instead of making rational and optimal choices for the end user, we just leave it to them to make the mistakes. That way, when something actually happens and they can’t see shit because they had the wrong permutation of options, we can wash our hands in their fountain of ignorance. When you go to a superstar restaurant, the menu is quite short, the chef is the expert and he makes the choice for you. If you go to an all you can eat buffet, the responsibility for picking the right combination is yours. Furthermore, because the 3-star Michelin restaurant only has a few options, each option is very well catered for. In contrast to the All You Can Eat Buffet where each dish was poured from a plastic bucket into the deep fryer.

Noma
Noma's menu

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No Guts, No Glory
I don’t think any of the NVR manufacturers out there have the guts to offer a very, very simple interface. And I think it kills the adaptation of old school NVRs in the mass market. I believe that there are a lot more value that integrators can add, than simply being able to make a meaningful choice in the carnival of features that we’ve added, and I truly believe that even the most technically competent integrator would appreciate a system that was easier to set up.

But People Want Feature X, Y and Z
I am not so sure. Nobody wanted an iPhone when it was announced (OK, I am wildly exaggerating here, but it helps my point). Everyone was telling me how “no-one wanted a touchscreen keyboard” and “My blackberry is way better”. Once it came out and people realized how they didn’t need all the things they said they did, they went “oh, but it will never work in a corporate environment”, and now everyone wants remote access on their iPad, so they’ll have an app right next to Angry Birds and Words With Friends (while exposing their NVR to the public network and so on, but that is another story).

We are all alike
I believe that 99% of ALL installations could, and should have been, made with the same exact set of options, the only difference being the scale of the system. And while I believe in removing options, I too pragmatic to suggest that the user has NO options. I’d offer 5 quality options (very low, low, medium, high, very high), and then let the system chose what the parameters should be behind the scenes.

Am I Insane
Possibly. But certainly most people who’ll read this, are going to think that I am. And so I am not afraid that anyone will heed this advice. I think there is a survivor-bias in this industry of people who just loves the giant buffet of acronyms, and there’s probably no courage to go ahead an offer such a product.

Ahhh… back to listening to Captain Beefheart….

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4 thoughts on “Too Much Information

  1. Removing options entirely is a lot more risky than simply better organizing how and when those options are displayed.

    I think we would agree that the core problem is showing dozens of options all at the same time. It’s overwhelming and intimidating.

    Progressive disclosure is one technique to address this – http://sixrevisions.com/user-interface/progressive-disclosure-in-user-interfaces/

    There’s the old principle that the difficulty in finding a feature should be in proportionate to how often it is used. That makes good sense to me.

    As a practical case, take your example of compression / codec / resolution. Showing all of these at once at the same level increases the risk of problems and errors. However, not giving any options except for resolution would constrain more advanced users / use cases. The best solution is to hide the less common options in a secondary menu/section.

    What do you think?

  2. prescienta says:

    I think that right now, 80% of the people in this industry would like to tinker with the settings under the cover and that’s why we see all these settings (PD or not). I believe that to grow the market, you need to hide those bits and pieces far, far away from the user. Progressive disclosure should naturally still be applied, the simplified interface would surely still have options that could be hidden in sub-menus.

    A tired analogy: Most cars have a central control unit. You can alter the code that runs in that unit and for example, retard and advance the ignition timing, you can adjust the fuel/air mixture and so on. Progressive disclosure or not, these settings should not be tinkered with by anyone except people who really know what they are doing.

    That doesn’t mean that there is not a market for cars that allow you to alter all this stuff from the comfort of you front seat, and when cars were in their infancy you HAD to mess around with all these things to make the car run properly.

    The state of affairs today is that an electrician can’t safely install an NVR from end to end without risking catastrophic errors in the setup. I wager that since IP video is now considered the de-facto technology for video surveillance, we are now catering to a much larger audience. An audience who, unlike early adopters, don’t give a rats ass if it is H.264, MxPEG or even MJPEG. What they care about is whether the quality of the video is sufficient for their needs. Most people, even laymen users, understand that quality and storage requirements are related. Whereas a lot of people, even trained, don’t really grasp how resolution, compression and codec affect each other (your own article on resolution vs compression seemed to verify this).

    I know that what I am suggesting seems crazy right now, and I am not keeping my breath as I wait for a disruption, but I believe we could be much better off, as an industry, if we started designing thinks with regular people in mind.

  3. kingbyu says:

    One of the hurdles behind providing a simplified UI is the complicated “standards-based” API that is implemented. When we allow the user to make a complicated configuration via the API, it suddenly becomes difficult to represent the current configuration in the UI.

    • prescienta says:

      Are you talking about the camera’s own web interface? Axis has an API called VAPIX that allows me, as a developer to send a simple command to select a particular resolution for my video feed, but not all cameras have such a mature API. They’ve been working on ONVIF for a long time, but I don’t know if the vendors wholeheartedly support it. It would almost certainly commoditize the cameras, and thus make it difficult to argue unique selling points for each model.

      Almost all cameras have a web-page that serves as a configuration and viewing tool, and in the old days you’d see NVRs that simply opened a web-browser and directed the user to the cameras own configuration page. We wanted to unify the UI so that the configuration for all cameras looked roughly the same, or at the very least had the same look and feel.

      As a developer, I’ve written a lot of these “proxies” for different camera vendors. It’s a very time-consuming, boring and error prone exercise, and in the end, you end up with a sort of lowest common denominator for all cameras. And even when you have this unified interface in place, nothing prevents the user from going “behind the scenes” after the fact and alter settings via the cameras own page, which makes it even harder to control the outcome, especially if you want to keep the NVR’s own UI in sync.

      Naturally, a simplified NVR would need to override whatever settings the user makes on the camera themselves. This makes the system less flexible, but also more robust. If you were to set Quality to “Medium”, then that setting would correspond to a very specific combination of resolution, codec and compression level, and the NVR would be responsible for making sure that these settings were in effect when streaming starts.

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