June 2012
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It's time we re-connected with our users

We need to stop thinking of our users as brown coat wearing engineers looking after buildings but rather users as shop assistants, administrators, managers and sales executives.

Ged Tyrrell
Ged Tyrrell
Founder/Managing Director
Tyrrell Systems and
Tyrrell Products Ltd

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Control Solutions, Inc

In the last twenty years of my career in building automation and integration I've seen some huge changes in technology and how I use it. Come to think of it; we all have…..

In the auto industry we've seen the eradication of carburetors, points and ignition systems with moving parts. 20 years ago we were using map books and now GPS can locate us to within a few feet of our exact location. Digital cameras and post production software means we don’t even have to wait 1hr to see the results. Boxes that record TV while you are out, 24/7 online shopping and entertainment, dishwashers and washing machines that can be programmed to come on and perform while you sleep. And we’ve gone from reference books, through connecting to a world wide web via a phone line and modem, to wireless internet access during air travel...

Technology has become so intrinsic to the way we actually live now, most users take it for granted; it operates ‘beneath the surface’, focusing us on convenience, benefits and aesthetics rather than the function of a machine or device. This convenience is simply not possible with technology that has to 'boot-up' or whose batteries last such a short time you may as well sit down because that device always has to be plugged into a wall socket. Twenty years ago I did have a mobile phone but it was the size of a small handbag! Today my phone is not really a phone but merely a piece of software, an “App”, on a powerful portable computer that has an amazing touch screen and it even fits in my pocket! The telephone is now just another App amongst many apps.

And it's with the advent of reliable portable computing in the form of tablets and smartphones that the use of computers has shifted. Where once a computer was a tool, even in the office sense, now more than ever it is set to become a way of life; but whose life? In the recent keynote address by Steve Fey, Tridium CEO at the 2012 Niagara summit, he showed us some staggering statistics (below) indicating that not only are regular PC sales stagnating but they are being outstripped by tablets such as the iPad and blatantly left behind by smartphones, which are the mobile computer of today and certainly tomorrow.

 Mobility

So, consider this groundbreaking growth for a minute and ask yourself a few simple questions...who are these new users? What age demographic are they? What are their expectations? How will they use these devices? How patient will they be in their evaluation of any App or Web service?

My view is this, and it may be an obvious one; they are not geeks, engineers or technicians. No, they are in fact what I call normal people. They are the lady who sits next to you on the bus or train you take every morning. They are your spouses, children, partners, family and friends. Most importantly, these new users are not “technical” people, since we all know of the shrinking technical workforce in the west. With specific focus on the next generation of 25-30s, we are looking at a complete re-focusing on the benefits of technology rather than the features, and that's a good thing in my view. Most users are really not that interested in whether their satellite TV box runs Linux or Windows, if it's got a hard disk or SSD! No, they are sharply focused on how easy it is to use, how long it will record for and if it's reliable. If it does all those things reasonably well, the deciding factor will be how gorgeous it looks alongside their LED TV or home cinema system; something Apple have clearly got to grips with in the last 5 years.

Apps Versus Browser
I had a recent discussion with a very competent developer about how the web can deliver everything that an App can, using various technologies available now in HTML that weren’t possible even last year. I have to admit, my mind was opened and I was pretty amazed at what you could do with a browser yet look at these statistics below:

Here again, we see technical possibilities losing ground. It’s not that an App can do less, in fact it can do every bit as much as HTML5, so what’s going on here? Well, if any of you are old enough to remember the birth of video tapes and Betamax vs VHS, you will remember that Betamax was technically superior in so many ways but users flocked to VHS because more companies could make VHS players. This meant users found it easier to make a purchase of a VHS machine based on cost, aesthetics, benefits, features, etc. Betamax lost its edge and became obsolete.

Apps are easy to use and it’s as simple as that. If you have an App and it says eBay, you know exactly what it’s for and with a single click you are getting on with exactly what you wanted to do. Equally, with different mobile platforms emerging, including iOS and numerous iterations of Android, there are some particularly nice ease-of-use features available to developers that can be implemented and tested very simply, without having to wait for internet standards to make them possible across all devices, which means you are getting a much more tuned experience to not only what you want to do but the way the creators want your experience to be like.

Our Industry Response

Our Industry Response
You may well be asking, what does that mean for all of us in the engineering community, especially in our specialist fields of facilities management, energy management and building automation and integration? (I certainly hope you are asking this question.) It means that we need to stop thinking of our users as brown coat wearing engineers looking after buildings but rather users as shop assistants, administrators, managers and sales executives. It is here in these areas and with users like this that we are going to see the growth of uptake in smart mobile devices; so when we think of how we interact with these users, we need to stop thinking in terms of graphics of boilers, roof top units, chillers and pipe work and more in terms of thermometers, light switches, calendars and some form of simple energy displays. These new users are more bothered about how they can set their system to turn off next Friday because they are on holiday than seeing fancy graphics indicating how many stages of cooling are required to bring their store to a comfortable temperature. These users want to know when they have a problem and who to ring, and whether that last adjustment they made will cost them more money or save some money when the energy bill comes. These are the users who are not engineers; they want to click on an icon, get done exactly what they want to do, without a manual or training course, and then get on with the rest of their day. In a world where consumption of data is at an all time high, data presentation is paramount. We need to enhance the user experience and deliver the information and controls in a way that makes sense straight away, and that provides simple feedback on the affect any adjustments may have to comfort and energy consumption.

This requires an altogether different approach to the one I have seen even recently. As an engineering community, the response I am seeing to all this new technology and possibilities is not a new way of delivering the user’s interface but rather just a more polished and swanky set of boiler, chiller and AHU graphics than we had in the early 1990’s. What have we really got to be proud of? Providing our users with exactly the same experience we did in 16 colours but now in 16-bit and maybe animated in flash or some other such technology our users are equally uninterested in? It’s time, like our users, we focused on the benefits, the meaning and the convenience if we as an engineering body are to engage with this huge volume of mobile users.

That may sound critical so let me be clear that I am not saying there is not a place for articulate and stylized graphics of engineering plant but the number of users for this type of presentation and interface will continue to decrease, based on the type of device they will use and, as I have already said, the kind of roles the users have. If buildings, campuses or estates are large enough, they will of course continue to have estates managers or facility managers and for these technical types, re-vamped versions of the same flavors of experience will of course be welcomed. But technically savvy people are not the focus of either this article or the future of mobile computing.
 
eBMS/Mobile
Our product here at Tyrrell has had to be changed too. At first, our development focused on delivering a fast feature-rich user experience with zero engineering. Fast and easy access to schedules (time control), points (temperatures), histories (graphs) and alarms (problems). We did this in a way that could be deployed in as little as 10 minutes and we are really proud of these achievements.

eBMS/Mobile

However, when we started to engage in particular with retailers and middle to upper class homeowners we saw a real need for something new. These users said to us things like, “excuse me, what is a ‘point’? what’s a ‘history’?” and “Oh a schedule is the time clock, like my air con at home?”. This was good feedback for us and it led us down a completely new path where we wanted to provide the fastest way of engineers setting up screens in logical groups, delivering content in a beautiful style through automatic widgets that the end user will not only relate to but find a joy to use.

Custom Views

We call this Custom Views, but here at Tyrrell we believe this is the way all users will want to engage with their building systems, whether they are at home or at work, whether it is their core job or just another additional element to their ever-expanding role.

eBMS/Mobile is an App in the truest sense of the word and attempts to deliver the benefits of being an App, as you would expect. By creating a library of widgets that represent real life elements such as temperature, blinds, lights, heating...the list goes on, we have provided a fixed, yet flexible way of looking at the things that matter most to the end user in their building. Equally, by holding libraries of these widgets in the App, all we need to pass between the Building Automation System and the App is pure data and pointers as to how to display it, which again scores because we need the user experience to be as fast as possible even on a slower cellular network.
 
Control Solutions, Inc Looking to the Future
This is a moment in time where many of life’s established technologies potentially collude in our industry’s favour. The internet brings complete connectivity; Apps bring the user the convenience, benefits and aesthetics they desire; and the sheer proliferation of tablets and smart phones means everyone has the most ideal user interface to control their home heating or A/C time clock, their thermostat, their external lighting time controller or sprinkler timer.

So with this powerful control in every user’s hands, is it too much of a stretch to see a jump to white goods being controlled by an App rather than paying for fixed controls on these goods in our homes? I don’t think so at all and if I was offered a washing machine that was reduced by $50 by delivering its controls through an App I would probably take it, mitigating any risk by buying an iPod Touch for the home and leaving it on charge so my clothes could be washed regardless of whether I left my phone or iPad at the office. 

In Building Automation and Systems Integration, this is exactly what Tyrrell has done for the commercial space; linked things together with a common user interface but the tools we used have been PC software and now Web Based Software and Web Servers. So we already know the need and desire to provide a common user interface exists. Now our industry needs to do exactly the same thing all over again but to different users, through different media, on different devices and presented in a brand new way that engages with where these 100m new users are going to come from.

In our engineering community, we need to fully wake up to the day-to-day technology going on around us, and harness it, in order to maximize our industry potential in an exciting new market.


About the Author

Ged Tyrrell is the founder and managing director of Tyrrell Systems and Tyrrell Products Ltd, based in the UK. Ged started in the industry at 17 and has been talking and walking programmable building automation and integration systems since they first came into being in the late 80's. He not only has extensive knowledge on his subject matter but is also passionate about it. It is this passion to make the world a better place in his corner that has caused him to lead in first stepping out as one of a handful of companies started in the late 90's just focussed on building systems integration.  In his latest venture, nearly three years ago, Ged stepped out again, leading his team in the development of a powerful and user friendly mobile App to re-connect existing and a growing number of new users to control and monitor their built environments, when no other company at that time was showing any interest.

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