The user experience was better 40 years ago than what we deliver in most video sessions today.

June 12, 2018

5 Min Read
Video Conference


C.P. McGrowl

By C.P. McGrowl, Chief Channel Curmudgeon

Back in the late 1970s, when I was peddling equipment and services for the old Bell System – AT&T Long Lines, National Accounts to be precise – one of the items in my kit was the Picturephone Meeting Service, or “PMS.”

Yeah, AT&T actually had a service with the initials “P-M-S” back in the heyday of acronyms.

In those days, video equipment was way too expensive to deploy on site, so AT&T rented out video meeting rooms equipped with then-state-of-the-art 1.5 Mbps compressed video devices delivering a decidedly low-fidelity, herky-jerky experience. Sure, the video gear was rudimentary by today’s standards, but at least the sound and lighting systems for those rooms were designed by professionals, so the brightness and audio quality were excellent. That same design expertise was brought to bear in designing rooms to house the corporate telepresence systems I later sold.

All of this ended with the arrival of ad hoc desktop and huddle room video. With the AV and lighting professionals out of the picture, literally, IT and line-of-business people found themselves in charge. Got AC power, a $40 webcam and an Ethernet jack? Great, let’s set up a huddle room! As the cost of video devices plummeted and networks grew to accommodate the additional traffic, the market blossomed.

Now it’s time to look upon what we’ve wrought, and it’s painful to watch.

Since our parents first sat us in front of the TV in lieu of paying a babysitter, we’ve been developing certain expectations regarding what we see on a screen. Broadcast video is managed and orchestrated by professionals who take care to create an image that is well lit, nicely staged and aesthetically pleasing to the smallest details. What we get in enterprise environments ranges from dull at best to as picturesque as Times Square on the wrong side of a circa-1978 Saturday night.

Partners, this is an opportunity. We have some reports available with tips for better videoconferencing and ways to make enterprise video work for channel sales and marketing. But at the bare minimum, when you go into a customer site to sell or help install a conferencing system in a huddle room, or even a desktop setup for users, spend some time covering a few key points.

First, bad video is typically the result of bad lighting. If you forget everything else, make sure that the customer knows that when facing a camera, the light has to be coming from in front of the person speaking — not behind them or from above. By the way, windows are light sources, so while a live, natural background might sound like a great idea, test the result or risk the speaker’s face appearing as nothing but a dark shadow, which may be better than the zombie ambiance from a glaring overhead fluorescent tube.

The audio components on modern systems make up for a lot of environmental shortcomings, but they won’t compensate for a room that looks like an interrogation chamber, so make sure the customer considers the image they’re putting out to the world. At a bare minimum, don’t have the chairs strewn about haphazardly like you just had a fire drill. “Neat” shows organization and professionalism and is the bare minimum. Try it.

Color is also a big thing. Most huddle rooms are designed and furnished in the most …

… utilitarian fashion — spartan to say the least. Send the intern over to HomeGoods with a few bucks to invest in a fake ficus or some wall art. Frame some of your best ads or shots from a company outing, or put up an awards shelf. Do something that will break out a of drab “corporate white” image. This is a courtesy for companies that use the room mostly for internal video calls. It’s mandatory for rooms where calls involve end customers or business partners.

By the way, I have found that some of the biggest producers of video equipment are the worst offenders when it comes to presenting a professional image on their video presentations.

As desktop video is by nature a less formal “from your workspace” experience, people will cut end users some slack. Still, no end customer or coworker wants to see three-year’s worth of piled up papers and yesterday’s lunch dishes, so companies should develop guidelines for employees, especially companies that support BYOD programs where people might be conferencing with a top customer from a random mobile device. And be mindful of sound: Open offices are anathema to desktop video. Just like you wouldn’t participate in an audio conference while standing next to a guy playing the soundtrack from 1978’s Grease at full volume, show some consideration to your other meeting participants.

If you forget everything else in this article, just remember: PAY ATTENTION TO THE LIGHT. “Vide” means “pictures” and in pictures, light is everything.

At the end of the day, what we’re talking about is manners and professionalism. Your customers don’t allow employees to skip the shower and wear their bed clothes to work — or at least, I hope they don’t. By the same token, if they’re going to the expense and effort of deploying all of this cool technology, make sure they remember that key phrase: “user experience.”

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