Communication Breakdown: User Experience and Manufacturer Accountability in Pro Audio

Communication Breakdown: User Experience and Manufacturer Accountability in Pro Audio

Gear talk. It’s so deeply embedded into audio engineering culture that it has in some ways become a de facto professional pastime. Whether it’s thousands upon thousands of internet forum posts or over drinks at a trade show, audio engineers love talking about gear.

Once a tool is created and released into the field, experienced users will find new and innovative ways to use the tool. This might be something small and quick, such as a new workflow that saves a few mouse clicks – or it might be something truly novel, like using Smaart to run a welding machine somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The first entertainment rigging practices were adapted from sailing and industrial rigging techniques and then adapted to fit our purposes, leading to a whole market of industry-specific products. One of the first “audio mixers” wasn’t actually designed for mixing live events at all, but rather a multi stepped-attenuator unit designed for balancing attenuation and impedance of analog telephone transmission lines. Dual-channel FFT analysis was used for under-sea seismology and aviation diagnostics – but as it turns out, those tools are quite useful for analyzing sound systems as well. Innovation drives the product development that shapes our industry and pushes us forward.

A perennial source of conversation amongst my colleagues is the limitations of different tools – as we get increasingly comfortable and familiar with our tools, and find new ways to use them, the discussion often turns to what they can’t do. Familiarizing oneself with a particular tool inherently involves understanding its limitations. Finding new ways to use our tools is the avenue by which we can move forward as field, and that feedback loop, in turn, drives improvements and innovation to our toolset. Without that, we’re stuck. In that sense, it is in our best interests – as professional users of audio equipment – to uphold our half of the loop, and send feedback to the developers of the equipment.  

I recently witnessed a software user complaining about a bug, saying “I hope it gets fixed soon.” But when prompted, they admitted they hadn’t notified the software developer of the bug. How, then, might it “get fixed soon?” The developers can’t fix the problem if they haven’t been informed of it. There seems to be an implicit attitude that someone else will notify the manufacturer of the issue – but what if all the other people experiencing the issue have the same attitude?

A recent – and in my opinion, unwelcome – trend is the push towards over-simplification – to “remove the engineering from engineering”. While I am all in favor of innovations that save me time and increase efficiency, I am opposed to oversimplification, removing useful and basic functions and controls from the people who need to deploy, use, adjust and troubleshoot these systems in the field.  

While all manufacturers have intended use cases for their products, the reality is that field uses cases often vary in unpredictable ways – as the popular saying goes “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” As end users we seldom have complete control over the limitations of the environment in which sound systems are deployed, and limiting the toolset limits our ability to respond to problems in an efficient manner. Sometimes this amounts to a band-aid fix, which is no one’s first choice – but in some circumstances it’s the best play. Sometimes the best option, and the second best option, are not feasible, so we have to go to plan C.

When a product manufacturer makes an unpopular decision, many users register their dissatisfaction on message boards, internet forums, and with other users – but how many of those people bother to contact the manufacturer with their comments? A friend recently texted me a complaint about limitations in a manufacturer’s ecosystem, and I responded, “Well, did you send them an email and let them know?” His answer was understandable yet disappointing – he didn’t feel “qualified” to weigh in. In other words, who is he but a lowly end user?

The reality is that a product with no users is a failed product. The users are, therefore, the arbiters of what is a useful product or feature in the field, and what is not. Taken together, the end user’s opinions of how useful a tool is are in some ways the end-all-be-all.

This is essentially the “my vote doesn’t matter” mindset – that’s only true if everyone feels it’s true. If a thousand people all have the same complaint about a product, but they all feel their opinion doesn’t matter and therefore don’t voice it, the manufacturer may have no idea that so many people were dissatisfied with the decision. On the other hand, if all one thousand dissatisfied people send their comments to the manufacturer, there is a real potential to be heard and have that feedback considered moving forward.  

It’s simply a numbers game, and although individual users might feel like “little people” the truth is that we – as users – outnumber the product management team by orders of magnitude. So if you have comments about how a tool could be improved, it is probably beneficial to share them with the people who can act upon those comments.

What does the future look like when framed in this way? Ongoing development of tools that are responsive to the evolving needs and preferences of users in the field. The alternative – a gradual slide into increasing levels of “dumbing down” products to remove any and all features that might be mis-used, and all of the boots on the ground users simply accepting this with disappointment because no one spoke up – is not an industry I want to be a part of.

After all – just about every tool can be misused if you try hard enough. I’ve heard various components of mixing consoles – faders, EQs, compressors – misused more times than I can count – and so far we have yet to remove those functions from the mix engineer’s grasp.

The way forward is education – teach people about the tools, about the principles, and about how to make the best decisions and get the best results taking those things into account. Users who are educated and proficient will go a long way towards creating a positive impression of the manufacturer and their products in the field. The opposite trend – when the next generation of professionals has been “just trust us” and “you don’t need to know that”-d to death – leads to a field full of end users who have never been taught how to use some basic functions or trusted to make good decisions in the field. If a rising tide lifts all ships, a drought runs them all aground.

What I would like to see is more open communication in both directions: from the users to the manufacturer, and from the manufacturer back to the users; ownership being taken by us – the end users – about our experiences with the tools, what’s good, what could be better – and willingness from the manufacturers to be open to the user experiences and try to improve them. This road leads to future products that are better designed, more useful tools than current ones – and users who are better informed to successfully implement those products in the field, for the benefit of all.

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