The era of ease of use

As access control software plateaus, user interface becomes paramount
Friday, December 1, 2006

Remember when it was cool that your phone could store 10 numbers on speed dial?
There are only so many ways to lock a door. Similarly, there are only so many functions access control software can perform. As more and more companies embrace IP-based and networked access control systems, the software that controls your ability to remotely deny or grant privileges, set up alerts upon forced entry, or assign new employees to groups that have certain levels of access will eventually plateau.
Like consumer products, the access control software that integrators resell as part of advanced solutions will succeed or fail depending on whether end users can quickly and easily incorporate the software's capability into their daily lives. Thus, manufacturers are increasingly putting emphasis on ease of use, aesthetics and ease of deployment.
"The feedback we're getting from our dealers," said Brivo president Steven Van Till, "is that ease of use was what drew them to our product."
Brivo has evolved from an IT company that wanted to make it easy for you to receive packages when you weren't home into a web-based access control product that allows you to manage your access control system anywhere in the world through a web browser. Perhaps because of its early days as a consumer-targeted company, Brivo possesses "a design aesthetic based on pure simplicity," Van Till said. It's Brivo's opinion that end users won't put up with software that offers a number of arcane features, but isn't transparent.
Thus, the company hired a designer who came with a background designing newspaper web sites to create the look of their software. He was, quite simply, "someone used to aiming at the lowest common denominator, with experience in simplifying information and making it clear."
The tab-based navigation, Brill said, is very common in Microsoft Windows, "exploiting what people already know." This avoided, he said, the tendency for software engineers to try to reinvent navigation with every new program.
Dave Heinen, Bosch's product marketing manager, enterprise systems, can sympathize with that last point. "A lot of times," he said, "engineers think they know better than anyone." To keep that tendency in check, Bosch has a channel for taking issues from integrators back to the research and development group, "so they can try to solve those problems."
Heinen said Bosch, being a large company, might be slower than some smaller outfits in releasing tweaked versions of access software, "but we tend to gather groups of ideas and then put them all in one big consolidated update."
In some ways, he said, this process has worked too well. Though Bosch has always sold its software through a reseller channel, its Access Easy Controller, a product line of access controllers the company started selling in August, "is so easy to use," Heinen said, "the technician doesn't need to go through training, and the end user needs very little training from the technicians." Thus, for the first time, Bosch is using a distributor channel to get the controllers and software to market.
On the other end of the spectrum, Bosch's foray into building management software, a series of OPC-compliant software "engines" that run access control, intrusion and fire panels, HVAC, lighting and other pieces of facilities, also emphasized the user interface when it launched in 2004. The automation software is run by customizable HTML pages, so "the integrator can customize the product to make it the way the end user wants." The end user can see his own company's brand, can have pull-down menus instead of buttons, can have the font any size that's comfortable.
"You could do Flash screens," said Heinen, "anything you can do with HTML you can do with each of the pages. Of course, we have pre-canned pages, which makes it easy to customize if you have something to start with."
That aesthetic of simplicity is something John Moss embraced from the outset at S2 Security, his IP-based access control venture, informed by his time running Software House. As a network appliance that plugs in with an Ethernet cable and just basically works, "the whole philosophy is to come into markets where there's lots of expensive things that do all sorts of things," Moss said, "and say, 'Let's try to make money in volume where it's easy to use and less expensive' ... Now, people who would never have been able to afford [IP access software] are able to deploy these [features] without having to worry about the crushing load of the price."
Because, sure, ease of use is important. But it doesn't hurt when it's cheap, too.