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TPO Interview: Theo Economides - Videoconferencing Adoption
Here at Telepresence Options we have often touched upon the particularly trenchant adoption problems in the videoconferencing industry. Unfortunately, once someone is turned off to video, they tend to stay turned off, as the phone provides a ready alternative. In my opinion, the biggest turn off for potential adopters of VC happens when they are forced to suffer through a failed meeting, or even a compromised meeting experience.
In the past, experience compromises were difficult to avoid due to technology limitations. Today, the technology has more than caught up, so with a comprehensive adoption strategy including planning, training, support, and expectation management, you can expect real results. In order to share some unique expertise and insight into the adoption puzzle, we spoke with good friend Theo Economides (above left), who is a lecturer and consultant focused on helping clients deal with, and overcome, the adoption hurdles endemic to the VC arena.
Telepresence Options: Theo, let's start with the basics. Why should we care about adoption? Video's real and quantifiable benefits should make it easy to convince any CEO to buy the systems and issue a decree ordering everyone to use them, right?
Theo Economides: Well, David, in simple terms, VC adoption is all about not only getting people to use VC technology, but to ingrain its usage into their DNA and into their company's culture. It's about a not-so-subtle shift in the way that we work.
Why is it important? Driving adoption and usage is the critical economic force in this industry. Increased usage is a grass roots kind of thing: The more that people use it, the more they continue use it. The more they continue to use it, the more the people around them use it. The more it gets spread around that way, the more money is saved (by the users) and revenues generated (to the vendors). And the more money that is saved and generated, the more these products grow and improve. Not unlike any other economy. You know - supply, demand, and all that.
TPO: So then why aren't we seeing this endemic, viral growth? What are the biggest remaining hurdles to adoption today?
Theo: There are two - and I won't candy-coat this, David, they're hard ones. First: Ease of Use, and Second: History of Bad Experiences.
TPO: "Ease of Use" covers a lot of ground. We could spend days hashing out UI design considerations and call dialing workflow models. From a top level perspective, it seems to me that in the past, VC user interfaces were often designed for IT folk, not for users, which limited ad hoc use and adoption. Things are much better today, but we still don't have a "standard" video calling set-up. It varies not only from product to product, but from installation to installation. Until we all agree on the perfect design, do you have any general guiding principles for resolving ease of use issues?
Theo: Yes! It applies both to the design of the technology used as well as the design of the content that is transmitted by it. Here it is: If a sign with instructions is needed anywhere, there is room for improvement. We all have heard the stories about Steve Jobs and how adamant he was about the user interface to Apple products being intuitive. A lot of resources were directed toward this. As a result, take a look at the instructions that come with an iPod or iPhone today. There aren't any. Our visual collaboration tools need to be that intuitive, otherwise they distract from the real work.
The same principle applies to content, but it is somewhat abstract. What it means, at the end of the day, is that people who use the technology have to learn how to use it effectively. The content should need no instructions or explanations (E.g.: "I know that this text is too small for you to see, so I'll just highlight the important parts." That text should NEVER have appeared!) This is an issue everywhere that meetings and presentations happen, not just when they use collaboration technology as a medium. We need to do a better job in setting people up for success in face-to-face as well as virtual meetings. Yes, this is a big, ubiquitous problem, but it is one with well-understood solutions that can be taught. But it is rare for the management in an organization to actually require their staff to learn how not to suck at presentations. (Yes. I said "suck.")
TPO: Sounds like you are describing a hybrid system, including humans and technology, both of which must be properly "configured" in order to have a successful meeting or presentation. In my opinion, fixing the technology is the easy part, people have a lot more variables. Speaking of people problems, let's go back to the second big hurdle you mentioned before. The "History of Bad Experiences!" How will we ever get past this?
Theo: It all starts with helping them understand the very nature of a user (or client) experience. We talk a lot about experiences: Bad ones, good ones, scary ones, unforgettable ones, and so on, but we never go beyond that to analyze and understand The Experience of Videoconferencing. When you do that, it is much easier to see the things that need to change in order to mitigate those bad experiences.
One of the truths about good user experiences is that they are created in a very intentional way. They are staged, just like scenes are staged in theatre, movies or television. When you start staging great, intentional VC experiences, they quickly overcome the history of bad ones AND you create a product with much greater value.
TPO: It seems reasonable to take the time and effort to "stage" your presentations for maximum effectiveness in the typical business meeting scenario. A high profile meeting, using tens of thousands of dollars worth of video equipment and infrastructure, is certainly worth the effort. But what about today's lower profile video options? For example, cloud based video services are growing, as more and more people are making VC calls from their desktops, tablets, and even phones. Are the usage and adoption issues any different there than in the conference and class room?
Theo: I'd say that it's about half and half. The tools for understanding the nature of the VC experience on a computer versus in a conference or classroom are the same. What is different is how these cloud VC services are delivered and what the expectations are of the people that use them. Here's what I mean:
* How the services are delivered. The lion's share of the cloud-based VC vendors use the "freemium" model, pervasive in our online user experience today. The idea behind freemium is to acquire a lot of customers via a free or ad-supported service and then charge for the addition of premium or enhanced features. The free product generally comes with limited or no personal customer or technical support - It cannot because it just doesn't scale. That's a premium feature. The problem is that VC technology just is not that easy yet. Free, unsupported VC - today - is just asking for free and unsupported trouble. That's what people get, and that's why so many people try the free video service and then never use it again.
* What is expected of freemium services? They are expected to be functional and easy to use. We are getting some great functionality for free these days in the VC world. As for "easy to use, " I touched on that earlier, but in the cloud video services realm one of the huge barriers is the requirement of a software download and installation to make it work. Given the demographics of the readers of Telepresence Options, I don't think I need to say anything more about that!
TPO: So today's freemium does not sound like the answers to all our woes. What could these solutions do better to help drive usage and adoption of cloud-based VC services?
Theo: The free part of the freemium offerings needs to work and it needs to be simple. It simply needs to work simply, without the need for technical support. Wide adoption of WebRTC technology may be the answer to that.
The premium part of freemium needs to be easy, as above, and also allow for easy staging of great experiences. The best examples of this that I've seen are ones that have short tutorial videos that open the mind to ways of use that the user hadn't ever considered. We need more "Oh yeah!" breakthroughs and fewer "Oh CRAP!" moments on the part of our users. The best way to create those "Oh yeah!" moments is to delight the user by having them see their own material (class notes, outlines, agendas, slides, etc.) ingested and available for use in the VC environment.
TPO: That sounds like a good "call to action" for the creators and vendors of cloud VC services as they develop the next generation of offerings. Meanwhile, how do you help your clients leverage these cloud offerings right now?
Theo: Technology advances often make it feasible for smaller customers to have the same tools that were previously only available to the Big Enterprise. That's a huge selling point for cloud services in general. For cloud VC services, it is true that the technology is affordable by customers without big budgets. The problem is that those same customers still need a video services manager to drive usage and adoption from within. They don't really need a full-time video manager, and there is no budget for that, anyway. The answer? Get the right amount of video management via an "outsourced video manager." This is one way that Greenline Emeritus Consulting helps its clients. We drive adoption initiatives, give regular reports on ROI, train users to be more effective communicators, interface with their technical staff (we are fluent in English and Geek), and are there to help with special events, too. All the things that a full-time video services manager would do, but right-sized for the needs of each client. It creates a winning scenario for the clients and their cloud VC service providers.
Despite all the wonders of videoconferencing, it simply hasn't been a self adopting technology. This doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile technology, the hard ROI and soft benefits of fostering a visual collaboration culture are beyond argument. But in order to enjoy those benefits and realize that ROI, we need to take adoption seriously. While you can rely on the technology folks to keep improving the hardware and software, you still need to implement that technology in a way that makes sense for your organization, and you need to make sure your users are trained and comfortable. This approach will address most adoption hurdles, but each environment poses unique challenges, so be ready to call in the experts to make sure your video communications network, and your people, are fully in sync.
About the Author
David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.
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