Conference phones suck.
That’s what nearly everyone told us when we started talking to them about how they used their phones—often specially-designed, very expensive phones—for conference calls. We knew this, of course, since we’ve used and disliked them before ourselves (and probably you have too). That’s why we decided to design a new VOIP conference phone for small businesses.
But why do conference phones suck? That was the real issue we wanted to find out, and from there, figure out how we could make a better one.
We started by talking to people (some of whom do up to 10 conference calls a week) about how they used conference phones and what their issues were with them. We observed several conference calls in progress and watched how people not only did conference calls, but their preparation for them.
We also did some competitive analysis, looking at the different conference phones on the market (although there was very little difference between most of them).
We found two major problems with existing conference phones: technical and social. Technical problems mostly included speaker and microphone issues, while the social problems revolved around the fact that conference calls are usually very artificial and stilted. People talk over each other; it’s difficult to tell who is speaking; and it can be difficult to signal that you have something to say. Traditional conference phones create an atmosphere that isn’t close to the experience of being in the same room with the other participants.
Kicker decided to focus on three primary characteristics: transparency, openness, and unobtrusiveness. These were all the things we thought existing phones weren’t. Transparent so you can see what is happening on a call. Open so that the phone works with other systems like calendars. Unobtrusive so it doesn’t get in the way of the communication, which was paramount.
Designing from the Inside-Out
We began design work by mapping out the activities and steps users take to make conference calls, starting with preparation for the call and going all the way through to after the call has ended. We then married the existing process of how people make conference calls with other features we wanted to support or that were suggested by the research, such as being able to adjust the volume for individual lines.
We then did a Functional Cartography exercise to figure out what functions belonged in hardware, and what functions belonged in software. Features that needed to be accessed rapidly and easily—hang up, mute, and main volume—were kept in the hardware, while the other features would be handled digitally. As the design progressed, we revisited the functional cartography and made a few adjustments, which is one of the benefits of working in tandem.
Because we wanted flexibility in the interface and had some ideas about how we might display information during a call, we decided on a 7″ touchscreen for the phone.
Exploring Forms and Frameworks
Kicker then explored different form factors for the device. Since the phone was for small businesses, we decided to try to keep the price point low while still making the phone something businesses would want in a nice conference room.
At the same time, we iterated on many possible structures and layouts for the user interface.
A quick paper prototype test of an early version of the phone with one of our power conference phone users led us back to the drawing board and another round of iteration until we had an interface for the phone that was more efficient and better met our design principles.
Meanwhile, the physical form was narrowing down as well. To help solve the microphone issue, we wanted the central “base station” to have removable, wireless microphones that could be held and taken about the room as necessary.
We were also able to align the form and screen in ways we could not had the designs been done apart, such as by clustering similar functions (hang-up, hold) in the lower right hand corner of the device, whether the button was physical or digital.
Look and Feel
As the industrial design got closer to be completed, it was important to synchronize its emotional feeling with that of the visual design of the UI. Several variations were tried and refined to find the right visual language that matched the physical form. The physical design was clean and modern, so our choices in things like button shape and typography had to echo that.
Particularly tricky was surfacing enough pertinent information and participants on a call without it being overwhelming.
The stand on the back is collapsible for storage and shipping. Four stand-alone microphone “pods” (which come in a variety of colors) can be slid out from the sides. The pods can be placed on a table or used while walking around, which we observed some people doing while on a call. Each pod has buttons for muting the phone or for use in recording to mark a point. Additionally, an accelerometer in each pod allows for them to be shaken to “raise your hand” and get attention. Muting lights up indicators on the pods and on the base station.
There are several ways to dial the phone: either using the traditional keypad, or by simply pushing the button that will dial the number associated with any scheduled meeting at this time. Since conference calls are often scheduled meetings, the phone is linked to a shared calendar like Outlook.
Another way to dial the phone is via a contact list, which could be shared and helps not having to fumble around looking for numbers. Contacts can also be dragged and dropped into a list for multi-dialing.
One of the problems with conference calls is being able to tell who’s talking. So, when a call is in progress, the display shows not only who is on the line, but also who is speaking. It can also show if someone has their “hand raised” to talk, and the quality of each line, in case a line needs to be disconnected or have its volume adjusted.
For those times when you want to remotely tell someone to wake up and respond or, alternately, stop talking, we designed a Poke feature. Double-tapping on an icon “pokes” that line. Poking is a virtual nudge or kick under the table. It’s a light-weight form of back-channel conversation (although it only works if the other person is on a Kicker Conference Phone). Pokes only show to those who have been poked and they will also vibrate the pods if they are in use.
One bad connection can ruin a normal conference call. Tapping on a connected line allows you to disconnect that line (if you’ve dialed it), or adjust the volume of that particular line, as well as poke that person or enter in new information about them.
Since the call is digital, it can be recorded easily and exported after the call. A digital button on the base station and a button on each of the pods allows users to mark interesting points in the conversation for finding later.
The Kicker Conference Phone combines the humanity of in-person meetings with the convenience of efficient technology. Features:
- Synchronizes with calendars and contacts for one-tap dialing
- Quickly see who’s talking on a call and who wants to speak
- “Hand Raising” to indicate a desire to speak
- “Poking” to nudge other callers
- Recording and marking of calls
- Multi-line dialing
- Adjusting individual lines for the best overall conference call quality
- Comes in four different colors (silver, red, orange, and green)
All designs ©2009 Kicker Studio, LLC. High-quality images available on Flickr