For the past few decades, stuffy “enterprise solutions” have lagged behind the consumer hardware revolution. So while our domestic lives are blessed by the magic of iPhones and Xboxes, our professional lives are still filled with confounding telephone systems, stuffy task management software, and at least one piece of printing equipment you’d like to take a baseball bat to a la Office Space.
The office of tomorrow, though, is a technological wonder where digital infrastructure predicts an employee’s or customer's needs to make work frictionless. At least, that’s assuming others follow the precedent of Control Group, the interactive design studio behind the makeover of Kate Spade’s retail model, the interactive NYC subway maps, and now the main offices of Brookfield, a global asset management group juggling $181 billion of assets.
“It’s so amazing--Class A space is typically a great place to work in because it’s so epic on its own: amazing views, amazing location, maybe great furniture,” explains Control Group CEO Campbell Hyers, “But often, from a digital interaction perspective, it sort of stops there.”
Control Group was tapped to create a whole digital infrastructure inside Brookfield’s World Financial Center location. That meant they did everything from mapping out a deadzone-free wireless network to creating an approachable, front end UI on top of Cisco and Microsoft infrastructure.
But we’ll be honest in admitting, the infrastructure isn’t really the exciting part of this story to us. It’s what Control Group developed in terms of seamless interaction design that sits on top these core technologies that’s so much fun:
We’ve all seen gigantic video walls before at places like the airport. A single, sheepish tourist pokes at a screen the size of a Cadillac, just to quickly check the weather. But the 50-foot monster in the waiting area of Brookfield’s office is different. When someone walks by, it automatically displays various topics within Brookfield’s portfolio--like real estate, or renewable energy management. That person might not even notice. But if some keyword grabs his or her attention, and the person stops to read it, a Kinect-like motion tracker cues the software interface to automatically unpack more information on the topic.
“At no point is it like Minority Report where they have to touch things with their hands,” Hyers tells Co.Design. “This is a causal, proximity based interaction. It’s about giving someone pertinent information, but not making them look like a fool to get it.”
The casual part is key here. Most people have never interacted with a huge screen, so there’s a natural intimidation factor to diving in. And furthermore, it’s hard for any public interface to encourage you to explore--to poke aimlessly while waiting for a meeting as you might peruse Twitter or email on your phone--because when using a giant computer in public, your activity is inherently on display.
But Control Group designed an interaction that, in a very small way, seamlessly responds to a user’s will, removing the possibility of user error while increasing the likelihood that this giant video screen might actually show something useful.
While the video screen is certainly neat, another idea will drive a lot more productivity inside Brookfield.
“We came up with a pretty big list of things we wanted to do on this project, and there was one meeting where we prioritized everything, asking what would move the needle the most,” Hyers explains. “In starting that meeting--we’ve all experienced this--it was a classic scenario where we were starting late, trying to get the phone connected, and 10 minutes in, we learned that half the meeting was in the wrong conference room.”
“If you think about it, that’s happening in every meeting across thousands of conference rooms, with hundreds of dollars of cost per chair.”
So Control Group took on the task of automating the standard teleconferenced meeting. They began by putting iPads outside each meeting room, with custom software to very clearly explain who’d booked it. That solved the “is this our room?” problem.
Then, they built meeting software that consolidated all of the technical juggling around starting a conference call, enabling the meeting to start with a push of a button. Attendees are pinged with the proper phone number automatically. And rather than cursing over projector plugs or missing Powerpoint presentations, the system automatically pulls up the files the attendees will discuss.
To take things a step further, any changes made to files during the meeting are tracked in a custom timeline view. So not only can someone who missed the meeting quickly catch up, but new employees can theoretically scan months of meetings to develop the knowledge they’d missed on a project--introducing the idea of automatic minutes to Brookfield’s workflow.
“If you walk in the first day and say, 'we’re going to record and store every word,' that’s going to get shot down,” Hyers says. “But this is an evolving thing. This is a sensitive environment. They have very stringent protocols. What we’re trying to do is set up a framework where small, incremental improvements can be validated safely.”
Control Group says that the project is far from over. With more time, they’d like to explore other possibilities--like, perhaps, that Cisco-based Wi-Fi network allowing people to triangulate connected devices such as smartphones. Fuse that idea with the automated conference system, and conferences could simply begin whenever its members sat down in the room.
While office infrastructure might sound like a boring topic, when explored through the lens of interaction design, it allows us to reconsider the status quo. Or as Hyers puts it: “We’re all products of the world of sci-fi that we thought would be here when we grew up. Now we’re here, but when you go to a DMV or a hospital, it’s still not the science fiction we thought would be here. So now it’s in our hands to build that out.”