Ryan Howard is Founder and Principal at Storied Systems, a New York based thought leader in experiential systems. he’s obsessed with storytelling at human scale and driving a collective conversation about experience.

So, What Do You Do?

I have been working around the intersection of stories and technology for nearly thirty years, and for most of that time I have been in an existential crisis. Much of that crisis can be attributed to not knowing what I want to be when I grow up (more precisely, not knowing which one thing I want to be), but some of it has to do with a difficulty in succinctly responding to the question, “So, what do you do?” I tend mumble something vague, which is immediately misinterpreted into something specific, which I then clarify with, “yes, but that’s only a tiny part,” and then expand, and then both parties desperately look for a way out of the whole awkward exchange.

Sure, I might rattle off my job title at the time, but “sales engineer” or “programmer” rarely seems to satisfy my inquisitor. It’s capturing the breadth of the projects I work on, or the environments in which I work, or the stakeholders I work with that’s challenging. If, like me, you’ve wandered around different corners of the technology world for a while, you begin to realize that a kit of parts that conveniently fits inside of a convention center once a year can be used to wildly different ends. Are we defined by the tools we use or the problems we solve?

I see some of my own existential crisis reflected in the AV industry. The convergence of IT and AV, often implying a threat to our relevance, has been discussed ad nauseam. In AV over IP networks we sense the real shift: specialized hardware is replaced by software on generic hardware. Businesses are eager to find predictable recurring revenue by creating managed service offerings. UCC is driving soft codecs and collaboration tools to win out over hardware-based solutions that still largely offer better audio and video quality, underscoring another value: ubiquity is valued over pure performance. We’re in an age of good-enough, where there is enormous pressure to reduce end-user costs to practically zero. We see continued commodification and industry consolidation. Some days it can feel like all the fun has been sucked out of the job, especially to anyone who got sucked in by the allure of building high performance systems.

So, now, “experience.” AV has pivoted into a new identity. We are now IX – Integrated Experiences. Maybe we are in a collective existential crisis, but already things sound more fun than just “audiovisual.”

I believe deeply in this change, having already stumbled into in the same place in my career. Ten years ago, one project redefined for me how deeply human our work should be. Our project team spent as much time on the psychological and cultural implications of our delivery as we did on the technology, even though many of the technical aspects were bleeding edge. After that, craving more of the humanistic and less of the technological, I found my way into the experience design world where the mission was very explicitly about, well, experience. Experience design is interdisciplinary, spanning writing, graphic design, UX, architecture, animation, theater, among other specialties. I found AV to be a critical dependency for experience designers, and there was value in being able to bridge creative process with technical rigor.

Of course, experience design does not have an exclusive on “experience.” Lots of people are in the business of experience. Workplace experience, for example, represents an entire refactoring of how real estate, architecture, technology, and business leadership work together. Integrated experiences are a critical part of that mix. In the same way that I had become conversant in networks and software architectures, I had to become conversant in experience design and workplace design. In fact, I had to be more than conversant; I had to be able to do the work, at least the fundamentals, because I found my design counterparts had become knowledgeable and skilled in my domain.

AV was always interdisciplinary. That’s probably why many of us ended up in the business. We found outlets for our love of audio systems, video gear, or just hands-on technologies in general. IX is evolving to be even more interdisciplinary. The stakeholder group is expanding. Our technology stack is standardizing in some areas, fragmenting in others, and spans both hardware and software. Our commercial relevance and value to our clients is deepening. We’re evolving to design-led conversations instead of engineering-led. The change in identity is both a consequence of and a catalyst for refocusing on the people as the center of our value proposition.

For too long, we’ve been locked in a tautology: that we are an industry that connects AV things to other AV things. If you try to imagine which of those things will likely be swallowed up by software in the next ten years, what are we left with to connect? Screens, microphones, speakers, cameras – all are necessary to translate the human perceptual and gestural space into digital and vice versa. It’s Human-Computer Interface.

The value we bring is in designing and building technical systems that facilitate experience at human scale and larger. We are expert at integrating HCI into the environment, extending the human interface beyond the thumb or earbuds. Consequentially, experience is intrinsic to our value proposition because, unlike the quasi-direct connection HCI provides though a tablet or on a desktop, the experience changes dramatically with how we integrate HCI into a larger space. We deliver this value proposition this through systems: composites of devices, applications, infrastructures, workflows, content, and many other elements. We have delivered systems for decades, and so we’ve facilitated experiences the entire time. This seems to me less like an industry than a design discipline, especially as stakeholders apply our technical theory and our tools directly. This new identity is not a new identity at all. It’s a better articulation of who we are and what we do. We are, perhaps, more than we thought.

Ultimately, experience happens in our minds. It’s impossible to create an experience. Experience is consciousness, and we mark one moment of consciousness from the next by change: a chunk of consciousness bookended by events. We can’t create experience any more than we can create consciousness. To facilitate experience requires us to acknowledge the psychological factors of our audience such as attention span, task switching, emotional state, and biases. We must consider physiological factors such as visual and auditory acuity, intelligibility, and ergonomics. We must navigate social, cultural, and environmental factors. IX does this, as does experience design.

There is a potential trap in the embracement of “experience,” in falsely equating memorable and experiential; to feel that we need to elevate every moment. We, silly humans, are easily infatuated with the big and bright, the interactive, or the promise of talking to our environment to control it. When we, IX practitioners, create the spectacular we push our limits, extend our knowledge, and demonstrate our capabilities. But it’s crucial to bring this same passion and rigor to the seemingly banal. After all, every client is always experiencing.

I was enticed back out of experience design to client side. Corporate. I mean Wall Street corporate, where regulations and risk management shape every single moment. My colleagues thought I was crazy, but it was, in fact, full circle. I went to work for the client whose project years before had prompted me to reassess my career and seek my own value proposition. When I returned, it looked like the end of AV times from certain angles. Though the lens of experience design, though, I began to recognize new opportunities, new value I could bring. I looked at our culture, at our business processes, at how we used carefully crafted experiences to engage clients. I talked with colleagues from across the organization and heard from them about the importance of experience to their roles. Experience was the new gestalt, and I was able to bridge stakeholder groups because I had a developed a perspective that held listening, watching, and intuiting equal to capturing, calculating, and specifying. In the end we still used the fundamental audiovisual, or HCI, technologies we’ve always had at our disposal: screens, speakers, microphones, cameras. Consultants and integrators were still hired. But occasionally we made very different technical decisions than in the past because we identified a new workflow, business process, or stakeholder alignment that drove commercial value.

Articulating our value proposition around experience doesn’t simply open new markets, it deepens our connection to our existing clients. The march of technological progress guarantees only change, but I believe the nature of the work we do and the tools we employ places us in a position to leverage that change to grow our own opportunities. So whatever existential crisis I have projected into the AV world looks to be resolving itself quite nicely. As for my own crisis, I’m pretty sure I want to build furniture when I grow up. Or be painter. Maybe a fly-fishing guide. But from now on, when anyone asks, “so, what do you do?” I’m going to respond with “I facilitate experiences,” and then enjoy the awkwardness.

The Foundation of Responsive Audiovisual Design