HTPC Redux #3 – Lessons Learned and A New Plan

10 09 2010

Introduction & Lessons Learned

My goals on building my HTPC can be summed up in 2 parts: 1) Usability and 2) Support.  In the past I tried to accomplish much of these two goals with a common process: a single media center application that does it all.  However, this approach doesn’t seem to be meeting my goals when I look back over the past few months. 

During those same few past months I’ve been learning a lot about Usability of Systems in conjunction with a users skill set.  This sounds a lot more technical than it is but it boils down to: sometimes the simplest answer is the one that is closest to what a user already knows.  This leads directly into the other thing I’ve learned: When a process is more in line with a users skill set support is considerably less.  This sounds really obvious but in IT experience there is a tendency to want the ‘technically superior’ solution and belief that users need to ‘learn the new system’ and that is that.  Much of the time this is 100% accurate but I am learning there are times when this isn’t the best approach often this involves when many users will be using a common system infrequently.  While written documentation can really help in this scenario it can be overwhelming and discarded easily. 

Another thing I’m experiencing/learning is that supporting things that I already know is much simpler than having to switch my mindset into another application/method. In one way this is really obvious but what I’ve learned is that there are different methods to accomplish this. In this case I know Windows. I know windows shortcuts, I know TweakUI, My roommate and I know Windows, and we both know Media Players.  Learning new ways to make shortcuts in a speciality one fits all app isn’t bad but it isn’t a no brainer for me.

With this experience and usage data I’m ready to try another approach to my same goals: use action specific applications with simple windows icon based “HTPC UI”.  The standout benefit of this approach is I can select and/or ‘install’ any and all applications I decide I want to play media.  My decision on media player may be UI based (SongBird vs Winamp), content availability based (using clicker.com instead of Hulu), or content access based (streaming content vs local server content) but as programs and experiences change through time I can easily ‘integrate’ any new program or content into the setup; no need to wait for someone (or myself) to write code to load into a pre-defined framework like Boxee. Additions are as easy as installing the app and creating a shortcut to it. 

The second stand out benefit is one the support side is that  any “HTPC Specific UI” failure never results in an emergency support situation/a non-usable device state and makes it a relatively easy fix when I get to it. There are 2 main UI tweaks that could fail: the icon/shortcut based UI and the remote control setup. If the icon setup fails the standard Windows Task bar reappears and if the remote control doesn’t work the keyboard and mouse hard-corded to it works fine.  That gives any user the ability to fall back on a known skill set (windows) and continue to use the pc minus the value added HTPC control options. The easy of fixing comes from a consolidation of customizations tools that have easy to use GUIs for configuration, can back their own settings up, and be re-imported settings upon a failure.  This will give me 3 distinct places to check for the majority of settings in a failure/rebuild situation. 

How to Implement The Above Theory…

One observation that refocused my method for my goals was the realization that I wouldn’t use a true 10′ UI in some cases.  For example, a 10′ UI is considerable more limited and therefore more effort than using a standard music library application with mouse based UI. That realization allowed me to broaden my range of applications to choose from.  I still wanted 10′ start/stop/next track and DVD Menu selecting to work but choosing what music or putting in a DVD would still require me to visit the device so why worry about finding a UI that I wasn’t going to use.  So I settled on a mixed 3′ and 10′ UI scenario depending on the action.

I’m working on this in 3 major steps (from the necessary to more optional/value added steps):

1) Media Applications / UI — Install and Configure the media players to my UI liking
2) “HTPC UI” — Install and Configure a large icon Media Center UI
3) Remote Configuration/Automation – Get the value added 10′ control working and any other media center automation tasks setup.

I think I’ll document the process in 3 posts detailing each one of the above steps for the moment and 1 post summarizing what I am carrying over from the past configurations.

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