Video Conferencing Innovations
Despite months of investment and hundreds of new features, most video conferencing systems still deliver services that don’t meet expectations. From struggles with inputs and outputs, to confusion over video mirroring, to lost chat threads, video conferencing fails its users.
Incremental improvements will not improve video conferencing experiences. And most users don’t need more features. Video conferencing product managers need to focus on simplicity. It is time to break the one windows model that constrains video conferencing innovation. Breaking out controls from the video conference will allow people to concentrate while participating, and quickly modify their environment when needed. The removal of the one window metaphor opens other possibilities, like personal galleries and side chats for more intimate, less formal meetings.
Place the control in a different window
Almost all video conferencing systems focus on delivering an experience in a single window for the entirety of a session. Organizations that invest in in-room controls may employ a control panel for certain features, but most people using video conferencing never see that hardware or software.
A single window reflects poor design choices—design choices that pit meeting engagement against administrative controls. It constrains options for more casual interactions. As the video conferencing UI becomes more cluttered with new features, experiences strangle spontaneity.
Many people now use multi-display configurations, as well as multi-device configurations. There is no reason to overburden the engagement UI with control during a video conference. Even for those using 1080p laptops, switching videos to a control panel that offers better clarity and immediacy of action would be better than trying to find various control features during a conference on a single-window implementation.
We have identified several controls that should move to a separate window. This list is not exhaustive, nor all-inclusive, as some hardware configurations may offer additional features ir not support all the features listed.
- Meeting Link
- Instant invite
- Personal avatar
- Number of Attendees
- Engagement score
- Select Audio input, show current
- Volume, including mute
- Noise suppression
- Microphone sensitivity
- Voice Optimization
- Music Mode
- Select video input, show current
- Background controls, Show current
- Camera controls (brightness, contrast, zoom, framing, etc.)
- Name and name placement
- Upper body
- Head and shoulders
- Lock Meeting
- Waiting Room
- Attendee Feature Management
- Share Screen (allowed/multi-participant)
- Show Video
- Unmute Override
The diagram below offers a design suggestion for how to make the basic control functions of video conferencing accessible and transparent. Participants will quickly know the state of their configuration, see how they appear to others, adjust based settings, and select different devices should they choose to.
Preliminary Design for the Video Conferencing Control Center
This design suggests that the Video Conferencing Control Center could, perhaps should, be implemented as an OS-level feature. That means that any video conferencing app would tap into the same controls.
That might raise some competitive issues. Products like Microsoft Teams and Apple FaceTime already enjoy a platform advantage. That is a problem for the market to work out. For those buying video conferencing services, better controls translate into more efficient, less frustrating meetings.
The analysis also suggests that at the UI layer, all of the existing products and their multitude of access points for these features do a disservice to buyers by obfuscating the underlying common technology between platforms. A single control console at the OS-level would eliminate most of the confusion associated with starting and running video calls that originate from participants not knowing where to find the controls, or the state of a control.
Those who engage with multiple clients could save profiles that employ different configurations for different computers or client situations. These profiles could live in the cloud and be shared across all of a person’s devices.
The design goal is to elevate every setting to the same level, making their current state transparent, and the changing of that state simple. No hunting for device choices or where backgrounds live. In the ideal world all of the controls work on all of the video conferencing systems. The vendors of video conferencing can then concentrate on differentiated value rather than fundamental, and often fumbled, controls.
Video Conferencing Control Center notes
The top of the center shows a participant’s avatar or image. It also shares the meeting duration, how many attendees, and a personal engagement score.
Personal engagement would capture how often the participants talked, shared, scribbled, or any other activity in the meeting. People who put themselves on mute and just listen would have a very low engagement score. While the engagement score is only available to the participant, it is designed to give the participant a perspective on how others might perceive their engagement.
The left panel manages global actions and navigation. It is the same across both control panels as currently designed. The top of the left panel copies and shares the meeting link with share becoming a way to send an instant invite. Recording takes place just below, along with reactions. The recording button will pulse if someone else is recording the session but will stay on if the participant controls the recording. If there is no recording, or if the recording is disabled, then the button will be gray.
Like the iTunes mini-player, the Video Conferencing Control panel could shrink to just a few buttons, including the reaction button, mute, and screen sharing, as those would be the only controls likely used throughout a meeting once the other parameters are set.
For navigation, the left side of the window would toggle between the Video Conference Control Center view and the Chat Center view.
The video preview pane should be an “attendees view” of the participant.
Create a control app
While a separate window increases access to control during a meeting, it would also be useful to consider taking controls off the main computer completely and moving them to a mobile device as an alternative. That would imply each attendee could possibly be logged into the meeting twice but coordinating unique IDs would allow for a mapping between the client and the control client. On a smartphone, the control app would only manage settings. On tablets, it could include the personalized chat feature and the personal gallery.
Move chat to the Video Conferencing Chat Center
As currently designed, the Video Conference Control includes two panes. The first is the Video Conference Controls, the second is chat. Chat moves to a control center to allow more granular access to the chat environment. Rather than a long chat section or chats between individuals, this new Chat Center imagines filters where attendees can see what various participant audiences are saying. It also leverages enterprise directories to allow teams to quickly switch to a My Team view that would only place their organization into the chat window. Chat conducted in a filtered window would only be visible to members of that filter group.
The sharing button supports exporting a view via text, PDF, or another output form. The Translation icon translates the current thread into a different language. Export would export a dual-language version of the transcript if translation is on.
All public chat is saved at the end of the meeting with the recording. Filtered chats are only saved by those in the filter. Ideally, APIs will support the movement of an in-meeting chat to an asynchronous conversation. That feature is not shown in this mock-up.
Image icons along the bottom of the chat window populate with images of the people in that filtered view where available, with a priority given to those with stored images.
Universal chat remains an optional part of the main conferencing UI.
The Personal Gallery: Time to breakup the grid
While attempting to create a more immersive and engaging environment through various configurations of portraits, such as the ones typically pinned on the side, or newer versions where people sit in tiered seats like a lecture hall or commune on couches fireside, or in a classic gallery mode with faces flicking in-and-out depending on who is speaking—all video conferencing vendors have created horribly useless containers that only work for small groups. All group metaphors overwhelm in large groups.
The next design offers a view for how participants might create separate windows for select members of the call. A “My Team” action button creates panes for each peer or manager as defined in a directory. This is not dissimilar to breakout groups, but unlike breakout groups, open meetings would allow anyone to create their own set of sub-windows.
Imagine you are in an All Hands Meeting. At Microsoft some of the meetings I attended involved hundreds of people. Teams typically either arrived together or sought out peers upon arrival. Friends sat with friends. Teams tended to group together.
No current video conferencing system supports that kind of behavior. An executive drives a meeting, delivers messages, and people ask questions in the Q&A or Chat interface. Side chats and backchannels exist outside of the core app.
The design suggests allowing individuals to select people they want to hang out with during such a meeting, empowering more intimate side chants and interactions that would better model physical meeting possibilities.
People would be able to select names from a meeting and pop them out into a private space. Individual panes would include their own chat (which can be hidden or shown) and reactions. Chat should include a scribble feature or pen-enabled environments. Ideally, the design would include a “mute the world” feature that would allow two people to talk directly without hearing the wider meeting. A close button removes a person and their pane from the collection. As long as the meeting remains active, these panes remain available. New people can be added at any time.
Dragging and dropping panes would combine the side chats into larger groups.
Participants would be able to control invitations to the breakout windows with a specific decline or by setting their status to unavailable for breakouts. They would also be able to leave at any time.
In physical meetings friends sit with friends. They whisper and pass notes, even scribble on each other’s tablets or papers. Video conferencing completely misses this backchannel conversation, which drives people to employ a third app, not in the system, to backchannel. They sit in Zoom and send WhatsApp messages to their colleagues about the meeting.
Today’s virtual meetings miss the clustering of people by affinity. In physical meetings, friends sit with friends. They whisper and pass notes, even scribble on each other’s tablets or papers. Video conferencing completely misses this backchannel conversation, which drives people to employ a third app, not in the system, to backchannel. They sit in Zoom and send WhatsApp messages to their colleagues about the meeting.
Wouldn’t it be better to recognize this behavior and provide a mechanism for bringing it back into the meeting—into the same toolset, with the same protections and security protocols as the general meeting?
Is VR the answer to virtual meeting issues?
VR is not the answer. The Video Control Center concept offers solutions to some very fundamental issues of virtual meetings. VR, like the features rush that has impacted the video conferencing market, creates new challenges, it does not solve the existing ones.
That said, VR does presume a set of hardware features, so those engaged in VR meetings would likely not see issues with headphone or microphone selection. But side chats and passing notes, and controlling the other features of the meeting—will need to take up design suggestions like these, else the UI for managing the meeting will take away some of the benefits of working in VR.
Many VR apps suffer from developers who mix their metaphors, with settings and other parameters often layered on as 2-dimensional thinking atop 3-dimensional constructs. Controls should be completely reconsidered in VR, not simply migrated to a desk or wall or drawer that mimic in-app controls from the web or another client.
Further, there are not enough common gestures yet in VR for people to adequately conduct a meeting the way people do in physical meetings. Floating avatars become just another type of gallery with too few protocols to create a shared, engaging experience.
Any VR experience should reflect learning from virtual meetings, using VR only where and how it adds value. The rush to the metaverse, unfortunately, will likely be paved with many meeting apps that puy technology first and meeting effectiveness second.
Video Conferencing Innovations: Rethinking meeting control
More than two years on in the pandemic and people still struggle with their video conferencing apps. Serious Insights has looked at some of the underlying issues and suggested that universal controls at the OS-level will likely ameliorate many common configuration issues. It is a tall ask in a competitive market, but if it isn’t tackled, user satisfaction can only go so far.
Removing the constraints of a single-window design also unleashes new options for more intimate and natural meeting experiences.
Serious Insights analyze the following video conferencing platforms in preparation for this advisory on video conferencing innovations:
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