A good tool needs a good user:
optimal quality in the real world

By Simen K. Frostad, Chairman

Published in InBroadcast April 2015

In the search for optimal service quality there is one variable that remains persistently outside the reach of manufacturers and media operators. No matter how well-designed and well-implemented an operator’s infrastructure is, and no matter how comprehensive the features of the technology used, and how instant the information it provides, service quality still ultimately depends on the human factor.

In the world at large, human beings have more and more powerful technology at their command. They don’t always do the most sensible or valuable things with this power. Sometimes, as in international finance or military adventurism, it is the less noble emotions that drive the way the technology is used. But for most people, the tools and systems we have to negotiate in our daily lives present a challenge we only partly rise to. Sometimes this is because they are developed by technologists and are necessarily complex, and since the user is usually not a technologist he or she is at a disadvantage when using them. There is also a tendency to assume – or to want to believe– that a tool ‘does the job’ all by itself, and that by buying a tool, we have effectively solved the problem of the work the tool is designed to help with. We consistently underestimate the element of skill that every tool requires from its user.

Nobody employs a carpenter because he’s got a great-looking set of chisels. Everyone knows that it’s the carpenter’s skills that produce good quality work. But when we buy some gadget for use in our daily lives, we usually don’t bother to ‘skill up’ so that we get the best out of our purchase. The sleekest, most expensive toaster in the shop will still burn the toast if we don’t use it with care and attention. And a toaster is a very, very simple piece of technology.

In the complicated world of digital media, the technology is not very simple. In fact, it’s monstrously complex, and the people who have the job of making it all work are really facing quite a task. The systems and tools are developing all the time, but they can’t reduce the essential complexity of the problem; they can only make it easier to manage the complexity. The depth of knowledge and experience required to understand what’s going on ‘under the hood’ is rare – especially because digital media delivery is a rapidly evolving technical area. Very few people indeed have a complete grasp of the field or even full specialist knowledge of certain key aspects of it. Digital media operators may install the best possible tools and systems, but optimal performance can’t be guaranteed without very skilled and knowledgeable personnel to set up and run them.

So digital media operators face two problems: the scarcity of real expertise in technical personnel, and the ever-increasing workload required of them. The second is an inescapable fact of life, and although manufacturers are constantly bringing out tools that purportedly ‘do more with less’, allowing operators to increase the numbers of services without hiring more staff, this puts greater strain on the operational staff’s levels of skill and knowledge to set those tools up correctly and make the correct decisions when action is required.

Manufacturers have to do everything they can to mediate between the essential complexity of digital media operations and the personnel who have to negotiate this complexity from day to day. They have to make it easier to design and accurately set up the infrastructure and systems, and they have to provide some way in which a given engineer can be responsible for more services without the quality being adversely affected. In short, manufacturers can develop the best toaster in town, but if they fail to allow for the human factors – the pressures on skills and time that technical personnel face in the real world – then they are only selling a more sophisticated way of burning the toast.

At NAB 2015, Bridge Technologies will show some innovative technology that goes a long way toward making things simpler for digital media operators and their technical staff. Gold TS Reference is Bridgetech’s new approach to calibrating digital media monitoring systems and tracking faults, and the design principles are based solidly in an appreciation of the real-world pressures operators are under. ETR290, the standard for digital media monitoring, is so complex that very few people really understand it fully, so GoldTS Reference effectively takes a lot of the expert set-up decision-making out of the engineer’s hands. By selecting a correctly-operating stream, the engineer can take a ‘snap-shot’ of the stream’s entire configuration and settings, which GoldTS Reference then uses as a reference for subsequent performance.

Any deviation from the reference is instantly detected and brought to the attention of operational staff. GoldTS Reference encompasses all of the hundreds of ETR290 parameters the engineer would otherwise have to set explicitly (…or fail to set accurately, in the real world), but it also includes many vitally important things that are outside the scope of the ETR290 standard.

To take a simple example: a multi language media provider may specify that French is the correct language for titles on a particular stream, but if the titles are erroneously switched to German on that stream, ETR290 tests will not raise an alert for that condition, because ETR290 does not test for the correct language. Many other similar error conditions in the programme guide, subtitling, audio and so on are ‘ETR290 legal’ and would fail to trigger an alert, but they would cause serious issues with the subscriber base.

With GoldTS Reference’s simpler, speedier and more secure way of catching service-affecting errors, digital media operators will be able to take a big step toward optimal service quality, by relieving pressure both on the skills and knowledge of their technical staff, and on their workload.

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