Guest Post: Trey Hicks, Visix
Digital signage has changed in recent years, with displays getting larger and better resolution, software applications that can handle more complex feeds alongside their own content creation tools, and touchscreens becoming ubiquitous. This is a far cry from the old-fashioned notion of showing PowerPoint-like slides on screens. Today, interactive digital signage is becoming the norm as all types of organizations try to deliver a more consumer-like experience.
Advances in smartphones and tablets have made interactivity not just a welcome addition to our lives, but an increasingly expected component. Not only do we carry around web-connected touchscreens with us all the time, but interactive displays out in the world (from shopping centers to fast food outlets) have made us start to expect that every screen we see can be interacted with.
As people have gotten used to finding information in their own way, at their own pace, through their own paths, interactivity has become the new standard for audiences. As such, organizations are adapting their internal and visitor communications to this model to supply a more personalized experience in order to stay relevant. So, it’s instructive to see just what the consumer experience is, and how it got to where it is today.
The Evolution of the Consumer Experience
Back in the 1990s, the World Wide Web showed up. This changed the entire philosophy of consumerism – an evolution from consuming goods to consuming information. People could interact through websites and create their own sites and blogs. Amazon shifted people from onsite to online shopping. eBay let people rate services, products and other users, adding a sense of ownership and participation. Google made finding information easier, and introduced keyword-centric thinking to the world. Wikipedia democratized information, letting anyone post, edit or challenge listings. Online payment services such as PayPal made purchasing easier. Technological advances, like cell phones, lighter laptops and broadband made online consumerism faster and portable. All this was Web 1.0.
In a short time, there were more innovations that changed the way we access, use and think about information. The iTunes store accelerated the age of downloadable content, capitalizing on Amazon’s successful experiments and Napster’s short but successful run. RSS feeds enabled people to curate the news and streams they wanted to see. Social networks connected people in a non-consumer fashion, first with MySpace in 2003 and then Facebook two years later. 2005 also saw three former PayPal employees create YouTube, allowing anyone to create and upload their own video content. 2006 saw the launch of a new site that mixed social media and news called Twitter, giving people a new way to communicate short bursts of thought or opinion to a wide audience.
Then smartphones hit the consumer market and suddenly all this connectivity, all this interaction potential, was literally in people’s hands, being carried around in their pockets and used all day every day. We saw that:
- More social and discussion sites showed up, each with a different spin on how to connect and interact with others.
- WiFi became ubiquitous, so just about everywhere was connected to the web.
- Smart programs started interacting with other programs (sometimes even writing them) as well as devices in the real world.
- Streaming video and music services encouraged subscription models for commercialized content suppliers, and gave consumers access to literally thousands of hours of content for a low monthly fee.
- Websites became more and more dynamic and interactive.
- Crowdsourcing and discussion sites cropped up, like Reddit and Quora, as well as microlending sites like Kiva and Kickstarter.
- This was now Web 2.0 – the connected, or social, web.
Today, content of all kinds is being published at a staggering pace, both by individuals and organizations. People can easily create content in a number of different formats, share it, comment on it, edit and remix others’ content, rate and review things and add to the world’s common knowledge base. This feeling of participation, influence and control is the new expectation from consumers.
We are now as much consumers of content and information as we are of physical goods. But our online actions interact with, and even modify, things in the real world. And more sophisticated mobile devices mean that we can be connected to a vast pool of information, products and services whenever and wherever we are. Google and other companies have even created computer programs that write other computer programs. The world of data and the physical world are blending together into a new hybrid experience.
The Evolution of Digital Signage
In the world of digital signage, we’ve followed a similar path of moving from one-size-fits-all communications to more democratized methods. First, digital signs were basically electronic posters replacing printed signs. Then multi-zone layouts became available, increasing the amount of information that could be pushed to an audience. Next, software vendors began integrating external data sources to provide more on-screen options. Recently, companies have developed content subscriptions, so organizations can supplement their own messages with plug-n-play messages. Today, content management systems are building huge libraries of apps to integrate all types of data, feeds and streams to feed their audience’s insatiable need for content.
It’s been written over and over again that “content is king”. But that’s an oversimplification. There have been two major shifts in thinking about content. The first is the ever-growing need for more of it. Just like on the web, people demand more and more content every year – more variety of information but also different ways to access and parse that information.
And, as people have so much to choose from in their daily lives, digital signs have to compete for their attention by evolving in both quantity and quality of messaging. Also, we’ve moved from a strictly push model to a more inclusive content model. By integrating social, video, news and events feeds, and letting more people contribute to on-screen playlists, organizations are acknowledging that the audience wants to be part of a dialogue, not simply passive viewers. Today, everyone has their own style of interacting with the world of digital content.
The Advantages of Touchscreens
Where is interactivity in all this? Touchscreens have been used for decades in retail settings, but now all types of organizations have begun to design content to take advantage of the unique opportunities that interactivity presents. Instead of pushing messages one at a time to an audience, huge amounts of information can be made available in a single, self-service solution. This provides a richer experience, much more like what people experience as consumers when using their phones or tablets.
Like surfing the web, using touchscreens creates a sense of exploration for the user, and finding what they want on their own gives them a sense of accomplishment. Because a person can decide which pieces of content they want to peruse, and how and when they want to navigate to it, the whole experience is more personalized. Push-only systems have little chance of encouraging feelings like these., and today seem more and more out of date.
What you put on a touchscreen is up to you. Wayfinding maps and directories are probably the most common thing on offer, but there’s virtually no limit to what you can serve up. Donor boards, food menus, mission statements, virtual tours, social feeds, video playlists, timelines, product info, event promos, surveys, signups, vendor ads – there’s virtually no limit to what you can offer.
Interactive content is also more accessible than static communications. Instead of having to have a message on digital signs in English, and then the same message again in Spanish, and then again in Tagalog, you can allow people to switch the language they are interacting with simply by tapping an onscreen button.
And the depth of information you can put on a touchscreen means a deeper, more memorable experience for the viewer. If you want to add more messages to a playlist on static screens, you either have to get rid of other messages, or increase the length of that playlist (which erodes its effectiveness). With touchscreens, you can add another layer or sub-layer and it’s there for anyone who wants it, at any time.
This is where we are today. Interactive digital signage allows us to bridge the online and office experience by mirroring the way people interact with information on the web in our daily communications. The truth is, any organization over a certain size that isn’t using touchscreens for communications in the next few years will feel hopelessly old fashioned to their audiences. With millennials now over half the workforce, and Gen Z starting to enter it, interactive is not just a value-add anymore – it’s fundamental.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for some 14 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Canada’s east coast.