digital wellbeing labs

we tune technology to create harmony in your life

Is anybody watching out there ?- part 1


The guru of retail, Paco Underhill, has presented a verdict on the current state of digital signage in shopping environments at the Digital Signage Expo in February 2009. His critique was pretty rigorous. His proposals for improving the application of digital signage are very much in line with our own observations and the conclusions we’ve drawn.The title of Paco Underhill’s talk was Good digital signage is not ‘cool’   It was for the first time that there was critique in an other wise self-congratulating industry. As the industry speaks about all the successful implementations and its rapid growth, most”signs” on the high street point to the contrary. Few hyped implementations of digital signage, beyond the massive billboards on Piccadilly Circus in London or Times Square in New York, survive beyond the first year. One company after another promises yet another revolutionary display technology with increased light output and therefore attracting more views on the high street or inside malls. Smaller in-shelf pop-up displays come and go. The list of failed examples in recent years is long. I keep documenting bad examples popping up in regular intervals on the streets of London, especially Oxford Street. It doesn’t take much to witness this yourself. Just position yourself near a digital signage display and observe people passing by… what do you see happening?

The intentions are correct, the choice of technologies mostly adequate, but unfortunately it is the implementation, the attention to detail, which is done so often wrong. It’s like visiting a restaurant with the most promising menu, but if either, or both the service and the quality of the actually served food does not live up the promise, the experience will be broken and the customer will not return.

As a friend mentioned in recent discussion, this industry (like many others by the way) is based on justification by powerpoint; eg. X million walk each year on Oxford street, that gives Y amount of potential eyeballs, will lead to Z amount of follow ups and hopefully initiate N conversions, which allows us to price this service at M Pounds Sterling … really? The only reasonably accurate figures in this equation is the number of people walking the street and the cost of the equipment included in M, the cost of the service.

Paco Underhill’s key insights:

  • Too high-tech means its easily broken - We have witnessed many examples, including the Prada dressing room, fail under the burden of technology maintenance. We have heard of plenty recent examples at well known retailers -
  • The customer is easily bored - Cool interactive video installations in public spaces seldomly attract repeat visitors-
  • Poor placement because of no understanding of sightlines - who will stand still in the high street, twist their head sideways, to watch a video clip of something they otherwise can watch on TV. Who looks upwards to a monitor fixed to the ceiling when the products yoru are searching for are presented below eye level?-
  • Budgets blown on hardware, software forgotten – How often do design companies receive last minute requests to fix up an installation that has been months in the making?- 
  • Not enough customization for the local market
  • Audio can induce employee sabotage - Most audio we have seen in public spaces, even when using hi-tech through the window loudspeakers is at a useful barely audible level to the passerby’s -
  • Digital signage attracts and is within reach of “evil nine-year-olds” – An old saying in product development; if you want to test resistance to breakage and level of vandal proof just take your product to a primary school.

some of our insights:

  • cost of long term maintenance is seldomly calculated into the overall service development of a digital signage installation.
  • few designers understand the real implications to design for digital signage. It’s very different from designing for TV ads or banner ads on the web, where the user is at least partly engaged with an activity already in front of her. Digital signage designers need to have the senses of an architect to understand placement and relationships in space, and the sensibilities of a composer to understand timing, rhythm and  timbre.
  • apart from understanding sight lines, few developers and in-house merchandising teams seem to understand that the placement of digital signage is part of an overal user experience, The signage is not just an add-on but an integral part of the shop floor lay-out.

Paco Underhill’s key recommendations – with some of our notes:

1. Our visual language is evolving faster than our spoken word. ”Our ability to process images has never been better, but our eyes have never been more tired.”

2. A lot of digital signage is still technology in search of an application. ”The problem with anything cool is that it is directly linked to ‘uncool,’”. “What may be cool to someone the first or second time may not be on the fifth or sixth visit.” ”There is a fascination with hardware, while the attention to messaging is misconstrued.” – A lot of interactive installations in public spaces, unless really well designed and engaging, turn out to be “one-trick-ponies” similar to the ubiquitous  projected water ripples which are triggered by your footsteps, which now can be found in random locations all around the world. - 

 3. We are now more time poor than we are money poor.“Those who design in-store media have a lack of understanding of the clock that is inside our heads,” - A typical 30 seconds TV ad is completely out of place in an environment where a message needs to succeed in a fraction of a second. In fact we are becoming increasingly adept to filtering surplus messages out of our environment and shield ourselves from unwanted information.

4. People are looking for universal applications. Instead, they should be more sensitive to the local issue. Content that may be relevant in one area of the country may be completely ineffective elsewhere.

5. Good digital signage should “create placemaking” and serve as a gathering point. - This is at the foundation of the type of new “retail” environments we, at dwb, are developing. Well positioned (interactive) displays can facilitate social interactions and become excellent places to present relevant messages in the most appropriate context. One of the recent examples we have described in an earlier post are the way finding kiosks scattered around the Westfield shopping centre in London. We need to create social interactions around digital signage, instead of providing just background noise. 


In the next post we will investigate recent examples of two of the largest retailers, Karstadt in Germany and Tesco in the UK, having problems with their pioneering digital signage networks. They could have saved a lot of investment had they listened to Paco Underhill in the first place.

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1 Comment

  1. I agree with the analysis here from Paco and DWB, and I would like to extend our imagination here further, in the following discourse.

    The experience of digital signage in the public spaces will continue to be seen as background noises, unless personalisation/interactivity is brought into the equation.

    This however, may bring controversies (if not low cost marketing), but I think, given the early stage of digital signage development, we can demonstrate this as a learning in the public space.

    So, here’s one scenario, and the theme is possibly democratising consumer participation in advertisement.

    1. Customer inputs/swipe at a sensor – possibly a loyalty card, a mobile number, or credit card.
    2. Customer’s face (fraction of a second scan speed of digitising face area is now technologically possible) may also be captured; besides choice of digital avatars.
    3. Both being facets of an “ID” brings out a summary of bio-data (partial or updated), and face/avatar, for customer review, edit, and approval.
    4. A background application ensure that any information provision in public domain is understood to be “decent”., during and post edit/approval.
    5. An avatar/customer face is embedded in the digital signage with/without other personal info (name, lifestyle, etc.).
    6. Multiple avatars for group of users should also be possible. An avatar should also be allowed to cross-transform amongst avatar members or with simulated avatars or roles.
    7. The learning and discovery really begins, with media content and messages “flirting” with the avatars, and vice-versa, in the public space, with whatever marketing/campaigning goal in mind.
    8. Another option is to allow a blogging site to also feed annotations on the control, media structure and content real-time.
    9. OR During inert period of consumer participation at sensor placements, the blogging sites can participate in the annotation and orchestration – alternatively, the blogging site(s) can be the default participants/input construct here, as part of the advertising/marketing goal.
    10. Outcome – is facebook/twitter-like democratisation, social constructivisim, mashup role in public digital signages.
    11. This sort of bring, a more human angle – controversial or otherwise – into the consumer experience.

    Reflect on what the German Professor did in his human body slices public musuem (…a gathering point). One may agree/disagree with the instance of the concept there – that simple presumptions in life is made gory/glorious in public spaces.

    Could there be a “decent”, fun, business, and happy instance of the above concept be made available in public digital signages, and e.g. in driving footfalls into stores and transforming consumption.

    Could Yahoo and Google of the worlds (aggregators of information and searches, and with huge consumer base), be sponsoring these signages together with other product/service advertisers and merchants.

    The mind wonders…

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