Remember the dream of the $100 laptop, now known as the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project? While still very much an existing program, it has attracted its share of controversy. Some opponents argue that a better way of accelerating development in poor countries is not to distribute free or low-cost laptops but rather to focus on more scalable projects such as the provision of clean water or vocational training to women. Still others question the motivation of Western countries imposing their solutions to complex problems that may not be appropriate for non-Western cultures.
The challenges facing the digital signage and digital media aren’t all that different from those facing the OLPC program. If you’ve paid even marginal attention to the digital signage industry over the last few years, you’re probably familiar with the unbridled enthusiasm we all experience with every announcement of some new technology or application that’s supposedly going to revolutionize marketing, advertising, and yes, even wayfinding. Whether it’s the much-heralded “Twitter Wall”, the wild success of Groupon, or the launch of the “first Foursquare application for digital signage networks,” the promise has remained the same: it’s a brave new world, and those who are willing to jump in, no questions asked, will emerge the winners.
Well, not quite.
Yes, the technology is truly dazzling and has opened up the industry to a slew of new players bursting with creativity and vision and a willingness to make mistakes (lots of them!). What many players – new and old – in the field often forget, however, is that while the technology may be impressive, what remains after the novelty has worn off is what audiences have always craved and will continue to crave: useful content.
If you’re designing and buiding a digital signage network for a hospital, for example, consider first and foremost who will be using the system, how they’ll be using it, and why. Only after that should you decide which medium would best convey your message. If your facility caters primarily to elderly residents, think about how user-friendly the system should be – larger fonts, bright colors, easy navigation – to minimize confusion and frustration. The medium may be different, but if it’s for wayfinding purposes, the old rules still apply: the message must be clear and logical and takes into consideration the architecture and flow of the facility itself.
If you manage a student union building at a university, think about what information you want to convey to the campus population and how they want to receive that information. You may need to think about addressing two different audiences: students and faculty who are on campus around the clock, and visitors, parents and other guests who will be unfamiliar with your campus layout and/or culture. If your visitor must navigate a sprawling campus over several miles, make sure that your network has plenty of wayfinding options, from color-coded, interactive maps to large, easily visible signage (digital and traditional) throughout your campus.
And if you’re a restaurant owner who wants to invest in an iPhone app to attract more business and showcase to your customers how cool and hip you are, think again about those customers and what you can offer them. A well-developed iPhone app that won’t crash and bug a user’s system can cost a significant chunk of change, and although apps are all the rage at the moment, consider that the majority of downloaded apps are games, followed by “music, then media and social-networking-related apps,” with “location-based services” bringing up the rear. Oh, and most of the growth in app sales and downloads can be attributed to one demographic: young males. If you’re an old-fashioned, homestyle coffee shop that primarily serves families and church-going seniors, you may just be wasting your money. Technology, digital media and digital signage have enabled businesses and organizations of just about any size to be able to improve customer outreach while also keeping costs low. On the other hand, the purpose of using most of this technology in a business environment remains the same: creating content and messaging that meets the needs of the customer, whatever they may be.