Best Practices for Digital Signage Layouts and Playlists

EPISODE 12 | Guest: Jill Perardi, creative services manager for Visix

What you put on your screens is important, but so is how you put it on them. And when. And how often.  Too much content can drive your audience away, and too little can make them uninterested in what you’re showing. You’ve spent time crafting the perfect messages, and just as much thought needs to go into your digital signage layouts and playlists.

As with many things, the best practices come down to “it depends”. We’ll go through some real-world examples to help narrow that down, talking about the best ideas for how to divide up your screen real estate, when to publish which messages, how to organize playlists, when to use audio, and more.

  • Learn about using attractors in layouts
  • Understand layout designs for different audiences
  • Get tips on how to organize playlists
  • Appreciate the advantages of daypart scheduling
  • Know when to use video and audio

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 4: Digital Signage Design


Derek DeWitt: How many things should you put on your screen at once, how often should you show event schedules? Knowing when and where and how long to put things on a screen can really make all the difference as to whether or not your audience actually pays attention or not. I’m here with Jill Perardi, creative services manager for Visix. Hi Jill.

Jill Perardi: Hi Derek.

Derek DeWitt: And we’re going to talk about this stuff.

Jill Perardi: Sounds great. Excited to talk about it.

Derek DeWitt: And I’d like to thank Jill for joining us, and thank everybody out there for listening.

Derek DeWitt: Sloppy content doesn’t help you, right? Also, a super-busy but super-multizone layout doesn’t really help you, right? So I think you need to kind of achieve some sort of a balance like the Karate Kid was told, right?

Jill Perardi: Absolutely.

Derek DeWitt: So, I mean it’s true, right? Putting up too little on the screens is just as bad as putting up too much.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, absolutely. I kind of think the best practice for a layout, and granted all this kind of depends on where these displays and layouts are located.

Derek DeWitt: And who the audience is.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, and who the audience is. But I kind of think the best practice is, you’re probably going to want your logo, unless it’s…maybe you’re a corporate office and it’s employee-facing and they know where they are; maybe you don’t want a logo. But nine times out of ten, you’re probably going to want a logo. You’re going to want the date and the time and the weather. It’s an attractor – draws the eye to the screen, makes people look, because when they’re walking down the hallway or they’re sitting in a waiting room, they want to know the time. Everybody’s always curious about weather.

And then you’re going to want your content zones, depending on where, who’s looking at these, where they’re located. You’re probably going to want one or two zones. I always say no more than three. Three, if you actually have a use case for it, because you always have something dedicated in a particular zone, and then you’ve got two other zones of constantly changing content. And you might want a ticker. I would caution against a ticker if you don’t know what you’re going to put in it. If you want to run a news feed, an RSS feed or something like that, go for it. It’s auto-updating content; you don’t have to think about it again. But if you intend to use a ticker to update information, that has to be updated just as much as your larger content zones. But it’s a great way to draw the eye to the screen as well if you are using it for something like RSS or a news feed.

Derek DeWitt: And that’s how you just do that. You put it up, and then I can just kind of turn my brain off and be finished. Right?

Jill Perardi: Um, it’d be great, But no! Then your content is going to get stale. People are going to quit looking at it. Have some options. Have a couple of layouts.

Derek DeWitt: Different layouts?

Jill Perardi: Different layouts – totally different. Move things around. Particularly hooks like those date, time and weather modules that you might have on your screen, or weather widgets, and move them around.

Derek DeWitt: Upper right before lunch, upper right corner, upper left corner after lunch, something like that?

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. Because it’s going to draw the eye to a different part of the screen. They’re going to be expecting it in the upper right, now they’ve got to look left. And in the meantime, they’ve captured more content that you’ve put out to them. It can avoid burn-in. Burn-in isn’t a huge topic anymore with newer displays, but it can still happen in some of them. So you might want to move things around a little bit for that. It can improve readability, you know, and reach different viewers. Maybe there’s an opportunity. or based on the time of day, you do want to show multiple zones, and then at a certain time of day that’s not necessary anymore.

Derek DeWitt: Different kinds of viewers. You mean different viewing styles or who they are or psychology or…what do you mean?

Jill PerardiDifferent viewers, who they are. So, you might have a different audience in your building looking at your displays based on the time of day or the day of the week. So, the same layout doesn’t work for everybody. It’s not one-size-fits-all.

Derek DeWitt: Right. And speaking of that topic, you’ve talked about sort of three different – I don’t know what to call it – viewers or viewing styles or viewing situations, right? Like one of them is just going by…

Jill Perardi: Yeah, absolutely. So, you’ve got the passerby. You’ve got the person that’s just walking down the hallway, waiting on the elevator…

Derek DeWitt: Going somewhere else, not thinking about your stuff.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, absolutely. They’re going to a meeting, they’re standing at an elevator to get on, they’re in a hallway. So, for that kind of information – date, time, weather. You’re going to hear me say that a lot, because I just believe in those three items. They’re so little, but they attract so much attention on layouts. So, have that on there, but also maybe just have one zone with a lot of large, easy-to-read content.

Derek DeWitt:  So, like full screen?

Jill Perardi: Not quite full screen, but take up almost the majority of it. You could go full screen if you wanted to, but then you might lose some things like date, time and weather.

Derek DeWitt: Not a ticker. Because they’re not going to, it’s too much going on. I’m not going to see it.

Jill Perardi: Way too much going on.

Derek DeWitt: And I know a lot of people talk about video. It seems to me video…to try and capture those people. Maybe a moment, two things, four seconds maybe, but not more than that, right?

Jill Perardi: Yeah. The passerby, the less-than-30-seconds, they’re a moving target. Even a video background to capture attention. That might be okay, but it might be too much movement for that person that is that moving target.

Derek DeWitt: If it seems visually busy or confusing.

Jill Perardi: Yes!

Derek DeWitt: Okay. So, you got your person passing by, one to 30 seconds max. Well how about people who are just kind of waiting around?

Jill Perardi: Your waiters, they’re probably under two minutes; more than 30 seconds, more than your person passing by. These are people that are waiting at a receptionist desk or maybe that elevator bank is taking a long time. You know your elevators are slow.

Derek DeWitt: Or you have a really tall building.

Jill Perardi: Right, exactly. And so, these are people that have a little bit more attention. So maybe you want to do that two-zone layout. Maybe they’re standing there long enough to see multiple pieces of content, multiple places on your layout. Maybe a ticker would work for them. And we talked about video, maybe some short videos. I don’t ever love putting video on digital signage that’s longer than about 30 seconds anyway.

Derek DeWitt: Like, max.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, because you want to move on. The purpose of digital signage – move onto the next thing. I’ve got a lot of information I need to share, let’s keep it moving. But you could probably go ahead and include those short videos for this group of people.

Derek DeWitt: This kind of person, I kind of figure, as you’re walking through, you’re trying to interrupt their thinking, their “Oh, I’ve got to go do this” or “Where’s that new office?” or whatever’s going on…preparing for their meeting or what have you. When you get to this, “Oh, I’ve got a minute or two to wait” or “I’m waiting for the elevators” or whatever. There’s almost like an “Aaah! Now what?” And that’s usually when people will pull out their phones. So you’re really trying to stop them pulling out their phones, unless they’re expecting something important – just to kill time, and kill time by looking at the digital signs.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. And in the past, we’ve talked about content, content creation, how to make it look good, how to appeal to people. This is the group – I mean for everyone you want that, but – this is the group that you have great, appealing, captivating, easy-to-read content. This is the group that’s really going to stop and watch it.

Derek DeWitt: So you could argue that if they’re not in a really big hurry, if they hang around an extra 15, 20 seconds, you’ve done your job.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely.

Derek DeWitt: And then I think that probably that third group would be people who are sort of lounging around, who are there for a while.

Jill Perardi: Yep. Absolutely. This is your captive audience. This is your waiting room, your lounge, your break room. Any place where there’s seating, someone is sitting around. This is the group that if you have to do a three-zone layout, they would probably look at all three zones.

Derek DeWitt: Because they have the time.

Jill Perardi: They have the time. But I will warn you, if you’re creating content for three zones on a layout, remember you have to have enough content to populate all three of those constantly in that moving playlist of content, one piece of messaging to the next, whether that be a video or a static image or a webpage, whatever it might be. If you’ve got three zones of content, you are responsible for populating those. But they’re the more captive audience. They’re going to read that ticker and see what piece of news is coming next.

Derek DeWitt: And they’re more likely, I should think, to…because they’re there so long, I mean, no one has, I hope no one, has a 30-minute-long playlist.

Jill Perardi: Right!

Derek DeWitt: So they’re going to see a lot of the content coming back again and again and again. So, I would think variety would certainly be key.

Jill Perardi: Right. And as you mentioned a while ago, people typically pull out their phones, right? They’re sitting in that waiting room, that break room. They’re going to pull out their phone, but convince them to pull out their phone to act on whatever your message is.

Derek DeWitt: Like a call to action?

Jill Perardi: Yeah, yeah. Convince them while they’re sitting there. I just put up this great message. It’s got a call to action. Someone sees it. It’s captivating enough that it caught their attention, and it’s changing their behavior. It’s impacting their behavior to then pick up that phone – because we know it’s already out of their purse or their pocket if they’re sitting there awhile – go ahead and pick it up and go to that webpage or do whatever my message just encouraged them to do.

Derek DeWitt: That’s interesting. I think especially if it’s something that maybe has an immediate reward. Like I imagine somebody in our waiting area, waiting to go, I don’t know, talk to somebody for some particular reason, and they’re sitting there, and then they’ve got their phone out, they’re checking Facebook, and then they look up and they see a thing that says, you know, take a picture, “Take a picture of this fish, and you’ll get 10% off the trout sandwich at the cafe.” And you go, “Oh gee. Oh, I missed it!” Now you’ve got to wait for it to cycle around again. Now you’re really a captive, an attentive audience. And then you go snap, got the picture, you go down and then you find out that it was so popular that they ran out of sandwiches.

Jill Perardi: Yeah. I’d also like to know where you’re eating if you’re getting a lovely trout sandwich in a, you know, break room.

Derek DeWitt: I’m thinking it’s a high-end corporate hub.

Jill Perardi: Okay. All right. I like it. You know, and one other option for this group would [be] to stream TV. So, zone your screen to have some streaming on a portion of it, and then have your messaging on the other. Because to compete with that cell phone, someone’s going to want to, you know, they’re going to want to watch the news or whatever, and then your messaging is right there on the screen at the same time. But be sure to keep screen size in mind if you’re doing something like that. Your messaging isn’t effective if your screens are small and it’s competing with CNN, or whatever you’re showing on the other portion of it.

Derek DeWitt: Well that’d be another thing I should think, too, is make sure that you place – especially in areas where people are going to be waiting 10, 15, 20 minutes – make sure they’re big enough, make sure you place them right and make sure that, especially at certain times of the day, it’s not washed out from glare from the window. Obviously all of these things are factors as well.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, absolutely.

Derek DeWitt: Okay, so that’s layouts. What about playlist best practices?

Jill Perardi: Playlists are just as important as layouts. If you’re listening to this and you’re not sure what a digital signage playlist is, I like to compare it to an iTunes playlist. You’ve got a playlist of your favorite songs and it goes one song after the next, over and over in a loop. A digital signage playlist is the same thing. It’s not songs. It could be audio, but you’ve got your messaging, whether that’s still images or a video or a webpage or, heaven forbid a PDF…

Derek DeWitt: Don’t do it!

Jill Perardi: …a PowerPoint file…Yeah, you know, whatever it is you’ve got content in that playlist. You probably have more than one iTunes playlist.

Derek DeWitt: I know people who do this – they have their energy one, they have their chill-out one, they’ve got their “I’m going on a date” one.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, I have “Sunday Morning Coffee”. I have exercise playlists, you know, so you’ve got different ones.

Derek DeWitt: [An] “I Just Spoke to My Mom” playlist…

Jill Perardi: Right. I don’t want to know what’s in that one.

Derek DeWitt: One song.

Jill Perardi: Have multiple digital signage playlists. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, you can put multiple playlists in a zone if you wanted to, if your software supports that and allows that. Mix up your messages at different intervals or show them all, you know, one playlist and then the next. That particularly is useful if you…let’s say you’re a university and you have university-wide content that needs to get out, and then you’ve got departmental content…

Derek DeWitt: Right! Department of English doesn’t need to see what the football team’s schedule is.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, absolutely. But everybody on campus needs to see the university-wide content. Mix them up. You know, we were talking about layouts with multiple zones. You aren’t forced, if your software allows, you’re not forced to create a zone per layout. You can mix and mingle them if you want to.

Derek DeWitt: Now it’s two, now switching to three, now it’s one….

Jill Perardi: Yeah. Or just, if the content needs to be in one big zone, put multiple playlists in that one big zone, if you want to do something like that. But keep your playlist rules to about a maximum of seven items in a playlist.

Derek DeWitt: Oh!

Jill Perardi: You know, people aren’t going to wait around. You mentioned a while ago, no one should have a 30-minute playlist. People aren’t going to wait. Even those waiters sitting in a waiting room, they’re not going to…people…

Derek DeWitt That’s people who are waiting, not people who wait on tables in restaurants, just to clarify. We love servers. Tip your waiters, we love them.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely! Now, if they happen to be sitting in a waiting room, they’re still not going to look at a 30-minute playlist because their eyes are going to be going here, there; you’ve got TV on, you’ve got a streaming service or whatever on there as well. So just, you know, consider a maximum about seven items in a playlist because people, if they miss something, they can quickly and easily get back to it within so many seconds. I say “so many seconds” because you don’t want to show each message for longer than about 10 seconds. I think seven seconds is ideal. Depending on the amount of content, maybe you only want to do five, or maybe it needs to go up to about 10 or so. And just whatever your messaging is, think about the timing of that. How long is it going to take somebody to read it?

Derek DeWitt: Right. Let’s say we really want to jam pack it – seven for 10 seconds; that’s a little over a minute per play. That’s already, it sounds like seven is not that many, but if you think 10 seconds each, that’s a minute and 10 seconds to get back. That’s actually quite a chunk of time.

Jill Perardi: It is. It is quite a chunk of time. And we were talking about there’s three different groups. That first group, the passersby, they’re not…

Derek DeWitt: They’re getting one, maaaaybe part of a second…

Jill Perardi: Yeah. And so repeat those messages multiple times a day. I’d say at least about 10 times a day. Because the person that’s passing by, they might pass by several times a day because they work in a building and they’re going to the restroom, they’re going into the break room, whatever it is. If you repeat that message, then there’s a greater chance that they are going to get to see all of them, or most of them, throughout the day.

But also think about, when do your messages actually need to be played? When do they need to be on the screen? Use dayparting for a message or a group of messages. Consider the days of the week. People come in on Monday, what do they need to see that day? Do they still need to see it on Friday? That sort of thing.

And then think about where your displays are located. Who is actually looking at these? You mentioned the English department doesn’t need to know what’s going on in the Athletics department. You know, same thing goes in a corporate environment. Maybe you’ve got displays on the manufacturing floor and they need to see certain pieces of content, but the group up in accounting may not need to see the same thing.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. It’s not really relevant for accounting to know “Oh, we’re 38 days accident free.”

Jill Perardi: Yeah. So just really think through your content. But, you know, feel free to mix it up. Multiple playlists, multiple messages, multiple times of day.

Derek DeWitt: So you’re talking about, like, a playlist you want to show. I don’t know, let’s say we’re going to have this one playlist of these seven messages, we’re going to show them for 10 seconds each, that’s a minute and 10 seconds. We’re going to show that, I don’t know, five times in a row. And then what? Switch to a new playlist if it’s relevant? So this will kind of bounce around. So, throughout a day, a single, let’s say you’ve got an eight-hour period – how many messages are we looking at, that maybe I could get up? I mean, could I get up 60? Could I get 100? Let’s say I want to jam pack, I want to jam pack it.

Jill Perardi: You want to jam pack it. Just be careful because think about your timing. I think less is more, but you don’t want to have too few.

Derek DeWitt: Right, because then people go, “Oh, it doesn’t have anything to tell me.”

Jill Perardi: Yeah. You don’t want to see those same three messages all day long. You know, if you’re mixing up playlists throughout the day, just try to follow that rule of about seven in each thing, in each playlist.

Derek DeWitt: Because I know many years ago, somebody here was telling me about… You guys got a new client and they launched, and they had 60 items in their playlist, which they showed for, I think, 30 seconds each. And then they kind of said, “Well, we’re not getting any…we’ve got the call to action, we’re not getting responses”, and someone had to actually explain to them like, “Do the math – no one is seeing this again!”

Jill Perardi: And even worse, a lot of that content had, it had basically expired. It was past its prime. So even worse, not only are you not going to get to see that entire playlist, typically, when you do look at it, there was a chance that you were seeing old, irrelevant content.

Derek DeWitt: So, they forgot when they scheduled it to the playlist to have a drop off. Because that’s another way to keep things fresh. As stuff no longer becomes relevant throughout the day and drops off, a new thing can slide in and replace it. So you’re not changing out playlist A for playlist B and they’re totally different; you’ll be shuffling in new messages throughout the day.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. You don’t have to schedule all items for all day, every day. Schedule them from eight to ten, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Or schedule them to play all day for three business days.

Derek DeWitt: A lot of people look at these, because they are TVs. Let’s be honest, we call them “displays” and “digital signs”, but they’re basically indistinguishable, they’re exactly the same thing as consumer-grade televisions. And TVs always have audio capabilities. So a question is, should we use audio with digital signage?

Jill Perardi: So it varies. In a lot of cases, probably not. You do not want constant audio in an environment that should be quiet, in an environment where there’s a receptionist who might lose her mind, his or her mind, by the end of the day, because they’ve been listening to these same thing over and over and over, and they know it by heart.

So, you know, it really varies. Just like the overall layout – know your audience, know your message, know the environment. And what works in one place may not work in another place where your displays are located. But it’s definitely possible. Just rely on it when it’s useful and when you need it. You and I were chatting one day, and you had brought up an example of a coffee shop was running an ad, and you could quickly hear percolating or something like that…

Derek DeWitt: Right. Which is a very distinctive sound. So yeah, that’s the sound of a percolator and then, “Oh, whoa! Hey coffee! Oh, that’s a good idea!”

Jill Perardi: Yeah. So that might be okay as opposed to running a 30-second video, with audio, every minute and a half…

Derek DeWitt: …with the corporation chant….

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. So, you might want to limit it. But again, like I said, like with the layout, it’s your message, it’s your audience, it’s your environment.

Derek DeWitt: It should be an accent.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely.

Derek DeWitt:  A seasoning, if you will. Like, you wouldn’t want to just have a picture of, I don’t know, a picture of a smiling face and then the actual content of the message being purely audio.

Jill Perardi: No, definitely not. And you also have to be careful – what’s the other audio in the environment? If you are in that waiting room scenario, and you might have TV showing CNN or whatever; you can’t compete with that. Don’t stack it. It becomes annoying and a big distraction. Be careful with looping audio because that’s never going to end. And again, you don’t want all of the copy of your message to be spoken to you necessarily, unless it’s an environment where that would be useful. If it’s a place where, maybe there’s a lot of color-blind or you know, something like that; where audio is an attractor, for example, then use it. But just be careful with it.

Derek DeWitt: I always think to a time I joined all of you in Las Vegas, one of the times you [were doing] the InfoComm trade show, and I think we, this was years ago, we stayed in New York-New York. And there were these huge screens and, Rita Rudner I think was performing, and I must’ve heard that little commercial that they had – it was a joke and a joke and then her big laugh joke is, “Yes, I can do the splits. And yes, it hurts.” And the first 80 times I heard it, it was funny. And after a while, I really wanted to just kill myself, because I couldn’t take the constant repetition. Because here’s the thing, if I don’t want to see a digital sign, I just look away. But audio can also be quite intrusive.

Jill Perardi: Absolutely. That got a strong negative reaction out of you. And all you were doing was standing in the lobby or walking to and from your…

Derek DeWitt: I was on my way from one place to another place but it’s a long…

Jill Perardi: …and you heard it over and over and over….

Derek DeWitt: Yeah! But it was just a bombardment that was horrible….

Jill Perardi: …and then when you add the “chiching-chiching” of the slot machines on top of that, that you’re hearing along the way? That’s stacked audio right there.

Derek DeWitt: Yeah. It’s chaos. Yeah. So, that’s stacked audio. Yeah, you’re just like, “It’s just a cacophony. That’s what that word means!”

Jill Perardi: Yep. And so, it had that impact on you in a short amount of time. Think about digital signage constantly having that.

Derek DeWitt: I’m also astonishingly short-fused, so that’s me. There may be more patient people out there. I don’t know, what do you think of this idea? Let’s say for example, you have a, and let’s say you worked it out, it’s appropriate for the environment; let’s say you have, let’s say, “French” as an option on your interactive screen. And every once in a while, it just says “Bon soir!”, and then whatever the French is for “Come touch me”? Kinda like, “Oh, did that sign, did that thing, just speak French to me? Oh, look, it’s all in French!” I mean, is that a good idea? Is it a stupid idea? Is it a gimmick?

Jill Perardi: Not necessarily. It can be quite useful. So, we have done an interactive wayfinding project for a university. This particular project is not in multiple languages, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been. We’ve done a lot of wayfinding projects in multiple languages that just don’t have audio included. So let’s use our imagination and pretend we’ve got one that has both. So, it has audio because when no one is using the screen, it’s doing exactly what you’re saying. And whether that be, “Hello”, “Come touch me”, “Welcome”, there’s a “Find your way over here”; whatever it’s saying…

Derek DeWitt: Right. “Can I help you?”

Jill Perardi: Yeah. The visually impaired might be attracted to it then at that point. In fact, this particular university, they had a custom kiosk with a headphone jack, a keyboard that was great for high contrast, and then it was also interactive on the touchscreen. It included text message integration so someone could text themselves directions, and then use the accessibility features on their phone. But the audio in that case was incredibly useful, and it was determined to be appropriate for that environment and for the users. And also, it had the audio attractor, not just for the visually impaired, but because of where they had to put the displays, based on network drops and electricity. They were just a little bit out of the way. And so, they used those audio prompts to make sure people came over and knew that they could find their way over there.

Derek DeWitt: “Pssst! I’m over here!”

Jill Perardi: Exactly.

Derek DeWitt: And it seems to me the best way to determine if it would work, would be to pilot it and just do it and then hang out in those spaces and think, “Wow, that’s super irritating!” or “Wow, that’s really kind of cool.” It should be a value-add.

Jill Perardi: Yeah, without a doubt. Without a doubt. I mean your digital signage, whether that’s a static display or an interactive display of some sort – watch people interact with it. Watch them. See if they’re using it; see if they’re watching it. See if something catches their eye.

Derek DeWitt: Do people actually slow down as they walk by?

Jill Perardi: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, ask that coffee shop, “Hey, did you sell more today? Because we’ve been playing an audio clip with the percolator. Did that help?”

Derek DeWitt: “Or do we need to just stop doing that?”

Jill Perardi: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Derek DeWitt: You have to think about this stuff. You have to experiment. You have to change things up and you have to…because it’s a dynamic system. Everything about it is dynamic, including the way that you present content. So, we’d like to thank Jill for talking to us today. Thank you, Jill.

Jill Perardi: Thank you, Derek, for having me.

Derek DeWitt: And thank you, everybody, for listening.