Human-Centered Design for Digital Signage

EPISODE 29 | Host: Derek DeWitt, communications specialist, Visix, Inc.

Human-centered design (HCD) is an approach to problem solving used in design and management frameworks. It puts people at the heart of the decision-making process, and is used by organizations such as the Society for Experiential Graphic Designs (SEGD) when creating wayfinding systems.

These ideas and methodologies can help shape your visual communications to increase engagement and participation. In this podcast, we’ll look at the four stages of HCD and how we can specifically apply them to a digital signage strategy.

  • Understand the basics behind human-centered design
  • Examine how to get inspired by, and feedback from, your audience
  • Learn how to use feedback to create ideas and frameworks
  • Explore how to turn those frameworks into experimental prototypes
  • Get practical examples of how to implement HCD ideas and processes

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Learn more about this topic in our Masterclass Guide 2: Digital Signage Planning Guide


Derek DeWitt: In the last podcast, I talked a bit about organizational cultures and different kinds of employees. Nothing about digital signage. All of that was basically trying to lead up to this podcast.

There’s a thing called human-centered designSEGD uses it, facility managers use it. It’s a way to design environments, really, with people in mind. Digital signage is very much the same way.

So, we’re going to take a look at some of the principles of human-centered design, specifically the four main stages of the process of HCD concepts, and see how we can apply those to digital signage.

If you don’t know your audience, then you can’t really communicate effectively with them. So, these principles help us know that audience, so that we can be more effective. And the long and short of it is to do two things: to ask them, and to create a system and a culture of continuous assessment and tweaking and adjusting, so that the processes involved in creating and delivering our messages…this process is just as dynamic as the digital signs themselves.

I’m Derek DeWitt, communications specialist for Visix, and your host. And I’d like to thank everybody for listening.

Derek DeWitt: One of the pioneers of human-centered design is a company called IDEO (I guess that’s pronounced correctly). I D E O. And they have four stages in the human-centered design or HCD process: inspiration, ideation, prototyping, and implementing. So, basically you to have find sources to inspire you, turn those into ideas, those ideas become prototypes that you test out and then you implement those ideas into something real world. So, we’re going to take a look at each of these stages, one at a time and talk also a little bit about how they can apply to digital signage.

So, stage number one is Inspiration. So HCD says, “frame your design challenge”. And very often this is used for design stuff. So, we’re taking this and we’re kind of adapting it to communications. So let’s say frame your communication challenge.

What is your communication challenge? If you’re just sending out single messages, you’re not doing a campaign of a sort, obviously on your digital signage messages you want to get as few words around those as possible. The most important words. You don’t have to be a 100% grammatically thorough on digital signage messages; truncated messages are fine. And then you kind of (once you come up with those main information-carrying words), you then design the text around those words.

Ask yourself, what are you trying to get that audience to do? And think of several different ways that you could communicate that, that you could get them to do that.

But really what you need to do is make sure that somehow your important words are accented in some way. It could be that they’re underlined, that they’re bold, that they have a slightly larger font, that they are placed in such a way that they’re the first words that people see when they glance at the screen, where the eye naturally falls. Things like this. Think about would a picture help? Would a picture reinforce some of the key words inside that digital signage message if you want it to have maximum impact? So really think about it very, very wisely.

Then you have to think about when you’re going to schedule a playlist. What is the best time of day for this? How often should you display it? Where should it go? Should it go on all the screens? Should it only go on some of the screens? You’ve already thought about location when you were setting up your digital signage system to begin with, you already thought about where you’re going to place the screens, where’s the best place, how big they should be, what orientation that they should be, should they be interactive? How do you want your audience to interact with your digital signage messages?

There’s an interesting thing in HCD which is called Asking the Five Whys. When thinking about it in terms of digital signage, ask yourself some questions: Are people following the calls to action that you’ve carefully crafted and placed in your messages? If they are, why are they? If they aren’t, why aren’t they?

And ask why multiple times. This is the thing. Don’t just start once. Drill down, get really down to the real base of it and figure out why is it that certain messages work, and certain messages don’t. And can we apply those things that we did in the successful messages to the ones that are less successful?

I mean, you might have to keep asking why down three, four, five times. That’s what the Five Whys means. Ask why, then ask another why, then ask another why. And that might involve speculation, especially if it’s something like, the question is “why are people not following our call to action?” Well, you don’t know. So ask. Speculate. Why aren’t they doing it? Because they’re not seeing it. Why aren’t they seeing it? Because it’s too small. Why is it so small? Well, because we have so many words in the message that we kind of ran out of space and we had to make a smaller font. Well, why are those words so big? And think things like this. And you’d be surprised. Force yourself to ask four or five “whys” and you’ll get some really specific insights.

And of course, the best way to get this information is to ask them. Ask the audience. Don’t just sit there isolated, speculating forever. Ask the audience, “Are you following our call to action? Do you remember this message? Do you remember seeing it? If you did, what stood out? If you didn’t? Hmm, let me think about that. Let me look at when it was scheduled. Did you follow the call to action? You didn’t? Well, why not?”

There’s a nice idea before interviewing people, give them cameras or ask them to do this with their smartphones, right? Ask them to take pictures of everyday dynamics, everyday moments from their normal life. So, basically what you could do is you could ask your audience, or select members of the audience or particular team or department, walk around the facility like you normally do and whenever you see something that’s interesting on the digital signs, take a picture of it, and make sure that there’s a date and time stamp with that picture. And just do this for a few days. That’s the beginning of your feedback session with them to find out how your system is doing. What did they take pictures of? One person only has one picture – then only one thing appealed to them. This lets you have some more insight into what works, what doesn’t work, what people like, what they don’t like.

Let your audience be your inspiration (so, we’re still in this inspiration stage of HCD) because ultimately, they’re the ones who decide if your messages are successful or if they’re not successful. Plus, that’s kind of a fun thing to do. It’s a lot more fun…if you’re going to ask people to take time out of their day to participate in giving you some kind of feedback and insight into your digital signage effectiveness, make it fun. Don’t make it some kind of directive from the big boss or something like this. I mean, if it is fun, then they do it once, well, they’ll be eager to do it again. They may even tell people, “Oh no, no, that was actually kind of a blast. They had donuts!” you know, whatever. “It was fun though.” They’ll actually be eager to do it. You may even find some certain personality types may naturally start doing it all on their own, without you asking them to do it.

When you conduct these interviews, whether you’re getting them to take those pictures ahead of time or not, when you’re getting people to sit down and talk to you about their experience with your digital signage system, do not have more than three people conducting that interview. It just freaks people out if there’s a whole panel there. No matter who they are, no matter what their personality is, they will almost certainly feel like it’s some kind of an inquisition. And each person who is there, you should make it very clear what their role is. This person is here just to take notes. This person is here to talk to you and so on. And don’t do it in their manager’s office or the big boss’s office. Do it in a meeting room or someplace that’s perceived of as neutral.

You might consider doing group interviews instead of just one-on-ones. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance here. This is trying to get insight into how your audience is responding to your digital signage messages and your communications effort. Make it fun. Let people come together, bounce ideas around. “Oh, I saw that message, too!” “Really you liked that?” “Oh, I don’t like cats.” Whatever. So, that’s actually not a bad idea. And sometimes if you’ve got quieter people (because some people are just shy or don’t feel comfortable giving their opinions or what have you) they may feel they’ve got cover, so they’re not on the spot, which will relax them and possibly encourage them to participate. And they may just get caught up in the group dynamic.

The whole idea is when you’re conducting these interviews, you want to have as wide a picture as possible from your audience as to how things are going. Let that inspire you for the next stage of things.

And you know, things like gamification, which we’ve talked about in other podcasts, are a great way to obviously get people actively participating. If you’ve done any kind of gamification efforts, interview people about that.

Remember here the real point here is you want to get inspired by your audience. And your digital signage communications efforts are attempting to inspire your audience. It’s not just, “Hey, we put up a really awesome picture of [whatever] a slice of pizza.” You want to make them fans of your digital signage. Everything we talk about is all about that. Make them look to your digital signs for things like weather and traffic and time and date and things like this. Make them fans. Make them like it. Make them miss it when they don’t have access to it. Just like if you took away somebody’s phone for a day, how would they feel? They should have a little bit of that feeling at the weekends when they’re not at work. They should be kind of missing that digital signage system.

Sometimes allowing them to create content or even just getting some insight into, “Hey, this is how we….” Especially people who are real cheerleaders for the system because one big super fan who is a cheerleader for your system can have an amazing impact on the rest of your audience. Let them see how you make messages. Let them see how that works.

The more that this is on their minds, the more they’ll pay attention to it. Even people that say they don’t like it, it feels Big-Brothery or whatever, even they will start to see that this isn’t just pushing messages at me and telling me what to do and how to think. This is part of a two-way communication effort, and that’s valuable and I’m being listened to. And so even your technophobes are going to enjoy the digital signage system if you can inspire them enough.

Okay, so that’s all inspiration. So, you found ways to get inspired yourselves, to think in new directions. You’ve also tried to figure out ways to inspire your audience, and so now you have all these ideas and now you need to give some kind of form to these ideas. More specifically, how are you going to take these ideas and present them in the real world? And remember during the inspiration phase, it’s important that you let it go wherever it goes. It can be as abstract as humanly possible.

The Ideation stage, the second stage, that’s where we make things real world. You want to come up with ideas that you can then turn into what we might call a working prototype. So, in the inspiration stage you’ve gathered a bunch of information, you’ve got interviews, you’ve got impressions, you’ve got quotes from people, maybe they took pictures, maybe you’ve got data on viewing patterns. You’ve stood there and watched how people interact with the screens and so on.

And now, and this is a term from HCD, you need to “download your learnings”. This is how you do it, to download your learnings (not with a computer; this is analog downloading). Get your team together. All sit in a circle. And then each team member shares the basic information of what they gathered on Post-it Notes, as well as details of how they gathered that information and who they got it from.

So, “Hey, I found out that in this room, between two and four o’clock, hardly anybody pays any attention to the digital signage because they’re not in there. And I got that information from this person and this person and this person. And one of them sent me an email and the other two were interviews I conducted with them.”

You take those Post-it Notes, and you put them up on a board where everybody can see them, okay? So maybe you’re sitting in a horseshoe instead of a circle, with the board up with the head of it all. And everybody does this until they’re all out of stuff to say. And as more people are putting Post-it Notes up on that board, start grouping them so that you can see their similarities and the way that they connect. And in this way, you’ll start to see how your ideas sort of form and group around certain core concepts. So that’s downloading your learnings.

Now you want to take this, and this is going to be your whole team as a group, you need to bundle all of these ideas into solutions. So, maybe two or three or four of these ideas, really you can see because you’ve organized them on the board, there’s really one quite complex idea there or theme there.

As you do this, workable solutions will start to become more and more apparent. And then you can take those elements and turn them into a single system for the next stage of things. Some people like to, as ideas start to coalesce into larger, more complex ideas, some people like to do drawings, matrices or Venn diagrams (everybody seems to like Venn diagrams.) All of these sorts of things might help you shape what are called your Frameworks in HCD.

So, you’ve taken all of these together, you’ve bundled your ideas, now you’ve refined them into sort of the next abstract level into ConceptsConcepts are things that you can turn into some kind of a real-world solution. So, think in terms of say, answering this question, always start the question with “How might we…?” or “How could we…? And the answer to that question, that’s what’s going to drive everything else in this ideation stage.

So, let’s say that some of the information gathered includes the following. You discovered that some of the displays are hard to see because they’re too high, or because at certain times of the day they’re actually getting glare in the afternoon from the sun. You’ve got quotes from interviewees about previous messages and things that they remember. They noticed that it was high contrast colors and high contrast text that made them notice it more. So, that’s interesting; that’s an interesting “concept”. Maybe you’ve got further quotes from people saying, “Hey, we really liked this little character you created”, “For a while, you had a campaign and that’s has stayed with me even though it’s been six months”; so that’s worthwhile to remember.

If you don’t have any comments, or no one took pictures or whatever of certain messages or certain kinds of messages that you thought were for sure going to take off, you thought they’d totally be effective; that’s also worth noting.

Again, it’s not a bad idea during that information gathering stage, the inspiration stage to just have some of your team hanging around and notice when people are looking at the screens. When do they stop and look? Is it when the slide changes? When the message changes? Is it when there’s video or movement on the screens? “Oh, it turns out, when we analyze all of this, movement seems to attract people and make them slow down.” And longer campaigns. A campaign is a series of linked messages, either one right after another or throughout a day, over a course of a week or even longer. But they’re all visually designed to be similar so that they’re clearly part of one long message. These are very often more memorable. So if you’ve done these, you might want to see how the audience has reacted to these.

So, let’s say you’ve got all this information. Some screens are hard to see, mascots or characters seem to work well, campaigns seem to work well, movement seems to work well. And let’s say that, “Okay, well, next month we really want to reduce power usage in the building.”

So, you combine all of this information during this ideation stage, and you say, okay, “Well let’s create a mascot. Let’s have a smiling light bulb – Bobby, the Bright Bulb”. And Bobby the Bulb is going to guide your audience in a series of connected messages, three or four or five, on little tips like when they should turn the lights off, when they should turn their equipment off. Is sleep mode a good idea or should you actually turn that off? What about vampire load? Things like this.

You can feed in information on power usage into graphs and energy dashboards, so people can see right then and there on the digital signs, “Ah, this is how much power we’re using right now. I’m standing next to a room with nobody in it. I should turn off the light because Bobby the Bulb told me to or suggested I should.” That’s just an example. If you find out that actually little cute characters irritate your audience and they don’t like it, then don’t use that in future efforts. Instead, use graphs or whatever it is that appeals to them.

There’s another interesting thing you can do in this ideation stage of things. When you’re looking at an overall communications goal, list all the possible barriers that could prevent that goal. What limitations are getting in the way?

Have a brainstorm session. Have your team just sit around and think of all the possible things. It doesn’t matter how funny it is, doesn’t matter. How can you combine your overarching goals with the actual, on-the-ground realities of your specific environment, your resources and your audience? It’s a big mistake to have an abstract idea of how you’re going to communicate with people, and then try and force them somehow to adapt to your communications efforts. Quite the opposite needs to happen. Your communications efforts should be adapting to them. This way you can focus on what’s actually achievable and not things that are pie in the sky and not achievable in your specific circumstances.

There’s another fun thing you can do, to sort of stimulate thinking in different ways, is to do something called a mashup. So, ask yourself what one thing would be like if it was another thing.

So, for example, let’s say that you have an on-site café and you’d like more people to go there because it’s losing money. And you also, by the way, find out that a lot of your audience really likes social media, specifically Instagram. So, mash them up. Ask yourself, “What would an Instagram version of our café look like and what would it do?” And then you can start to find a way to mash those two ideas together.

They like taking pictures, they like doing this, how can we encourage this in the café? Will that get people into the café? And so on and so forth. You can come up with a whole bunch of different ideas simply by taking two disparate ideas that seem to have nothing to do with each other and mashing them together.

So, like Instagram Café, maybe one idea would be the ability to share information. That’s certainly a part of Instagram, especially pictures. How can you do that with a café? Or a big part of Instagram is the filters, everybody uses filters, which in a café could mean maybe there’s a way to individualize my orders a bit more. There are more options available to them.

And be bold, be wacky, be crazy. This is serious outside-the-box thinking. You can go as crazy as you want with this stuff and then scale it back later. And always….This is a mainly a visual medium, so always be thinking visually. How can we use images to further our goals instead of words? How will that image look on all the different kinds of displays we have? When you were interviewing people, and watching them, what things attracted them? What things did they remember? Remember design for the audience, not for you.

This is the ideation stage of human-centered design, basically. You take all of this stuff, and now you’re going to be able to have something that you can actually take to your content creators and your designers, and they can start to craft digital signage messages and campaigns that you can be very confident, will engage your audience and increase participation.

And now we come to the third stage, which is the Prototyping stage. Prototypes – often when people think of those, they think of an object of some sort, of a machine of some kind. But what we’re talking about is how do we come up with some sort of a rapid prototype in the genre of communications and digital signage messages?

Remember what you’re really looking for…you’re not just, you can’t be just pushing stuff out there to people. You’ve got to get them involved in interacting with it. Interaction’s really what you’re looking for. You want people to interact with your messages. You want them to interact with your calls to action and follow them. You want them to interact with your screens if they’re interactive.

So, one idea is to consider role-playing idealized versions of those interactions after seeing your communications. Like, actually get up and pretend to be the perfect audience member. What will they do? If you’ve got a QR code on a message, obviously the perfect audience member would immediately pull out their phone and use the QR code, and go to a webpage or an intranet page or what have you for further information, which they would be reading as they walked down the hallway. So try that. You and your team do this role-playing.

Then get some of those people you interviewed earlier to walk past just one display with that message on it and see if they respond the same way. Don’t warn them ahead of time. Just say “You’re going to walk by, just like you normally do and do what you would do”. (Or, I suppose, you could just follow them around all day until they happen to walk past it.) But see if they do the same thing.

And you can do this with lots of things. Let’s say you’re trying to come up with a new logo, or a fun new character, Bobby the Light Bulb, who’s going to help people reduce energy usage. Experiment with it. Put him on a hat, put him on a t-shirt. Your designers probably have a couple of different versions. Have your team hand them out for free (make sure they’re really nice material, so people want to wear them) and see how people react. That’s a great way to find out which of these five versions of Bobby the Light Bulb is the one that the audience is going to respond best to. Well, you’ll know if you have five different versions out there in the environment on hats, on t-shirts, on cups, on pens, what have you, and see how people react. Which one do they respond to most?

If you want people to follow a call to action, do they in fact take those correct steps? Is it hard for them to follow that call to action? Then you’ll know what needs adjusting. And then interview them and ask them for their impressions. You’ve got to constantly be having some kind of a feedback system in place, a continuous assessment system. It just needs to be part of the communications culture, if you will, of your organization. That’s what I’m talking about with a prototype.

So, then you do this, you throw that prototype out there, you get that feedback, and then you integrate that feedback into another prototype. Use some of the techniques you’ve used in the earlier stages of this to finetune that message. Use that feedback you’ve got. Choose a select audience of people who are willing to participate. See if you get those idealized responses, or at least closer to them. Are people starting to do what you want them to do? This is all done in sort of small limited things.

This is very similar to, very much…we talked some time ago about launching a digital silence pilot. This is very much the same idea. When you’re trying to come up with ways to improve your communications efforts, how to do campaigns, how you can get people more involved and so on. That’s basically what you’re doing is this stage of things, this early prototyping stage, are little mini-pilots for very specific ideas.

Now, once you’ve done all that, once or twice or maybe even three times, you’re ready for what’s called live prototyping, which means now you’re going to put those sort of workshopped messages out there on multiple screens, and then hang around and observe and see if people pay attention, if people follow the call to action. You can spot-check people real quick. Just ask them two or three questions. “Hey, you didn’t take the call to action. I’m just curious as to why not?” Really, no more than three questions. Then use that feedback to tweak things some more.

You’re also going to want to get feedback from other stakeholders besides the audience, right? At this point, get them involved as well. If your content creator, for example, has not been part of the earlier HCD stages, now is the time to bring that person in, because they may A) have a whole bunch of great new ideas (because it’s fresh eyes, fresh minds) and B) they may say, “Actually that’s interesting that you want to do that; however (and that sounds great) however, these are my limitations” or “…these are my things” or “…this is the situation I find myself in.” And, of course they also might just say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s all great. I’ve had the same thoughts myself”, which means really now as an organization, you’re on the right track. You know, you must be.

Basically, the more humans there are in human-centered design efforts, then the more effective it is. And you’re going to create excitement. The more people that get involved, the more they think about it, the more they talk about it. You’ve got excitement, you’ve got buzz. You’re hopefully going to have at least one champion or cheerleader arise out of this; you might have several.

And yeah, those people out there on the front lines, the people who are creating content, the people who are scheduling content, make sure they have some kind of a say as well. If they don’t have a stake in these planning and testing stages, they may not understand what the goals are. They might not understand why you’re asking them to do things in a certain way. And as I said, they may have some great ideas all by themselves.

And now we’re ready for the final stage, which is to actually Implement. That collection of messages that you’ve used all of these HCD principles with, or those campaigns (and this is especially good for campaigns) are now ready to be launched. Whew, it’s over!

It’s not really; it’s not over at all. As I said earlier, you have to make this just a constant thing that’s happening. You’ll constantly be improving your communications, constantly find out how people are responding to things, why they’re responding to things that way. Build on your past successes, figure out what you did right when you did it right. Create better frameworks, so that future messages can be even better. This is not a technological tool. It is a communications tool that uses technology to achieve some of its communications aims.

So those are the four stages of human-centered design, HCD, and how we might apply them to using digital signage to further our organizational communications efforts/ideas to get people engaged and to get them really participating in this. So, you create this environment and this culture, of constant information exchange. And frankly, it makes it kind of fun, also.

Hopefully this will inspire you a little bit. It may sound like a lot of work, but it actually isn’t that much work, especially if it just becomes part of what your team does. This is what you do. This is how you accomplish it.

Next week, we’ll have a different podcast on completely different topics. In the meantime, I’d like to thank all of you for listening.