An Elder’s Perspective on Digital Signage


As a content designer for digital signs, I have a tendency to seek out every digital sign and interactive screen I can find. This inclination is not just to use the signage for its intended purpose, but to assess everything from placement to content and ease of use. I take advantage of every opportunity to learn what works (or doesn’t), so that I can develop better designs for the University of Michigan‘s campus community. Since my “user experience” is not that of a typical user, I forget that there are people who aren’t so comfortable with digital signage, specifically, interactive screens.

I was recently reminded of this when I traveled to Las Vegas for Digital Signage Expo 2016. I was so excited to see what new technology is on the horizon, and to see new ways to use digital signs. I actually brought my 70-year-old mother on the trip with me, as she had been talking about wanting to go to Vegas since she hadn’t been there in more than 15 years. The plan was that I would be at the conference during the day, while she’d go out on the strip to explore and do a little gambling.

Starting with the touchscreen at the airport flight check-in kiosk, I learned that the process was not as intuitive as she had hoped, and she didn’t know what to do with the bag she had just paid $25 to check. Not only did she not know what to do, but she didn’t trust the transaction and ended up going to the counter to speak with someone face-to-face. At this point, I didn’t really think anything of it, and I didn’t think twice about the content design of the kiosk, since I had been able to use it with no problem.

When we finally arrived in Las Vegas, my mom must have been relieved to see touch screens with which she was a bit more familiar – video poker and slot machines. We did a little gambling that day and headed to the hotel to rest up for the week.

The next morning, I woke up to my mom yelling at someone on the phone about how there was no room service menu in the room and that she really just wanted to order some eggs. Fortunately, the hotel staff was very accommodating and read her the menu, helping her ultimately place an order. After she hung up the phone, I gave her a quick lesson in using the in-room Smart TV, which is where she could access all of information that she was used to seeing in a binder on the nightstand.

After learning what a Smart TV was, my mom started talking to me about how she felt so “dumb” and “ignorant” as she struggled her way through the first full day in Las Vegas. A former computer programmer and someone who uses a smartphone and tablet, I would assume she would be able to use any digital screen she came upon, and that it would be intuitive. Not the case.

After one day in Las Vegas, my mother encountered an interactive screen to pay a taxi fare, purchase monorail tickets, use a “virtual queue” for a casino buffet, cash in winnings (sort of like an ATM) and let’s not forget wayfinding. Thankfully, the casinos still have people around to assist when information is needed, because if others are anything like my mom, they would just avoid the technology altogether. After all, she was on vacation and didn’t need to feel stressed, confused and lost.

As much as I can appreciate her lack of exposure to the digital world, it would seem that a fast-paced city like Vegas skipped a lesson or two in content design and accessibility. According to the 2015 Las Vegas Visitor Profile Study, “65 percent of visitors were 40 years or older.” So, more than half of the people who visit Las Vegas could potentially be struggling to find their way. A place like Las Vegas should especially cater their signs to be as accessible as possible!

While most technology seems to cater to Millennials who spend their entire lives focused on some type of screen, we still have quite a few folks from the older generations to whom we need to ensure accessibility. After all, they’re the ones who have the money to spend. Here are some suggestions that I came up with after spending a week with my mom:

  • Utilize larger fonts. Even with her regular glasses, my mom had a hard time reading many of the screens.
  • Apply contrasting content against backgrounds. While not colorblind, even I had trouble reading messages due to the busy backgrounds of the signage.
  • Display the message (with call to action!) and leave it up long enough to give readers time to assess the content. Some of the trouble had to do with content moving so quickly across a sign that she couldn’t keep up. Plus, it’s important to know that too much content is overwhelming, and if someone has to wait for a sign to cycle through a bunch of information, they’re not going to do it.
  • Encourage touch, either by adding the words “touch me” or “touch here to start.” My mom told me repeatedly that she was afraid to touch the screens for fear that she might break something.
  • Provide a reason for using the screen. For example, “Use this screen to reserve a table for lunch so you don’t have to wait in line!” Convince them it’s okay to use (and trust) the technology in terms that everyone understands.
  • Make sure the sign is placed where it can be seen, read and touched. If it’s too high, too far away (or your 5’ nothing mother is vertically challenged), it can’t be used.
  • Give them an out! Add in some options to navigate the screens and menus, and maybe even an “escape” option.

Ultimately, I think that the digital landscape in Las Vegas is always going to be changing. As more research is done about digital signage, there will always be improvements to how information is presented. Attending events like the DSE are sure to help you learn how to create digital signage that caters to all audiences.  I, for one, plan to use the suggestions in any future designs. Sometimes, we tend to overthink and make assumptions with our designs. Hopefully, this serves as a reminder to keep things simple to think critically about how your message can be received.

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Business Systems Analyst
University of Michigan

End User Council

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