Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Digital signage and feature creep - can we break the cycle?

The New Yorker has a great article on feature creep that really hit home with me, especially after spending a few days in the presence of a few hundred of my closest competitors at the DSE show last week. The argument made in the article is essentially this: "buyers want bells and whistles but users want something clear and simple."

That's exactly the problem that we deal with at WireSpring day in and day out. Since we're a relatively small company, my job is to mediate between all of the different groups of people working here, and try to figure out what our best course of action is. Our sales guys want more functionality so we can stack up better in a head-to-head competitions. Our support and QA folks want less functionality, since more bells and whistles lead to larger user manuals and more tech support calls. Our programmers want to know that they have job security, so more development is always looked upon favorably; but of course expanding the development team to get more work done faster is an expensive -- and eventually unsustainable -- proposition for management.

I sit in the middle of it all, guessing at which features will be important and which will not. I personally tend to side with the "less is better" camp, and in fact we frequently sit down and try to figure out what functionality we can remove from FireCast apart from what new stuff is going to get put in. But still, there are always those features that you simply must have if for no other reason than the customer expects to see them in a demo. My personal favorite? The scrolling text ticker. I've never -- ever -- seen a good use of a text ticker in a retail digital signage application, yet time after time customers and prospects ask if we have the capability (we do). They'll then trial the product, do a pilot project, and eventually deploy the network. But by that time, the text ticker will be long gone, typically replaced by simple, full-screen video. For many applications, this, the most simple of applications, is really the best.

So I suppose the whole point of this rant is to compel those people considering a digital signage project to not confuse "complex" with "good." As a product guy, I still have to remind myself of this constantly (heck, there's even a post-it stuck to my monitor that says simple = good), and as I said before, I'm certainly coming to the point where we always try to come up with the simple solution first. As you go through the process of getting your project together, consider your overall goals, and let them determine what functionality is really important.


Anonymous said...

I was in the northeast today at a sales call and dropped by a major grocer to see what they were doing.

They had a big-ass screen over a salad bar, scrolling the news.

Complete, absolute, unequivocal waste of time ... as was the content, for the most part.

The news ticker thing escapes me ... and I spent 20 years as a journalist!

dave h

Bill Gerba said...

So that's a news ticker that actually saw the light of day! I'm pretty sure that most of the time they're part of some internal demo, but the client quickly realizes that it's a bad idea to actually use them for a deployment (at least I *hope* that's the case)

Matt Philmon said...

I think in general, simple is great... but I think it's a little short sighted in today's world and the direction it's going. Certainly, any kind of ticker gets old in time. Also if your digital signage is nothing more than a screen in a supermarket showing the current sales items, then it's definitely a waste of time and effort to put anything else on the screen.

In other locations, however, I don't agree. Today's world (and tomorrow's) shows a constant reduction in privacy and a continued loss of our everyday moments of peace and silence... advertising is gradually filling every conceivable space with a flashy screen, music, announcements, whatever. Sometimes I think it's important to try and give back to the person being inundated by your message. While I generally agree that your average advertiser might want all focus on his/her ad, I think ultimately that will do nothing but cause people to stop watching the content at ALL after a short time while giving them something else that might actually interest them gives you a chance at actually getting your message seen long after the "newness" factor of your sceen wears off.

Ultimately I think that those that concentrate on simplicity all the time will get left behind by the younger generation that prefers to multitask, that is fascinated by gadgets, text messaging, things like multiple tabs in a web browser, multiple screens on a computer, internet mashups like and

No offense of course intended as I have a lot of respect for your blog and ideas in general.

Bill Gerba said...

Hi Matt,

You're probably right, so I'll revise my conclusion: Simplicity is almost always the right course of action, and will be for the near future. 20 years out it's certainly possible that information overload will be the preferred method of communication. For the time being, though, the retailers I've worked with are in an ongoing battle to reduce visual clutter and streamline in-store designs, and I definitely think that extends to screen placement, layout and content.

Mike Halloran said...

In the world of hardware design, _apparent_ simplicity hides a great deal of real, and _essential_, complexity.

The trick, the art, the challenge, is deciding, or evolving, what has to be visible, and what is better left obscured.

Pointy haired bosses react badly to the time, effort, upfront cost, and courage required to remove "features" from a product.

Anonymous said...

I like your writing style and agree that simplicity is key in developing a good message. It's a good debate over form versus function. Tim A