What is in a User Interface?

The user interface for digital signage software is the deal breaker when it comes to showing a prospective client a system. Chris Fulton offers his opinion on the options available.

Digital signage is here to stay and the choice of vendor is seemingly quite large, this makes it difficult for systems integrators, let alone end users to make a buying choice. Remember ‘the buying choice is made at the point of purchase’ which was one of the first key selling points for adopting digital signage in the retail markets. Today there are so many vendors, where the end result the images seen on screen in a lot of cases, are indistinguishable from any of a number of competing vendors. They all look the same to the untrained eye.
Where does the user interface come into play, other than how to use the software? The user interface is the part you will be showing to a prospective customer so that they can see how easy it is to use. This will form a large part of their buying process at the point of demonstration. I can hear ‘yes our software is easy to use’ and all vendors quite rightly will say that. However have they considered the human factor or the type of workflow the user will be going through? Possibly not, let’s just make the sale as we know it works and move on, but what of any repeat business?
We know we need the right tools for the job, what are the options? Two choices, a WEB based interface easily accessible from anywhere a web browser can get to, or a desktop type application that needs a direct connection to the PC to be operated.
Consider the client with a network containing eight hundred screens, full of tickers, multiple images and video playing. With a requirement that states, it has to be easy to update all screens with different content at anytime, quickly and from two locations for example by the secretary. Their needs will be very different from say a school with a schedule that will be updated once a term by the kids, as part of their ICT projects.
Digital signage can be connected to a network for control although not everyone will have network capability. For those that do connect, the plus point is that most people know how to use a browser and many web based systems have a powerful interface with features to change layouts, create play lists, control schedules etc. The downside is that unscrupulous people also know how to use a browser, and that extends to the youth that has learnt a new word or the cyber criminal looking to post his own advert or propaganda. I am not going to go on to security as that would be an article for another day but you do have to consider passwords and where your media is hosted if it is not on your premises.
With a web interface you get ease of access. For instance you could be at the other end of a building using your phone browser to change an urgent ticker message and it is usually straight forward to assign access rights so operators get a particular level of privileges over what parts of the system they can use. In this environment the web interface works well but if you are in the business of designing page layouts and previewing how content layers together your options through the web interface are limited. This is where it may be best to have an extra system in your control room to check the look and feel of content before publishing to the outside world displays.
There are systems that allow a level of ‘drag’n drop’ but not in the league of PowerPoint/Photoshop and others design capability. Generally web systems use predefined templates that you can tweak but if you do not want to look like another clone, designing your own could involve a visit to a specialist designer with experience of your particular venders system. With a web based system you get ease of access but fail on the design aspects.
You are in your control room, and you have a desktop based application. Firstly you have to be in that room, at the keyboard and mouse to use the system. This may seem like a bind compared to web accessed systems, but it is a good start with security beginning with the door lock. On this desktop you are now free to use and get feedback directly on layouts, PowerPoint display, movies showing and RSS feeds updating all with real-time feedback as you move the mouse.
These types of applications often offer a set of ‘get you going templates’ but you then have complete freedom to design your own without going outside to a costly specialist. Again, here we have a quandary. If you use the built in effects and layouts, you are like to become a clone of everyone else using the same system.
The key to selecting a suitable digital signage system is first understand what and how you want to work with the system. It is easy to do a ‘me too’ as you know a partner, client or competitor has done something with a particular system and go with that vendor. But are their client’s requirements the same as you client’s requirements?
The choices are that if you want remote or mobile access and can live with the reduced creativity and higher security concerns, then WEB based solution would be a good starting point to consider. On the other hand if you need freedom for creativity and have users already on site using the likes of PowerPoint then a desktop application will be easier to implement, train and maintain.
I hope you are reading this and saying to yourself that this is all commonsense, and yes it is, but without these considerations it can, and often does go wrong!

Chris Fulton
Chris is the managing director of Future Software Ltd, a software development company. Chris has been developing software for over 32 years.

Article Categories