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Touchscreen Guidance For A (Post) Confinement World

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It’s easy to throw around phrases like “once-in-a-generation” or “once-in-a-lifetime,” but our experience with the Coronavirus outbreak may just merit the comparison. Post-pandemic, life will be irrevocably changed; the question is only by how much.

Have handshakes with colleagues and cheek-kisses with friends seen their last days? Will remote work become the norm and not the exception for all but service-based professionals? Should we expect the East Asian custom of wearing masks in public to drift westward and become commonplace everywhere?

Predictions are not guarantees, so time will tell, but there is one sure bet: attitudes toward public-facing touchscreen use have taken a significant hit.

Never again can we expect the carefree use of touch displays, nor can digital signage providers or their clients launch a project that doesn’t account for humanity’s altered perspectives on health and communal use. If you’re honest, your attitudes towards public touchscreen use have changed as well, right?

This article will provide creative agencies and systems integrators with guidance for the current and post-confinement world of interactive digital signage and other public-facing interactive digital experiences.

We’ll first look at the considerations one must make to ensure touch-centric deployments are sensitive to the new normal, and then we’ll account for novel usage patterns through contactless alternatives to touch.

NOTEOne other prediction we can’t make is when the clock will start on the post-confinement world. Late-spring cancellations of shelter-in-place advisories are among the more optimistic of timelines. What can be said with confidence is that when things return to “normal,” there will be a flood of requests to update existing signage deployments and to modify projects in the pipeline. Use this time at home to get ready…

Touchscreens are here to stay

Touch gestures are now a universal language found in every culture, thanks to the extraordinary penetration of mobile phones. This ironically wordless medium vastly simplifies the expression of one’s interest while enforcing desired levels of privacy and accuracy. Setting aside the enormous volume of existing touchscreen deployments, there is no getting past the convenience, the accessibility, the affordability of touch-first digital content.

Touchscreens and touch-first content aren’t going away. But the rules are going to change. The following considerations are critical to account for generations of audiences who have felt the emotional, social, and physical harm of COVID-19.

Onscreen messaging about cleanliness

Medical experts say the primary function of a mask – outside of a hospital environment – is to prevent you from getting others sick. There is also a social reason for wearing a mask. It shows that you care, that you are sensitive to the feelings of others and are taking proactive steps to contribute to the recovery.

Any interactive public-facing digital deployment has the same responsibility. Not to wear masks, of course, but to show awareness and sensitivity. To indicate to potential users that the people responsible for this particular kiosk have their users in mind.

Deployments should visually recommend best practices for both touchscreen use as well as good social practices. To wash or disinfect their hands after use, minimize face touches, encourage gloved use. (Does the touchscreen you possess react to gloved touches? Time to check.)

Make sure to keep these messages up-to-date, reflecting the latest advice from health professionals. Out-of-date communication says you’ve chosen to stop listening. What message does that send to your users?

If you show respect and compassion in your content, users will respond in kind.

Hand sanitizer stations

It’s no secret that touchscreens can be a vector for viral transmission. Historically, that’s a fact companies have undoubtedly tried to ignore. Nowadays, such pretend ignorance is foolish.

One of the best ways to encourage touchscreen use is to accompany the screen with a hand sanitizer station. The message is clear. “Don’t be afraid. Once finished, you can clean yourself up.”

It’s probably just a matter of time before stores are spraying alcohol scents in the air instead of perfume.

The more visible these stations, the better. And to the previous recommendation about communication, onscreen messaging could further embrace sanitizer availability by pointing out the existence of stations at the beginning of the digital engagement, then encouraging sanitizer use at the end. COVID is an unseen enemy, so make the treatment as evident as possible.

The challenge, of course, is maintaining a good supply of sanitizer, which takes us to the next point.

Publicly-visible cleaning schedules

Be explicit about when and how often cleaning occurs – and stick to that schedule. Want to get someone upset? Install a sanitizer station, promote its use, and then let it run dry. It will look like you’ve tricked someone into getting dirty.

Post-confinement audiences will likely distrust all surfaces. Your responsibility is to win back that trust, and having a reliable, publicly visible cleaning schedule is the communication of your commitment. Be clear about your sensitivity to current health norms and requirements; be distinct about what you’re having done on a daily basis.

Minimally this means wipe downs and sanitizer refills. Frequency of once or twice per day is likely sufficient, particularly if you’re also fulfilling the previous two guidelines. Be proactive, be honest, and be self-aware of how your digital deployment appears to others.

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These sensible adjustments to present and future digital deployments, if pursued proactively and thoroughly, should satisfy the health and cleanliness concerns of the majority. Or course, there will always be a hesitant minority. And aren’t there touch alternatives that can bring real digital interaction with requiring a literal hands-on approach?

Get ready to go beyond touch

Convinced you there will always be a place for touch? Good. Now let’s talk about moving away from touch…… Seriously though, never have diverse audiences been more primed to accept touch alternatives. The goal is not to be anti-touch, it’s to be open about other interactive contactless possibilities. At a minimum, now is the time to consider creating dual-mode deployments offering touch as one but not the only interactive option.

Let’s start with a look at these interactive alternatives.

Adopt Touch Alternatives for Interactivity

Ever go down a Google black hole, following related interests until you come to a topic about which you’re wholly unfamiliar? And just a bit of research unveils there is a world of experts and investment in the orbit of this new topic? So much so that you can’t believe you didn’t hear about this seeming niche before?

That’s the world of touch alternatives, alot of them contactless. Each of you reading this article have different backgrounds and levels of exposure, but beyond a minority, it’s a safe bet you are only glancingly familiar with at least some touch alternatives and how to incorporate them in your digital content. The good news is it’s easier than you think.

Here’s a quick look at the most common and useful alternatives to touch:

Voice activation: From Alexa and Siri for tablets to native platform services on Windows, and offerings by a host of third-party plug-and-play API alternatives – there is no shortage of mechanisms that can capture verbal commands and convert them into action. It’s a genuinely hands-free approach that is also quite useful for handling accessibility requirements.

RFID/NFC: Different technologies with the same fundamental goal: to associate unique IDs with unique objects and broadcast those IDs to any receivers brought into the vicinity. A perfect use case: classic lift-and-learn scenarios found in retail. When Item A is lifted – i.e., when a particular tagged object is lifted off the receiver – then play a video.

Sensors and the Internet of Things: Hardware at the edge, built to monitor some aspects of the environment. When motion is detected, run an attract loop. When a button is pressed, highlight the selected option. When the temperature rises, promote a cold drink. Sensors and connected objects (among the Internet of Things) enable you to react to the world in real-time and do so in a way that is meaningful to your audience.

Computer Vision: Using cameras to anonymously identify age range, gender, emotion, head pose, dwell time, and more of the person or people in front of a screen. Create content based on particular demographics or react to specific gestures or emotional states. Bonus: with computer vision, you not only personalize the experience, you also enrich the data set you’re collecting for analytics. (You’re doing analytics, right?)

Keep in mind, none of these modalities are mutually exclusive, either from each other or with touch. They can easily be complementary, with the minimal goal of giving your users alternative modes of use.

Incorporate personal mobile devices

A crucial approach to consider is enabling your audience to use their mobile phone to interact with your digital content. Deployments remain interactive, but in a no-touch way that may not only comfort your users but encourage their use by lowering health-sensitive caution.

Remember QR codes? Lurking around the edge but never grabbing headlines, QR codes are going to make a comeback explicitly because they are the ideal glue connecting a mobile phone or tablet to digital content in physical places. (Another reason for their rise is that cameras on today’s latest mobile devices can automatically detect and process QR codes without having first to be manually configured by the user. The barrier to adoption is much lower.)

There are two primary scenarios involving personal mobile devices and QR codes:

1.  Content delivery from the public display to mobile devices: QR codes were conceived for this classic use case. QR codes embed a URL; that is their function. Scanning a QR code causes a phone or tablet to open the indicated webpage. Empower your audience to select the information they care about and take it with them. Limit the amount of interaction at the screen and let your users interact more deeply on their own time. A perfect way to get reuse out of existing web content.
2.  Remotely control digital content: Much more of a novel concept but achievable using any platform supporting web triggers. Here, the QR code opens a webpage constructed to control content visible on the screen. Permit content browsing, scene navigation, media engagement, and more using the phone or tablet as a remote control. It could be as simple as a few buttons linked to particular onscreen actions, or it could be as complex as your HTML5 heart desires. The content is on the larger screen, and your users are comfortably handling their personal devices for all interactions.

A niche but complementary use case for incorporating personal devices is contactless payment. The typical approach is use of mobile phones to broadcast credit/debit card information to a payment terminal. No physical interaction occurs, and all security protocols are enforced. The result is a touch-free purchase made with the wave of a phone. Concerned that not every shopper is comfortable with contactless payment? Revisit the use of QR codes to open a shopping cart on the consumer’s phone. That’s more work for the shopper but all from the safety of his/her device.

Imagine a digital deployment telling shoppers, visitors, employees that they can use their own phone to manipulate onscreen content. Couple that with GDPR and related security and privacy communication to ensure the integrity of interaction. Would audience members concerned with unknown levels of cleanliness and safety be intrigued? Absolutely.

Increase content personalization

We all recognize the utility of personalized digital content. Increased personalization leads to increased relevance and, thus, a greater incentive to participate. The content is for me alone, making it much more rewarding. From a business perspective, personalization makes content sticky, leading to more individual sessions, longer session time (aka dwell time), and more conversions.

There is another advantage to personalization, often overlooked. It’s a shortcut to the call to action, to the objective of the digital content.

The more personalized the content, the more quickly an individual can drive digital content to the intended finish line. To simplify, think of this in terms of the number of steps. Consider two kiosks, one using computer vision to identify gender and age range, another that is ignorant of its user. If properly constructed, which deployment will more quickly drive users to the most relevant content?

Notice, by the way, that “personalization” doesn’t necessarily have to mean unique for each individual. Age range and gender don’t tell me who the person is, but I still know a lot about who they are. And touch alternatives like RFID and speech recognition enable users to identify their preferences at the screen.

Content personalization is, of course, critical for touch-first deployments as well, but the proposal here is that the bar doesn’t have to be high. Many touch-alternative approaches still enable potentially high levels of customization that can minimize perceived health-risk activity while still leading to meaningful interaction.

Conclusion

We’re in the heart of an era-defining moment, one characterized by self-confinement and social distancing. These circumstances will have far-reaching effects on all types of human-human and human-machine interactions in physical spaces. The question is not if, but to what degree. Digital signage and other digital content deployments are going to be an early victim, or survivor, of these new demands.

The good news is there are a host of options for accommodating the anticipated new normal, and none of these approaches need to be exclusive. Touch-first content will evolve into touch-optional content. Touch alternatives will become natural complements and will, inevitably, lead to richer and more personalized experiences accessible through the medium of preference for each user. Give your audience a choice, and they will be more likely to engage.

Meanwhile, innovation continues. For example, some forward-thinking hardware providers are producing screens incorporating anti-microbial films. (Just be sure to do your homework to ensure they’re well-tested and validated.) Others are prepackaging touch-alternatives in anticipation of multi-mode use, not to mention providing low-cost sanitizer stations. The key is to stay abreast of what’s happening with technology and then applying creativity and sensitivity to make it real.

Adaptation is the key to survival, across species as well as across businesses and technologies. Tackle adaptation with passion and success can be within your reach.

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