Display blindness

An environment dominated by screens has led to display blindness, where we switch off to both advertising and useful information

By Sarah Clinch, Research Associate at Lancaster University

The last few years have seen the rapid rise of digital signage in shopping centres, train stations and other public spaces. Universities in particular have seen the potential for communicating with staff and students across dispersed buildings and campuses – channelling institution information, calendars of events, news and successes. However, despite a growth in the use of information screens, there is an increasing sense that viewers are getting better at ignoring both the displays and the content that they show.

Researchers at Motorola Labs and Aachen University spent 10 months recording how much time passers-by spent looking at typical public displays. Their work was carried out in a wide variety of contexts, including stores, transport hubs, banks, a museum and cafés, in three cities in Europe and focused on 40–50” LCD and plasma displays. What they found was that people looked at displays for a very short period of time – less than one or two seconds in the average case. Just as interestingly, passers-by were found to be far more likely to look at more traditional non-digital displays (e.g. posters, merchandise arrangements) than they were a digital display [1].

Using the term ‘display blindness’, researcher Dr. Jörg Muller draws a parallel with web advertising and how people surfing the web regularly develop ‘banner blindness’, an ability to effectively tune-out adverts on web pages. In practice, display blindness causes two significant problems: for advertisers and screen owners it means that their expensive display deployments are not being used to effectively communicate the desired messages, while for passers-by it means that the opportunity to view interesting and relevant information is lost.

One approach to combatting display blindness in universities is to use digital signage to deliver personalised content that is targeted to the individual or group stood in front of a display. For example, a viewer passing the display may see personalised advertising, customised news feeds, or even tailored notifications for upcoming appointments or travel plans. These personalised messages can be compared to the type currently shown on smartphones by systems such as Google Now. In our research at Lancaster University we call this use of digital signs ‘display appropriation’ and have identified three distinct models of behaviour by people [3].

In walk-by personalisation, a display responds to the presence of a passing user by showing content designed to be relevant to them. By contrast, longitudinal personalisation sees the preferences of a population of users shape the overall shift of programming for displays in a geographic area; finally, active personalisation allows a viewer to actively engage with a display, making a deliberate decision to appropriate a display to access a specific item of content (and potentially to interact with it).                            

As an example of active appropriation we have been exploring the concept of ‘display foraging’ in which viewers can use digital signage as a large display to overcome the small screen size of their mobile devices [4].

The team has developed a prototype system that allows viewers themselves to ‘forage’ for displays and decide the content that appears on a screen. By planning ahead of time which applications they wish to use, viewers can exactly specify the arrangement of content to be shown. That way, when approaching a display ‘in the wild’, viewers can use their smartphone to call up their prepared personal content screens. In this way, anyone with a mobile phone could temporarily appropriate a public screen (at a railway station, airport, hotel lobby, hospital, post office queue, city park or square etc) for their own use – showing the information that they want to see, whether that’s a map, news or the weather. Personal ‘guest’ material could have a fixed slot alongside the standard information displayed.

Supporting display appropriation is not just a technical problem. Current deployments are tightly controlled by their owners and managers – getting an individual’s content onto screens in public spaces requires support from a range of stakeholders including display owners and potential viewers. Conducting a series of studies with key stakeholders involved in their campus display deployment, Lancaster’s researchers have been exploring the acceptability of their display foraging system.

Results from the studies suggest that both viewers and display owners react positively to display foraging. Display viewers made numerous suggestions for applications they would like to see on displays, and discussion from design workshops showed that they could see themselves using the technology regularly.
Display owners typically agreed that allowing display foraging would improve deployed displays. None of the display owners expected viewers to pay for using the display – anticipating value from other areas such as reputational improvements or viewers spending extra time in a space.

Support for display appropriation is just one way in which future display deployments might offer more value in order to overcome display blindness. Researchers from the European PD-NET project [2] have proposed that by connecting together existing display deployments and opening them up to new forms of content, digital signage could be transformed into a new and engaging communications medium. In much the same way that connecting together networks of computers created the internet and world wide web, open networks of displays could provide a valuable platform for innovative display applications and content.



1. Elaine M. Huang, Anna Koster, and Jan Borchers. 2009. Overcoming Assumptions and Uncovering Practices: When Does the Public Really Look at Public Displays? In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive ’08).
2. Jörg Müller, Dennis Wilmsmann, Juliane Exeler, Markus Buzeck, Albrecht Schmidt, Tim Jay and Antonio Krüger. 2009. Display Blindness: The Effect of Expectations on Attention towards Digital Signage.

In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Pervasive Computing (Pervasive ’09).
3. Nigel Davies, Marc Langheinrich, Sarah Clinch, Ivan Elhart, Adrian Friday, Thomas Kubitza and Bholanathsingh Surajbali. 2014. Personalisation and privacy in future pervasive display networks. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI ’14).
4. Sarah Clinch, Nigel Davies, Thomas Kubitza and Adrian Friday. 2014. Ownership and Trust in Cyber-Foraged Displays. In Proceedings of The International Symposium on Pervasive Displays (PerDis ’14).

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