Murphy’s Law holds true even for digital signage: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. So, it’s best to identify potential vulnerabilities at the very start of a digital signage project, and make contingency plans. Service contracts with Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are a good way to ensure that a signage network will continue run as scheduled.
Because many systems integrators are now offering managed services, we are seeing fewer occurrences of the dreaded blank screen and digital noise or “snow” on display screens in malls and other public spaces. Although power supply and connectivity have typically been causes of downtime, as newer technologies continue to be deployed, failure of a single component or a simple user error may, increasingly, be the source of disruptions.
During the past year, we have seen rollouts of kiosks in large numbers at retail banks and at quick-service restaurants (QSRs). Although there has been euphoria in the AV industry about the expanded use of digital technologies, some customers are not as exuberant. One bank branch manager told me that, although its new ATM system, which includes a signage screen and other technologies, is state of the art, the method for fixing a jammed-up kiosk is antiquated. He said a branch staff member has to complete a form and submit it to the internal department that, in turn, submits it to the service contractor, which then dispatches a field tech to get things rolling again.
At a QSR kiosk in a service station along Route I-95, a printed sign encouraged travelers to “skip the line” by using the kiosk to quickly “order, pay, pickup.” But the LCD screen displayed this message: “There is a problem with the printer. Please contact a member of staff.” Staff members had no time to address the problem because they were busy filling orders from an ever-growing queue of customers.
Kiosks may present unique issues, especially when proof of completion of a transaction is a paper receipt, not digital. When a problem cannot be fixed remotely, it is necessary to train and empower the staff on duty to solve it quickly. Otherwise, the advanced technology can damage customer relationships instead of boosting the bottom line.
A large number of digital signage projects involve flatpanel LCDs with local or onboard media players. It is becoming easier to install and integrate digital signage components, but it is important to realize that Murphy’s Law can prevail at any point during routine operations. For example, on a recent project that features 4K LCD flatpanels, artifacts (random white dots) were noticed on the screens. When 4K HDBaseT cables were installed, the pixel error was eliminated.
“From my vantage point, the most common technical problems arise from network configuration issues such as firmware/software mismatch, version upgrades and simple user errors that create system issues,” noted Brannon Bourland, Director of Marketing and Communications for Facility Solutions Group (FSG), who is responsible for the company’s 80-screen digital signage network. In addition, Bourland’s team provides support for FSG’s technology sales team by training customers and troubleshooting the customer’s digital signage system along with FSG’s technology sales services team.
“When it comes to resolving issues, we start with the network first, making sure the configurations were done properly and that the ports, IP addresses, DNS addresses, etc., are all correct and as the customer requested,” Bourland stated. His team then checks to make sure firmware and software versions align and are current as of the date of the completion of the project. “This can be tricky because the technology is always evolving and firmware seems to be updated almost weekly with some manufacturers,” he said.
If the issue was generated by a user error, the solution may require clearer, step-by-step instructions for the end user, and even some diplomacy with the customer. Bourland suggests that going back to the contract is a good starting point. “If they paid for training, then we make sure they get the training they need to get what they want out of the system. If they didn’t contract for training, we will usually work with them to cover some basics and at least get them started, then evaluate on a case-by-case basis as they encounter issues.” Reflecting on troubleshooting jobs, Bourland said, “I’ve had some clients that I can spend a day with and they are off and running with no more issues, while others call in once or twice a quarter and pay for four to eight hours of over-the-phone or in-person training, because they did something wrong and crashed their digital signage system.”
No matter who or what causes a problem with a digital signage system, it should be the goal of the industry professionals involved to make sure the system is up and running again, and does what the client wants it to do. Sometimes that success requires frank discussions from the start, regarding potential problems and maintenance costs. It is important to establish and maintain customer confidence in our evolving AV-IT technologies and our ability to provide systems and solutions that work. After all, to paraphrase the famous blues lyric, “When things go wrong, it hurts us all.”