The Public Push & Pull

It’s no secret that there’s been a rapid deployment of ever more screens and displays in public places recently. They’re popping up everywhere, a lot for DOOH advertising and plenty for public information displays and kiosks of various types. It feels like there is a lot of band-wagon jumping going on, and that it’s time to really think this through, because sometimes screens and displays in public spaces really make sense, and sometimes they really don’t.

Here’s the thing — truly public info, the kind that everybody needs access to in public place, needs to be scaled for multiple users and it needs to be delivered in a “push” format, with no action required by the user.
That doesn’t preclude traditional approaches for content that’s constant and static, such as signage or printed panels. They fit into the broad category of push nicely, and for truly unchanging content, they really are the best choice. When the content is dynamic and changing though, screens really start to make sense as a push medium in public spaces. A great example is the video departures/arrivals feed at the airport. Delivery is 100% push, so the display is completely democratic, and no one person can freeze the screen on flights to Pittsburgh. With a bit of patience, everybody gets what they need, and they can feel that the info is as current as is available.

Screens and displays can also make sense for delivering personal-interest information in public spaces. This is where the “pull” model takes over, and interactivity begins. The most familiar example of this is the ubiquitous ATM machine. ATMs are unquestionably public, but they can only be used by one person at a time. The kind of transaction that they facilitate is absolutely personal and interactive, but they’re public, not personal devices. The same holds true for pretty much any public-access information kiosk.

Screens and displays run into problems when they try to adapt a pull approach to public-interest information in a public setting, particularly when the display is scaled for multiple users. The trouble starts once there’s more than one user — if each can control the content, then only one person at a time is going to be happy. This problem has persisted in museum environments for years, with videos that offer choices of clips and languages that are imposed upon others by the person with their finger on the button.

Where pull does make sense is when the major message has been delivered in a push mode at a multi-user scale, but there is potential to drill deeper into the details or engage more personally with the content. This is the point where the public becomes personal and when pull starts making sense, but again, only if scaled for individual use.

Anybody who’s read this blog at all will know that I’m a huge fan of the multi-touch interface. I think it’s a more natural and intuitive way to interact with computers and it brings a higher level of connection if the content and context is right. It’s a more intimate and engaging interface. But it’s also an intensely pull-based, one-person experience that is definitely not appropriate for all purposes. Let’s use pull-based media where they enrich experiences, and avoid them where they will only please the one, and frustrate the many.

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