The Digital Signage Insider

Video: Context, Attention Vampires and Your On-Screen Content

Published on: 2013-08-15

Continuing our project of converting our making great digital signage content series into YouTube videos, today's video wraps up the discussion on viewer psychology. So far, we've covered the basics of using mnemonic devices (and provided a bit of explanation about why some of them work), and talked about tricks for making messages that are easier to recall. Today, we're going to talk about how the viewer's context -- where they are, both physically and mentally, when they come in contact with your content -- can influence how people receive your messages, and what they decide to do with them.

Context and Attention Vampires

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Here's a transcript of the video

Whether you use digital signage to advertise, educate or inform, the content on your screens needs to connect with your viewers and deliver a clean, clear message. But as critical as content is to making a digital signage project a success, many still struggle to produce attractive, efficient segments to show on their screens.

Fortunately, making great digital signage content is as much science as it is art, and with a few simple tips and techniques you can supercharge bland, ineffective clips, making them into memorable, efficient delivery mechanisms for your messages.

And in these videos, we're going to show you how, one step at a time. Tip #3: Contextual Relevance and the Vampire Effect.

Context is important. Really important. And that's because a viewer's perspective and environment physically and psychologically alter the way they take in, comprehend and store information. Let's use the widely recognized skull and crossbones as an example. In a stockroom, pharmacy counter or even your medicine cabinet, a skull and crossbones will immediately equate to danger or poison for most people, thus they'll read the associated message primed with the fear and caution that goes along with that.

But at a theme park, movie store or other entertainment setting, the exact same symbol could easily be interpreted differently -- for example, as pirates -- and the viewer would be primed with a completely different set of feelings and emotions while receiving the rest of the message.

Because context has such a strong effect on how people perceive content, it's also important for visual designers to understand that certain images have far more contextual impact than others. We call these images "attention vampires", because they're able to draw far more of their fair share of attention, thus leaving less for other items.

For example, consider this pair of images, which was taken from a print advertisement for a high-end watchmaker. Although the watchmaker intended for most of the attention to be focused on the watch, as the visual tracking map on the right shows us, the watch did get some attention, but not as much as the people's faces.

Human faces are one of the most powerful attention vampires, as our brains have evolved over millions of years to give us the ability to quickly identify faces with just a few quick cues. Placing even a single image of a human in your content will result in attention being drawn away from other elements on your screen. This in turn means that your viewer will spend more cognitive effort decoding the faces than remembering your messages.

Another powerful attention vampire is imagery of babies. In fact, according to research firms GfK and PreTesting, images of babies and baby faces are the most effective attention vampires of all. While ads that utilize baby imagery as a central and essential part of their message can benefit from this, ads that do feature a baby's face but don't rely on it are at a disadvantage. Additionally, removing the baby context altogether can make for an unintelligible message when that message is baby related.

Now that we know a little about context and the vampire effect, how can we put these things to use?

To begin with, items that we're biologically programmed to notice draw attention away from other areas. This can be either advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on what the main thrust of our message is. When used improperly -- or accidentally -- attention vampires can divert attention away from the star of your content. But when used correctly, they can promote viewer attention in key areas. While this phenomenon exists in all media, glance media like digital signage are most susceptible.

If you've made it through these first three videos in our series on making great digital signage content, you should have a solid foundation in viewer psychology and mnemonics. In our next video, we'll be putting these skills to use as we discuss some tips and tricks for writing great digital signage copy.

If you'd like to take a deeper dive into today's topic, or if you'd like to learn more tricks about making great digital signage content, visit and do a search for "Making great digital signage content."

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