Lost? Ask Me.

Blogger: Jeff Zoll, Wayfinding + Signage Design Lead | Princeton, NJ, USA
May 07, 2015

Designing for a new healthcare facility is always exciting. Our wayfinding + signage team works closely with the entire design team to get a clear understanding of their goals and vision for the circulation of patients, visitors, and staff. This vision forms the backbone of a fresh new wayfinding strategy.

But a good share of our work involves identifying issues and providing solutions for wayfinding in existing facilities.

To get an understanding of these ongoing issues, we meet with staff, patient advocates, volunteers, and security in large group meetings and small focus groups. These meetings provide us with a wealth of information about the issues. We hear it all: not enough signs, too many signs, inconsistent messaging, out-of-date information on websites, etc. Unfortunately, the information gathered is often “tainted.” For example, staff members influence each other’s opinions. Patients and visitors, recalling experiences they had weeks or months ago, forget details and remember things differently.

This is where the intercept interview comes in. As its name suggests, this type of interview is meant to intercept the interviewee during their experience. This way, the data—and emotions—are fresh.

To get in position for intercept interviews, we ask the hospital to send out an email to all staff, letting them know that for two or three days, several people in (HDR) red polo shirts will be walking and driving around the facility, interviewing staff, visitors, volunteers, and patients about their wayfinding experience. Then several members of our wayfinding team begin surveying the exterior and interior wayfinding in every corner of the facility. Armed with our clipboards and “Lost? Ask Me” nametags, we approach various people for intercept interviews.

Here’s how it works. First, we record information on time of day and location as well as demographic information about the interviewee. Then gauge their stress level using a simple chart. Once this baseline information has been gleaned, we ask specific questions about the wayfinding system in the facility. Since interview information is kept anonymous, even the staff is very open about issues they have recognized. To get a good cross-section of information, our goal is to conduct between 30 and 40 intercept interviews.

When we are finished with our interviews, we go back and crunch the data. Our final deliverable is a printed User Experience Assessment, detailing our findings and recommendations. Though most hospitals are convinced they know what their wayfinding issues are, we consistently uncover new issues and different priorities. For instance, one of our clients told us their main wayfinding issue was that their signage was not visible enough. What we found was that their wayfinding system was so dysfunctional that most users had abandoned and went straight to asking directions from staff members. In our assessment, we cited a study by Zimring that estimated the cost of confusion in a large regional hospital to be almost $400,000 annually, much of which was in the hidden cost of staff time spent giving directions (4,500 hours—the equivalent of more than two full-time employees).*

This data helps to prove the value of this type of exercise. Although this is a new method for our group, some of our recommendations have already been implemented and proven effective. Even the clients who have not been able to implement any of our recommendations yet have been very thankful. This is backed up by their recommendations of HDR to other hospital systems and facilities.

*Study was conducted in 1990 by Zimring. Study took place at Emory Hospital – a 604-bed hospital. $400,000 number is adjusted for inflation in 2013; the original 1990 number was $220,000.

Image courtesy of HDR

Reader Comments (2)

Thanks for this blog, Jeff! Very interesting. Love the idea of the intercept interviews to capture very valuable information. I wonder if there are differences in what folks look for in signage and wayfinding, depending on their age? For example, younger folks looking for apps, gps, electronic data and older folks looking for maps, signs, and maybe ask staff for directions.

Thanks Kim. Yes, the intercept interviews are great. Any chance to interact directly with patients and visitors is a treat. We've traditionally had access to staff, but only got their side of the story. In terms of differences between people and their wayfinding preferences, there is definitely a generational trend. The Silent Generation(1925-1945) usually bypass the signage altogether and ask a staff member or volunteer where to go. Many are jaded from past (unfavorable) experiences and don't trust the signage. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers(1946-1979 inclusive) seem to use the signage and only ask for help if they are still having trouble. Millenials(1980-2000) use a combination of signage and electronics/apps. For this reason, we often have three modes grouped in the same area. In a recent project we have a touchscreen wayfinding monitor and static directory sign in close proximity to the reception desk(warm body/volunteer). The challenge for us is to make the signage elements so good(a combination of design, placement, and message) that everyone will use them. Although current smart phone-based navigation apps are popular and effective, the side effect is that users are walking around with their heads down looking at their phones. This is not only dangerous, but the opposite of what we want in a facility we have taken so much time to design. That problem may be solved when the ultimate google glass-type device is perfected and becomes ubiquitous. Wayfinding messages could be streamed right in front of your eyes without obscuring your view, or you could follow a virtual guide to your destination. That experience/interface still needs to be designed by people that understand human factors and wayfinding, so it won’t spell the end of what we do - just a new medium.

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