FM Articles

People Get Lost: Effective Wayfinding Can Fix That


By their nature, healthcare and educational campuses are complex. And this complexity is growing as patients, students and lifelong learners seek out more dispersed and diverse service offerings. Access to your institution can happen in so many ways, using so many tools; it is easy for someone to get lost—so how do you proactively plan for this challenge? The answer is simple: start a team.

Anyone who has ever been lost will tell you they were frustrated, especially if there was something they were not told or could not understand. Any part of a visitor’s experience can potentially go wrong: A pre-visit letter with an outdated map. Construction that blocks a primary roadway. Showing up at the wrong building, when the appointment is half a mile away.

Missing a sign while driving.

While Facility Management professionals have specific responsibilities relative to the physical environment, these examples illustrate that the informational environment is equally critical to helping visitors navigate. But information management is not likely a part of your job description, unless we are talking signage updates. It is important to understand why this should be a priority for you, and how you can proactively build a team to fix this.

“Wayfinding” is a design discipline that merges information with the built environment. Its foundation is the logic of your physical space, which typically puts responsibility solidly in your court. But we know that wayfinding information is shared in many different ways by the language used across your organization to give directions. This language can be as varied as each person that shares it. Thoughtfully designed, a wayfinding system simplifies the logic of physical space and provides clear language for direction giving.

By providing consistent, simplified direction to people as they plan and carry out their visit, you build an interconnected system of communications that empowers visitors to navigate your campus, complete their task(s) and return home. A better experience leads to positive perceptions, positive word of mouth and ultimately return visits. In healthcare, this can impact HCAHPS scores and potential reimbursements; in higher education, it can be a big factor in a family’s decision for their incoming freshman to apply. Does a positive or negative wayfinding wayfinding experience impact your bottom line? Absolutely.

People find their way based on three things: what they know, what they perceive, and what they are told. Here is an illustration from a typical visitor’s perspective:

Charlotte is referred to her local health system’s lab for a battery of tests after her annual physical. She has been told by her family doc that she has a potentially concerning condition. Based on previous visits, she feels confident that she knows where to go; as she rides the bus to campus, she is trying hard to push the worst-case scenario out of her mind.

She arrives on campus and walks to an entrance she has used before, lab instructions in hand. Pressed for time, she skips the information desk and walks to the hallway where the lab is—or was? Now she is on her own, so she looks for some sign that might tell her where it went. There is none. Retracing her steps, she waits in line and is told that the lab has been relocated to the other side of the building and across a busy street. Her stress skyrockets: not only is this taking much longer that she had planned, but no one gave her the correct information in the first place. How was she supposed to know?Wayfinding

Charlotte should have been told in advance, providing the knowledge that the lab had moved, leading to the correct perception in the environment. Siloed decision-making and a lack of internal continuity are responsible for this disconnect. The opportunity to fix this lies in an understanding of two related perspectives: Charlotte’s, and that of your Wayfinding Team.

Charlotte has a linear perspective of her journey. Let us briefly review the steps:

  1. Listen: She heard her diagnosis and understood that she needed testing.
  2. Prepare: She received instructions from her family doc to go to the health system lab, which she assumed was in the same location. She planned her bus route and time.
  3. Arrive: She left her home to ride to campus, and entered a building.
  4. Engage: She got turned around, asked for help, walked to the new location and eventually had the labs done.
  5. Depart: She walked back to the stop, re-checked a bus schedule and got home much later than she had planned (she was not happy, and told her Facebook friends about it).

As a Facility Manager, you need to have an orbital perspective of her journey. Because your goal is to give Charlotte a better experience next time, your Wayfinding Team needs to work together to support the informational infrastructure that failed her. It was not Charlotte’s job to know that the lab had moved; it was your collective responsibility to make sure the information was correct, and the environment prepared, for her visit.

When a change like this occurs, there should be a domino effect:

—Operations decides to move the lab;

—Facilities plans the move, and updates wayfinding signage accordingly;

—Corporate Communications updates:

  • The public Website and mobile app;
  • Mapping for printed or online communications;
  • Information shared with referring physicians;
  • Outbound messaging to the general public, in a variety of media, in advance of the move and after it has happened.

—Information Technology updates:

  • The staff Intranet and physician Extranet;
  • Information available to Central Scheduling;
  • Any relevant billing systems or EMR software.

—HR notes the change in an email newsletter to all staff, and provides managers with the information to share with their reports, and

—Volunteer Services reminds their people as they show up for their shifts.

As we have noted, most of this falls outside of your job description. By starting a multidisciplinary Wayfinding Team, you share tasks across the organization and can anticipate the changes required as they occur. As you can see, a networked internal effort such as this will complete the orbit so that next time Charlotte (or someone like her) arrives you will be ready.

Wayfinding, then, is as much a cultural change as it is a physical one. It is the outgrowth of a culture focused on a positive visitor experience and positive brand perceptions. It requires well-designed standards, discipline, internal coordination, ongoing funding and the administrative backing to proactively respond to change. Most importantly, it requires an organizational awareness of what “wayfinding” entails, how it works, and how it can help your visitors. That is where you come in.

Everyone within your organization will, at some point, have responsibility for wayfinding, whether designing a new brochure, writing a press release, updating a database, training a new volunteer or helping a student find their way to class. As a Facility Management professional, you have an opportunity to build an internal team, lead the effort to identify each potential communication with your visitors, and cover the gaps that cause people to get lost.

By taking charge of both your organization’s physical and informational infrastructures, you will ensure that Charlotte is much happier next time. And that her Facebook friends hear about it.

Mark VanderKlipp is the president of Corbin Design. Mark is a 1987 graduate of the University of Michigan and in 2012 achieved EDAC certification from the Center for Health Design.