Can Indoor Signs Keep Up With Occupants?

Gulshan Arora
Co-founder, COO

Let’s talk about an important part of our built environment — signage!

More specifically, let’s spend a little time considering indoor informational signs that we engage with on a regular basis. These signs aim to serve a powerful purpose — help the facility provide a great occupant experience.

For this post, we’ll be taking the perspective of a particular occupant — a visitor who is unfamiliar with a space — to explore the role that signs play in our experience. Additionally, while information desks and helpful citizens are often available to lend a hand, this post will assume the occupant must entirely depend on signage. Excluding these variables allows us to isolate signage and investigate just how well it can support a self-service experience.

Let’s ground the discussion by considering the typical signs in use. If we take a commercial building as an example, the first sign we are likely to run into is a directory in the lobby, along with a “you are here” map providing the name and location of the tenants. A quick scan of the lobby may reveal other common signs — restrooms, elevators, staircases, room nameplates, message boards, and fire exits. As you make your way through the building, you’re likely to see all of these signs again, often concentrated in high-traffic areas.

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While a commercial building served as an example, many — if not all — of these signs translate across a variety of facilities, like airports, apartment buildings, shopping malls, hotels, and university facilities. Now that we have established a set of commonly used signs, let’s explore how they influence the experience of an occupant.

It might sound silly to say, but nobody goes to a building to read the directory — they need that information to find their final destination. Signs are often a critical part of our journey. As occupants, we use these signs to help us accomplish specific goals. These goals usually involve us trying to find something or someone. Generally speaking, the faster we can achieve our goal, the better the experience.

Knowing this, how well do signs work in delivering a positive occupant experience?

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Let’s place ourselves in a shopping mall at 1 pm. We are really hungry and in need of lunch! If we’re in close proximity to a food court, an easily discoverable sign identifying the food court does the job in addressing the need. Hooray — we quickly found a meal! Now, let’s say we’re really hungry, but not near a food court. We would likely start by looking for a “you are here” map and use it to chart a path, carefully filing away the turns and floor changes to make. As we make our journey, we will look for additional signs to help keep us on the right track until we make it to the food court. A more complicated scenario than the first, but our goal was ultimately achieved. Took a little longer than we’d like, but we’re eating! Finally, let’s take the same scenario and add a few new wrinkles. Our desired destination is the food court only if it has a Mexican restaurant that is currently open (it is Tuesday, after all). Achieving this goal is simply not feasible using typical signage, leading to perhaps a disappointing experience — no tacos for us! :-/

When it comes to enhancing the occupant experience, signage provides a partial solution. If the need is a simple point of identification, like in the case of a nearby food court or restroom, they work pretty well. As our goal gets more complicated, like in the case of the food court further away, signs can become an overwhelming network of information we have to piece together. As noted by the authors of Signage by Design: A Design-Thinking Approach to Library User Experience:

“…signage can be problematic, revealing tensions between various stakeholders, and contributing to visual noise through information overload”.

The quality of our experience is heavily dependent on how simple it was to find and use the necessary information. Not hard to see why many tend to avoid unfamiliar places. When our goal gets specific, like in the search for an open Mexican restaurant, it’s simply unrealistic to expect signage to address the need. It’s too specific, and it’s probably competing with other information that is useful to a broader audience.

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Did you see it?

These multi-criteria searches, though, do exist as something occupants solve on a daily basis. Non-digital signage may be able to provide a prompt, but it lacks the sophistication to bi-directionally communicate with the occupant. What if it could? What if a sign wasn’t just a physical information placeholder, but also a digital gateway to local services like a directory, directions, issue reporting, reviews, promotions and check-ins on your mobile device? What if you could bring that information with you as you walk away from the sign? And how would this work? If the facility owner’s ultimate goal is to enhance the occupant experience, these use cases are opportunities to connect.

Signage serves as the connective tissue of the spaces we occupy. They are the standard by which we identify people, places, and things. As our needs and capabilities grow beyond simply receiving this information, is it an opportunity to incorporate signage into our digital experiences? Could we gracefully transition our signage into the modern era? There’s a balance we need to hit — leverage existing infrastructure while controlling costs.

How would you like to see your space transition to a better experience for tenants? We’d love to have that conversation. Also, be sure to follow us for more updates on what we learn.


Content originally published by outer labs

August 15, 2019

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