Human-Focused Wayfinding Strategy at Texas Children's Hospital

Lauded by the 2016 SEGD Global Design Awards jury as a "true example of a human-focused project," Formation's (Houston) assessment of the existing conditions and user satisfaction with wayfinding at Texas Children's Hospital established an alternative reading of the hospital's “sensory landscape” where recommended changes to the wayfinding system would use color, form, texture, pattern, structure, sign elements and landmark interventions to help travelers intuitively negotiate a very complex campus—and do more. The project won the firm a 2016 SEGD Merit Award. What else sets this project apart from others?

For one thing, the hospital needed to ultimately achieve measureable improvements to their patients' and visitors' experiences with Texas Children's specific to wayfinding. Motivated by changes to reimbursements brought about by the Affordable Care Act that tied payments to performance, the hospital had learned they scored poorly in patient experience with wayfinding when benchmarked against a national database of peer facilities. That status could cost the hospital millions of dollars a year. Formation's Project Principal Philip LeBlanc says, "To seek solutions to their wayfinding challenges that would improve their ratings and thus their reimbursements, they sought a firm that would take a Design Thinking approach. Once engaged, we undertook an immersive approach to our quantitative and qualitative research into the patient and user experience, provided the sort of analysis of the situation and proposed alternative possible solutions that are the core of Design Thinking." Both Formation and Texas Children's believed this was the only appropriate perspective to take.

Formation's emotional connections to the project are another notable aspect that set it apart from what might seem like similar work. In considering the nomination of Texas Children's Wayfinding Research and Assessment for the SEGD Merit Award, the jury noted how the team's narrative tied wayfinding research to personal experience and emotional impact. On past children's hospital projects, Formation got insights from groups like Administration, Family Advisory Committees or Child Life. "Here we took an approach that was very direct," says Philip LeBlanc. "We rode in cars with patient families and walked with them on their routes through the campus and the building. We spoke with parking valets, volunteers and nurses.  We got incredible insights from people who know the hospital intimately.  We heard one mother’s dismay at having her child with a compromised immune system discharged and held in an area with other sick children. We heard other mothers suggest a buddy system partnering people who are there regularly (and many patient families, unfortunately, are) with newcomers."  As a result, Formation's report touched on more aspects of the patient experience than just wayfinding.  

Some of Formation’s major findings—because they spoke to people directly­—were that landmarks are very important in helping people navigate a complex hospital environment, that people who are there regularly find shortcuts through the complex, and that regulars know places that create comfort, familiarity and a sense of normalcy—like the library or quiet seating areas—that are not even identified in the wayfinding system. Formation's insights will help Texas Children's make better decisions about removing an aquarium, for instance, or a distinct piece of art and including special areas and not just departments in the wayfinding signage. Since they submitted their description of their Texas Children's Hospitalproject to the SEGD Global Design Awards, the hospital is moving toward adopting some of Formation's ideas and proposals for improving the patient experience that was part of their research and assessment report.  

The report itself is a distinctive element of the project that sets it apart from others. System Wayfinding Assessment & Recommendations reads like a photo-documentary because of Formation's inclusion of photos illustrating the detailed written descriptions of specific conditions, and photos of the people whose verbatim statements illustrate users’ needs. The report thus became a very powerful and engaging tool for Texas Children's executives. "We were given feedback," says LeBlanc, "that let us know they thought the report was revolutionary. The personalization of the research—that these are real children, real families—puts real power behind the problems and perceptions they share. The report helped hospital leadership get beyond 'how they've been doing things forever' and move into a new era of doing things guided by well-researched and measurable understandings of user experience.”

Leblanc thinks Formation's work, as exemplified by this Texas Children's project, has potential to influence others in experiential graphic design, not just those whose practices are predominantly in wayfinding. Formation's Design Thinking approach to achieving a broad understanding of what was needed, their immersive research and analysis surrounding the patient experience, within a quantifiable and qualifiable report to administration, is resulting in implementable projects that are much broader in scope and more experiential than those we traditionally think of as wayfinding. 

Clearly, LeBlanc's success with this project can be applied to other types of projects that affect people's experience. "The essence of our work is not about wayfinding per se, it is about uncovering and understanding the real user problems our clients face and finding meaningful ways to do something about it. I hire people into my firm who are in alignment with that value system.  In the case of this project, it was particularly gratifying and touching for my entire team that we were able to make a difference within a culture and environment like Texas Children's Hospital." 


Design Firm: Formation

Client: Texas Children’s Hospital

Project Area: 4.9 million sq. ft.

Project Budget: $100,000

Design Team: Philip LeBlanc (principal) ; Lauren Serota (research lead); Mandy LeBlanc (research assistant); Daren Guillory (design director); Tyler Swanner, Erich Theaman (designers); Dan Samora (Texas Children’s Hospital liaison)

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