Encouraging User Interaction through Signage Design

Wu Duan, Xu Ran  

College of Design and Innovation, Tongji University, Shanghai, China


At Tongji University in Shanghai, the new College of Design and Innovation forms a multi-functional complex for college students and teaching staff. Opened in 2014, it was designed as a platform for promoting opportunities for dialogue, fostering design thinking, and triggering interaction between users and the environment. As part of the building design, a new signage program was developed and prototypes were utilized to test and encourage interaction with the signage design process. Within a framework of theoretical research, we chose three methods to test users’ interactive behavior and feedback: verbal communication, environmental visual stimulus, and peer education.

This paper examines how those methods could improve user engagement within the scope of the three-month-long prototype research. After the prototype and research process, relevant statistics were collected and analyzed.

The research project is at an early stage. The findings so far have led us to conclude that properly purposed research stimulus and the sequence of research phase can lead to a more dynamic, effective, and innovative user engagement in the design process.


Three new buildings comprise the primary site of the College of Design and Innovation at Tongji University, forming a multi-functional complex for college students, teaching staff, and administration staff. The new facilities were designed to—and appear to be effective in—promoting opportunities for dialogue, collective activities, fostering design thinking and behaviors, and triggering interaction between users and their environment. (Figure 1)

As part of the physical environmental design, it was important that new signage integrate the same spirit of design, globalization, innovation, foresight, and research. Along with interior design of the buildings, an improved systematic signage and wayfinding system is under installation. (Figure 2)

Based on these parameters, we designed a new set of doorplates [room identification signs] for the system (a total of 36), but left the design half-finished, with the intention of prompting users to interact with the signage and each other. We leave one segment of the signs for users to finish, encouraging them by leaving design clues on the template to trigger interaction. (Figure 3)

Since the doorplates were installed, we have conducted iterative observation of and interaction with users of the space. At the very beginning, there were few responses from users. This lack of response motivated us to research design processes and stimuli that could encourage user engagement. Using participatory action and user engagement theories as our foundation, we then conducted several interventions. In the meantime, we have been installing maps and informational and directional signage in the buildings to improve the wayfinding experience and the atmosphere of innovation and creation. At the end of the design and research process, relevant statistics were collected and analyzed.


The objectives of this research are as follows:

1. Identify ways to design the project so that users understand they are being asked to interact and participate in the design of the physical environment. Clues given to users in the initial phase of design were not clear, and needed to be modified.

2. Create a situation in which design propels user response or interaction with the physical design. User engagement in the second-phase of the research is distinguished from using and applying. User engagement in this project refers to the many ways in which more individuals can be brought into the whole process of design and then creating further interaction—essentially how users can be involved in developing further design complement. It is important to have realistic expectations about what these activities can achieve, and some of the associated challenges.

3. Reflect on the implementation phase of participatory design. In terms of service as a form of collaboration and participation, there are some collaborative encounters that should be taken into account: the phase of development in which the user innovations need to get support and to follow guidelines from designers and for how long it is required so as users can be autonomous and committed enough to take the initiatives further.


During the last several decades, increasing attention has been placed on the design process in terms of user engagement.

According to Davies and Simon (2013), user engagement and interaction in the design process can help ensure that users’ basic and potential needs can be fully identified and met. Designing solutions “with” and even “by” people rather than “for” and “at” them has become a mainstay of interaction design. (Davies and Simon, 2013) 1/


However, engagement activity in fields of design may not always achieve the particular outcomes expected. They tend to be contingent on the form and practice of the design activity and the context in which it is performed.
With the aim of breaking down the abstract concept of user engagement into something much more manageable, it is necessary to consider the following aspects of the engagement activities in a way that takes contextual factors into account:

1. Designing engagement activities with a particular outcome in mind, but still including an extra or additional benefit as a by-product of the process, such as:

–For designers, new perspectives on and a better understanding of specific challenges, together with more appropriate and better-targeted programs and responses, will be attained, and access to a greater diversity of ideas will benefit design activity.
–For users, increased confidence and skills, along with new and stronger networks and relationships will be created. In addition, this type of activity can produce a sense of ownership over actions and decisions taken among participants.

2. There are a few clear links between the practice of participation and the benefits it is supposed to deliver. And tracking the impact of participation is particularly challenging because many of its goals— such as “capacity for creativity” or “cohesion”—are often ill-defined and therefore difficult to measure or quantify. (Davies and Simon, 2013) 1/

3. Risks of failure in engagement activities should be taken into consideration: (Thorpe A, Gamman L, 2013) 2/

–Self-exclusion: Not everyone wants to take part in participatory processes. In developed contexts, self-perception and belief about one’s own place and role in a community seem to be an important factor in determining whether someone wants to take part in participatory activities.
–Risks of disengagement: Poorly practiced forms of engagement and negative experiences of participation can also create harm by making long-term disengagement more likely. (Manzini, 2015) 3/

4. In general, the following key factors should be thoroughly considered before involving users in the design process:

–Defining the significance as well as the purpose and function of the engagement activity, with the consideration of the context in which it operates
–Select the appropriate group of users for engagement, by considering the methods of stimulating participation and taking potential barriers to engagement into account
–Tolerating uncertainty and opening to the possibility of unexpected outcomes, both positive and negative.
–Managing users’ expectations effectively by conducting the project in such a way that participants will recognize when involving them in engagement activities
–Applying appropriate research methods and stimulus and considering quality of interaction, which all play pivotal roles in the whole design process


We used researched several methods to encourage participation and user interaction: verbal communication with users, environmental visual stimuli, peer education, reference case studies, and social media.

Verbal communication

In participatory design situations, the conversational behavior of the facilitator and the way in which a project is introduced and explained verbally tend to impact users’ ability to become engaged in the design process. Design occurs in conversation. The conversational skills of facilitation are useful in aiding designers and users engaged to better understand: facilitating workshops, commenting on any learning that occurs in a participatory situation. (Luck, 2007) 4/

A seamless, expert conversation, consisting of outlining the relevance to the users’ lives, can be effective in prompting a positive engagement in the discussion of the subject.

Verbally modifying and evaluating the merit of different design arrangements can also help users may become more engaged in the workshop, encouraging them to ask questions, state their preferences, or even suggest alternative approaches to rationalize their designs.

Environmental visual stimulus

Research in cognitive psychology and in design thinking has shown that the generation of inner representations in imagery and external representations via sketching are instrumental in design problem-solving (Goldschmidt and Smolkov, 2006).  /5 Designers think visually, thus, external visual representation of design in the designer’s working environment can be regarded as stimuli or prompts as strong cognitive resources.

Accidental features of the environment or random encounters with external stimuli might direct problem-solving in a particular direction. Creative and innovative thinking is most sensitive to environments that provide potential cues. Taking sketching in the environment as an example, it can be useful in leading to more creative results for those who are skilled in sketching in design problem-solving. (Figure 4)

In the whole design process, as designers exhibit opportunistic behavior in that they take advantage of anything in the work environment, creating conditions with cues suggesting useful that can potentially motivate the most effective design performance may benefit user engagement greatly.

D&I College, embedded with the idea of innovative thinking, is open for potential in its physical environment design, with the aim of fostering design thinking and behaviors. The college’s signage and wayfinding system is being developed gradually, including the doorplates, sharing a concise and abstract style that is well integrated into the space. And we designed these to spare space for development and engagement of users. (Figure 5)

Peer education

The D&I College complex appears to be fertile for promoting opportunities for dialogue, collective activities, and mentorship with peers among all disciplines and grades.

Despite embracing participatory design research approaches and co-design in the cur¬riculum, it has proven to be more effective at encouraging active listening, developing a two-way street for learning, and establishing trust among partners in the context of a real peer-to-peer participatory design process. According to Mariana Amatullo, to ensure the engagement experience is meaningful, methods should be taken to promote design skills and collaborative design approaches. /6

In comparison to those weaker in designing, students with advanced experience who are interested to learn more of the collaborative and participatory design processes will enthusiastically engage in, and will soon dominate by enabling themselves to provide significant peer-to-peer support. (Amatullo, 2012)

Reference cases as forms of facilitation
Designer as facilitator ought to enable collaboration between diverse users within the design process. Forms of facilitation within the co-design work as a “design device” that affords certain functions that open up “new ways of thinking and behaving,” facilitating delivery of public and collaborative services.

Representative case references working as forms of facilitation have proven to be helpful in improving independent thinking and analysis, as well as improving design problem-solving, thus creating reproduced knowledge or active knowledge.

Implantation of mobile media
Nowadays, implantation of social mobile media increases the viscosity of social audience and fosters the spread of information. Social mobile media are especially effective among young students due to the popularity of social media and educational or directive influence.


In the design process of the new set of doorplates, we leave one segment to users to finish by leaving design clues on the template (Figure 6). The doorplate is designed not only for those who use the room, but also for people who want to interact with the people inside. This template is a half-finished design, the upper part of which is the door number while the lower part is left blank. We designed it to be this way with the intention of prompting users to be better interacted with each other. In addition to engaging users into finishing the whole design, we conceive of promoting this interaction at a better level.

First-phase research
The first-phase design was installation of the unfinished doorplates and observation of the interaction between target users and the doorplates. Within two weeks, only two of the 36 doorplates were actually “used.” Thus, we conducted several conversations with different groups of users to determine their understanding of clues demonstrated on the doorplate. We discovered that some of the users found it to difficult to understand the clues, while others described their lack of understanding of the function. As a result, we needed to figure out what to blame for the lack of participatory action of user, as well as develop further research methods to “nudge” users to engage.

Second-phase research
In order to increase user engagement, we have conducted a series of design research methods: verbal communication, case reference, and instructional posters to test the effects of design-propelling methods.

Verbal interaction
Explain the material and special quality of the doorplate, and demonstrate the special design intention of the blank area.

We chose two groups of users: administrative staff who do not have design education backgrounds, and undergraduate students majoring in design belonging to 11 classrooms. We conducted iterative verbal interaction with each of these groups respectively. Users gave some immediate feedback on the functions and questions about the interaction content through this “window.” Two in the administrative user group were focused on functionality, and they responded instantly with some simple information, such as working hours. Some in the student group were more interested in our design intention, and they drew some graphic patterns along with unique information such as slogans. 

At the end of this step, two of the three tested administrative offices finally participated in the interaction by showing some office information. In the meantime, two of six tested classrooms have added unique characteristics to the design of the doorplates.

During this step, it was important to verbally develop users’ design ideas when they revealed their deep level of understanding of the design situation, which was interpreted as applying accomplished facilitation skills of encouragement. However, since the engagement is to some degree low, it is necessary to carry on other research methods to “nudge.”

Case reference
Engage users in creating several cases as reference.

We invited several design-learning students belonging to two respective classrooms, who had nothing in response to the first step, to participate in this step. These students got instructions on the intention of the doorplate design and were encouraged to participate. They separated into two groups, each for one classroom, discussing class spirits and their attitudes to design. Finally, they put information like “Multi funny guys—home for class three” onto the doorplate decorated by using different fonts and colors. (Figure 7)

The next day, the doorplates of two other classes besides the two tested classrooms presented new appearance with some humorous information. (Figure 8) One of the doorplates even got a bilingual instruction for turning lights off (the class consists of some foreign exchange students).

Instruction in the form of a poster
Put up a poster to instruct user interaction.

Based on the responses we received from the former interaction with users, we concluded that more information about the design intent might help encourage interaction: for example, what the doorplates are for, who will actually use them, how  to participate in the co-design, what will happen to it when the project is finished, and how to keep and promote it. We finally used the format of a poster to demonstrate the whole “journey” of the doorplate design, combining both text and graphics in this infographic instruction. (Figure 9)

We displayed the posters in strategic locations—the front door, the bulletin board, and the column beside classrooms. (Figures 10a-c) After observing for one week, we find that the bulletin board and column locations tended to be more appealing for people to stop and read.

Some users responded with a deep understanding of and interest in the interaction process. However, some expressed that the poster was to some extent complicated to follow. Furthermore, some users were intrigued but confused about the promotion and competition of their co-design process. As a result, we are seeking more appropriate promotion solutions.

Third-phase research
After conducting the first two physical research phases, from which engagement and responses were acquired, we are turning our research focus toward digital interaction and impacts of social media.

Disseminating information using public social media
We created a digital version of the instructional poster, together with an encouraging brief description document, and posted it as activity news on the D&I College. (Figure 11)  According to conversations among different groups of users, the most frequent visitors of this website homepage are administrative staffs, while students are the least likely to read it. Shortly afterwards, the poster and the document were distributed via two other popular social media, QQ group (an online public chatting platform) and WECHAT(publishing words and images or share articles or music and giving “comments” or “thumbs-up”). These two social media platforms play an important role in disseminating information especially among young students.

Rewarding and promoting design participation through public display
The moment a doorplate is fully designed or redesigned with the engagement of users, we take pictures or videos to record it. All the doorplates are categorized as: A—only functional/identification information; B—entertainment information; C—both functional/identification and entertainment information.

For the next phase of interaction within the broader community, digital versions of these doorplates will be uploaded onto the websites of colleges or spread via social media to share the design process and to collect responses from the audience. Our hypothesis is that creating a design “competition” within groups of users and engaging a wider audience should bring about encourage more positive participation and create a dynamic atmosphere of design communication and innovation. (Figures 12a-b)


Statistical data
During the design research process, we analyzed the statistical data generated in the sequence of research steps and compared the data collected from two groups of users—1) teachers and students with design backgrounds and 2) administrative staff members. (Figure 13)

As shown in Figure 13, doorplates of rooms for teachers and students with design education backgrounds far outnumbered those of administrative staff rooms. Meanwhile, the amount of the former group doorplates was on a steady rise. The number of doorplates co-designed by students or teachers showed a sharp increase while those co-designed by administrative staff showed little increase.

From this chart, the magnitude of the increase revealed a trend of fluctuations in different steps of research. In detail, user engagement increased steadily under the steps of verbal interaction and disseminating information using public social media; however, during the phase when case reference and instructional posters were implemented, as well as rewarding and promoting design participation through public display, user engagement was underwent a comparatively sharp increase.

A much higher proportion of doorplates co-designed by teachers and students incorporated both entertainment and functional information (13) than only functional information (3). Doorplates co-designed by administrative staff were more likely to contain only functional information.

Figure 14 diagrams the relationships among the three research phases and participation produced by the sequence of steps taken in each. In detail, user engagement increased gradually as the steps were executed. We witnessed the highest increased rate of participation in the second phase, with three different stimuli for promoting participatory actions.

As can be concluded from Figure 15, peer education, as a theory, actually has great impact on all the methods we used in the user participatory action research. Meanwhile, implantation of mobile media plays an increasingly significant role in triggering and promoting user actions.

From the diagram, a clear causality between methods in use and information types and user groups can be analyzed. Some methods, like case reference, only marginally triggered participatory actions among the groups (office staff) who do not have design backgrounds, while  social media promoted user engagement profoundly for both groups.


We have significantly modified the design of the project since the initial research phase. Users were confused by the instructions conveyed during the basic-phase design, but after the three research phases, the doorplates are improved in both design as well as the panel material. Especially for paces such as administrative offices and the dean’s office, an official title of the space is essential for all users. For other spaces like labs or classrooms, we added a relatively small title for the space, but left a blank area for users to engage in the co-design process. (Figure 16)

After the modification of the design itself, we are continuing iterative observation and recording how users are engaging within the co-design process. User engagement in this project has already proven to create further interaction—essentially showing how users can be involved in developing further design refinements and how users’ feedback can actually improve the design. Meanwhile, we are still improving and modifying guidelines both for user interaction and the criteria we use to conduct the research itself.


As implementation of user engagement research in the design process gains momentum, academic-based researchers must work toward facilitation of this research.

The research of user engagement in co-design of a new set of doorplates is still in progress, and we are continuously conducting observation and data-collection for the follow-up study. The research, data, and findings set out in this paper have led us to conclude that properly and purposed research stimulus and the sequencing of research phases can lead to a more dynamic, effective, and innovative user engagement in the co-design process.

However, some of the final data and findings went beyond our expectations. We found that in this process, peer education is helpful for almost all the phases. This could be a positive reference for future research involving user interaction. At the same time, our statistics have shown that the differences in participatory actions between two user groups in this research actually have profound impact on the final result, and due to less attention to behavior and thinking patterns by the users without design backgrounds, only a few useful responses were collected from this group.

Generally, positive feedback collected from users is suitable for guiding a future design process and interaction with users, and can be of great significance and value to the study of user interaction in co-design and service design.

About the author
Dr. Wu Duanis an associate professor of environmental design at the College of Design & Innovation, Tongji University, Shanghai. She is a leader and co-founder of Public Design LAB in Tongji and leads the environmental graphic design studio at the Tongji Tiandi Institute of Art & Design Innovation.


1. Davies A, Simon J. Engaging citizens in social innovation: a short guide to the research for policy makers and practitioners, 2013.

2. Thorpe A, Gamman L. Learning together: students and community groups co-designing for carbon reduction in the London Borough of Camden, 2013.

3. Manzini E. An introduction to design for social innovation: collaborative encounters. Design, when everybody designs, 2015.

4. Luck R. Learning to talk to users in participatory design situations. Design Studies, 2007.

5. Goldschmidt G, Smolkov M. Variances in the impact of visual stimuli on design problem solving performance Faculty of Architecture & Town Planning, Design Studies, 2006. Technion e Israel Institute of Technology, Israel. Haifa 32000.

6. Amatullo M. The Teen Art Park Project: participatory design tools for envisioning public spaces for artistic expression, 2012.


1. Entrance to D&I College
2. Interior environment of D&I College
3. Doorplates inside the space
4. Sketches and signage on the wall
5. Maps of complex educational buildings
6. Prototype of the doorplate template
7. Designers give cases as reference.
8. Users takes others’ doorplates as case references.
9. The poster was designed to instruct user engagement.
10. (a-c) Three sites were chosen to display the posters.
11. The poster was posted as activity news on the website homepage of D&I College.
12.  Ways to encourage more interaction and create an atmosphere of innovative design
13. Data collected from users in the sequence of research steps
14. Relationships among the three research phases and sequence of each step
15. Connections between theory support and methods in use, causality between methods in use and information types and user groups
16. Improvement of the doorplate design