Solving the Healthcare Wayfinding Puzzle with Research and Empathy

[A Conversation with Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD]

With a background in human factors and cognition as well as design, Virginia Gehshan, FSEGD,has directed Cloud Gehshan Associates’development of wayfinding systems for numerous healthcare facilities, college campuses, park systems and cities. CGA’s practice is founded on a user-focused approach that employs rigorous research and analysis, a methodical design process and the recognition that signs are just one of many physical expressions of a brand or place.

Gehshan will headline SEGD’s 2016 Wayfinding Event April 14-15 in Miami with her presentation on “Human Factors and the Foundations for Building a User-Centered Experience.” She’ll focus on insights gained in 30 years of wayfinding program development, including recent projects for Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Thomas Jefferson University and Hospitals, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center, The University of Chicago Medicine, University of Rochester Medical Center, Weill Cornell Medical College, Geisinger Medical Center, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Hamad Medical City (Doha, Qatar).

Gehshan spoke with SEGD this week as she prepared for the 2016 Wayfinding Event.

1. At Cloud Gehshan Associates, you’ve led the development of many healthcare wayfinding systems. What types of research tools are you using to develop these programs?  

We have a very thorough programming process that involves numerous interviews, surveys and observations. A diverse stakeholder group also offers a wealth of information and institutional knowledge, so we tap into that. (For us, “research” implies more formal studies with numerous subjects over longer periods of time. Although we would love to do comprehensive research, it is not practical, so we use the term “programming” or sometimes “data collection.”)

2. What are some of the key touchpoints you’re talking about when you refer to creating truly “user-centered” wayfinding programs? 

A designer's most important task is to think about each step of the user experience, even if some parts are not in the designer’s scope of work. For example, it’s important to be aware of what happens before the visit—what information the patient has been given. Two other key touchpoints are the arrival/parking experience and a visitor’s entrance into the building, both of which can be daunting for a newcomer. The terms used for destinations must be understandable to a layperson, and must be used consistently. Materials, typography and color should be appropriate for the setting.

3. Hospitals have multiple user groups, from patients and families to visitors and staff. How does this impact the research process and mapping the user journey? How do you balance the needs of all in the wayfinding program? 

That’s an easy answer and involves the principle of universal design. We identify visitor experiences that are the most challenging. If we can solve for them, the system will work better for everyone. If there are occasional conflicts in the needs of different user groups, we give preference to visitors.

4. From your perspective, what are the toughest challenges in creating wayfinding that is truly user-centered? 

A big challenge is the constant updating of the sign system, which is hard for operations and facilities staff but critical for visitors who rely on the sign system to be current and reliable. Another challenge: The sign system is only one part of the puzzle. Other factors that make an experience user-friendly include such things as improved lighting or interior finishes; however, these require additional resources and attention from the hospital. 

5. How is digital technology factoring in to the wayfinding programs you’re creating now at CGA?

Digital wayfinding tools are useful once the wayfinding strategy and sign system are under control. Many clients are interested in them although not all want to dedicate the funding once they find out how much they cost to implement and maintain. With smartphone apps or interactive kiosks, it’s most important to ask: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Then make sure the digital tool is addressing that problem.

6. Will anyone working in the wayfinding space need to be focused on a rigorous research process? Why?

Yes. Anyone working on a complex wayfinding problem needs a robust programming process to understand the client's environment and its unique characteristics. But, in the end, it comes down to something more simple: the designer must take the time to understand and identify with a confused and anxious patient, and design accordingly.

Learn from Virginia Gehshan’s experience and perspective at SEGD’s 2016 Wayfinding Event April 14-15 in Miami!

The full-day workshop Thursday, April 14, will be followed by a half-day guided tour of Miami International Airport with airport staff and wayfinding consultants.

Capacity in this popular workshop is limited, so you’ll want to book right away.

See the full workshop agenda here.

Thanks to Miami International Airport/Miami Dade Aviation for hosting the 2016 SEGD Wayfinding Event, presented by Nanov Display Inc. Additional sponsors include 3M, Design Communications Ltd., AGI, Color-Ad Signs and Exhibits, Designtex, Direct Embed Coating Systems LLC, SignComp, Art of Context and SES Branded Environments.

Want more great content on Wayfinding? Explore SEGD's Experiential Graphic Design Index/Wayfinding!

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