Transforming hospital signage

Having worked with hospital buildings during her Master’s in Architecture, Hana Kmecova became acutely aware of how difficult it is for patients and visitors to navigate their way through the maze of departments and corridors.

“I was continually aware of the difficulties people have finding their way round these complex buildings,” she explains. “Not only can it lead to missed appointments and added anxiety at  an already difficult time, but regardless of how good the medical care is, the user has already had a negative experience of the hospital before they even reach their destination. And then there is the added pressure on staff workload. Frequent interruptions with wayfinding queries can impact on staff work  performance and satisfaction.”

This revelation inspired a change of direction for Kmecova’s academic career. In 2010 she joined BU’s Wayfinding Research Centre (WRC) as a PhD student, funded by CISCO Systems.  She quickly began contributing to the development of a research-driven approach to this common wayfinding problem.

Kmecova set about revolutionising the historically problematic  signage at the local Poole Hospital. She explained: “The  hospital faces the same challenges as many hospitals whose sites have had various services and buildings added over time. Poole Hospital is located on a steep hill and the long and narrow layout, with uneven levels and numerous entrances, makes it an ideal representation of the wayfinding challenge.

First Kmecova tested the effectiveness of existing maps and found nearly half of participants could not use them properly.  This was largely down to obsolete information, lack of organisation, misalignment and no indication of current position.

Using a combination of theoretical research, lab-based studies and mobile eye-tracking technology, Kmecova determined the primary factors influencing comprehension and made a range of recommendations to the hospital. These included aligning map orientation with the direction the person is facing, reordering information, reducing visual complexity, adding You-Are-Here symbols, and introducing important directional cues, such as magnified map inserts with immediate directional information.

One of the most important changes was a reorganisation of information to ensure people do not have to process too much in one go, only receiving exactly what they need at the different stages of their journey. Under Kmecova’s revised signage system, upon entering the hospital, users now identify which block they need as opposed to a specific department. Once they reach the block, they then receive further wayfinding aids to prompt them on the next leg of their journey.

Kmecova’s recommendations were put into place in one location first and the results were immediate. 98% of people could plan their route effectively, and significant improvements were also observed in how quickly they planned their route. Further signs were put up in May 2013.

Following this phenomenal success, Kmecova is now working with Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey to transform their signage. “At the moment I’m poring over floor plans,” she says. “I’m analysing the current wayfinding support, identifying all the walkable areas and defining decision points. Routes to departments and services need to be planned to suit the capacity of each corridor, and traffic caused by equipment and material transfer. This is important to avoid crowding and clashes.

It is clear this research has the potential for wide reaching application across the NHS. Perhaps most importantly though, it has contributed significantly to the WRC establishing an effective, research-based solution to wayfinding problems, which replaces existing, unreliable navigational supports, typically based on intuition and guesswork.

Other researchers in the group have conducted similar studies in the international Frankfurt airport (FRAPORT, Germany) and the World Heritage Site of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.