The mental burden of wayfinding has been lowered considerably by technology like Google Maps, including Google Street View, but (for now) these kinds of tools can only do so much. They tend to be a little less helpful once you get inside a building, and places like hospitals, train stations, and airports can be labyrinthine. These settings provoke stress already—people have to worry about a health issue or about missing their flight or train—and poor navigation aids impose a further cognitive load on this situational mental burden. Poor wayfinding may have contributed to the 2007 Tasering death of Robert Dziekański at Vancouver International Airport.

Wayfinding may not seem like a big deal because usually, once we’ve fumbled our way to our destination the first time, we know where it is and have no trouble finding it again, and we either forget how hard it was to find or, as with many design problems, we blame ourselves for our ignorance. The navigation aids that complex systems do provide tend to assume some familiarity: a transit map may make perfect sense to a local but be completely indecipherable to a visitor from out of town, even if they speak the language.

And if you think about it, this kind of mental burden is completely unproductive and unnecessary. Because each hard-to-find place is a unique, it’s not as though having to find multiple hard-to-find places helps you build schemata that suddenly make you amazing at navigation.

Hospitals at least realize they have a problem, although their solutions aren’t necessarily effective. Some have implemented coloured lines on the floors and walls to guide people, but, again, these often assume some familiarity with what these colours mean. And some places try to help by giving you crumbs—telling you only what you need to know to get to the next step. That’s fine if you’re starting where they’re expecting you to start, but as soon as you use an alternative entrance, that strategy goes to hell. The signs will seem, as Amanda Hill remarked in our Twitter conversation, to just run out.

What studies have shown to help most is effective signage, including maps of the entire system at entrances and elevators. Don’t just tell me where I am and where I’m not—tell me how to get where I need to go. Make signage visible and unambiguous, and make them consistent, preferably with plain language. Don’t have signs pointing people to the “Nephrology Unit” and then have “Kidney Unit” on the door.

Most importantly: test your navigation aids with people who are naive to the system. And when someone tells you they had trouble finding the place, believe them and try to do something about it. Well-thought-out signs are a relatively inexpensive way to lower mental burden for visitors who might already have a lot on their mind.

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