5 Tips for Healthier Wayfinding in Hospitals

Enhancing patient experiences through wayfinding

“I love going to the hospital.” – Said no one…ever.

Whether you’re the patient or a visitor, a trip to the hospital probably doesn’t top your list of places to go. Although plenty of miracles happen in hospitals every day, they’re also synonymous with illness, emergencies, and end of life.

Mercy - Parking Directional

Furthermore, healthcare environments are complicated. Their sprawling campuses, multiple elevators, long hallways, dark parking garages, and medical jargon splashed across every wall exacerbate what’s already a stressful experience. Yesterday’s hospitals have become today’s medical mega-complexes, and neither first-time visitors nor regular patients are shielded from their complexity. Routine visits aren’t so routine anymore.

What’s the problem?

Until recently, wayfinding hasn’t been a top priority for health care systems. However, as hospital leaders zero in on patient satisfaction, they’re noticing the connection between frustrated patients and gaps in their navigation systems.

They’re also seeing the negative impact on their bottom line. Hospitals lose money due to late arrivals or missed appointments, some of which may be connected to poor wayfinding. Late patients also create scheduling bottlenecks and inefficient workflows, leading to patient and staff dissatisfaction. Not to mention, a frustrating wayfinding experience isn’t great for the facility’s facility’s image.

Understand your symptoms

So what’s the solution? In an ideal world, wayfinding consultants and architects work together to develop a wayfinding program that coordinates with the facility’s design and layout. However, that doesn’t always happen.

Regardless of when wayfinding consultants are brought into the process, it always starts with an audit. Like a wellness exam, an audit helps diagnose existing or potential problems and prescribe solutions based on the current infrastructure.

Here are the top three mistakes that lead to broken wayfinding systems in medical facilities and campuses.

  • Fixing problems with more signs. Just like you wouldn’t put a new Band-Aid onto an old one, you can’t cure navigational problems by layering new signs along existing ones. In fact, good wayfinding reduces visual clutter. The fewer signs, the better.
  • Playing the name game. In addition to the overuse of medical jargon across signs and walls (e.g. cardiovascular instead of heart), another major issue is naming hospital buildings, wings or institutes after donors. While it’s an understandable practice, the patient experience shouldn’t suffer as a result. The facility’s purpose should be apparent in both the name and description.
  • No connection to the outside community. Hospitals forget that wayfinding extends beyond their boundaries. In fact, you have to consider all of your major audiences – patients, staff, visitors, out-of-towners, etc. – and identify the various travel patterns they take to come and go. This includes any major roadways, transportation systems (buses, trains, airports, etc.), parking lots, hotels and major venues that need to direct people to the fastest and easiest route to your facility.
Five remedies for healthier wayfinding

Once you’ve identified problems and opportunities, it’s time to develop the user experience. Whether you’re designing a new building or expanding upon an existing one, take note of these five tips for creating an effective wayfinding journey.

  1. Form a stakeholder committee. From C-Suite administrators and doctors to nurses, front desk staff and volunteers, you need to bring together a group of people who influence various visitor touch points. They’re the best people to weigh in on your audience’s needs, expectations and mindset. Best of all, they’ll champion the new wayfinding program once it’s off the ground.
  2. Map out the experience. Along with your stakeholders, map out the wayfinding needs that must be addressed throughout the entire user journey. This means considering all of the steps patients take before, during and after their visit. The more you can meet their needs at each stage, the more successful their experience will be.
  3. Take a layered approach. When we worked with Lutheran Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic acute care facility, their team wanted to address navigational discrepancies that occurred during various expansions. As a result, we took a layered wayfinding approach. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, a layered approach divides the information up into manageable pieces instead of giving you everything at once. For example, roadway and parking garage wayfinding signs are directional, pointing visitors to where they’re headed. Inside the building, visitors are greeted by a hospital directory and map, as well as information on which elevator to take to reach your final destination. That’s an important first step because it funnels visitors to the right elevator first, before offering the next bits of necessary information, like which departments and floors can be accessed. Finally, when visitors arrive at their intended floor, a sign or map depicts where doctors, offices and room numbers are located.
  4. Keep signs simple and usable. Once a layered approach is determined, you’ll know how many signs and how much information on each sign is needed – it’s all about providing only the necessary information at the right time. While signs are important, they’re number four on this list for a reason. Like a good compass or map app, signs need to be simple and consistent. Additionally, they may need to be multilingual to serve the needs of your diverse patient population.
  5. Boost your brand. Don’t forget that your wayfinding should be inspired by, and connected to, your hospital’s brand. While this doesn’t mean splashing your logo across every wayfinding element, you can integrate brand colors, messaging and visuals into areas that make sense. Not only will this give people a sense of place, but it’ll reinforce your brand personality.

State-of-the-art multi-million-dollar medical facilities don’t need to be a stress-inducing labyrinth. Considering the significant financial investments of new construction or renovation, visitors should be able to at least find their way around. Additionally, patients’ expectations are higher than ever. If they hate the experience, they’ll move on to another doctor at another hospital system. There’s little room for sub-par design or poor navigational support. Hence, it’s time to put them at the center of our thinking when creating the next major health care destination.

Design Consultant


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