The Advantages and Challenges of Wayfinding in a Digital World
It’s nearly impossible to drive the interstate in any major metro without seeing a digital billboard rotating through a series of ads. Digital signage is nothing new: but like all things technology-related, it continues to get smaller, faster and more personalized. Today’s digital wayfinding includes interactive kiosks, full color LED displays, mobile applications, GPS, beacon technology and more that help us find our way on unfamiliar streets or guide experiences. Technology in wayfinding is here to stay. Yet, is it always the right solution?
When does technology in wayfinding make sense? And how does it impact the visitor experience? As a wayfinding consultant, I find that the answer often lies in the strategy behind the communication. While the technology is being adopted at a pretty rapid rate, we generally do not recommend replacing all static signs with digital ones (at least not in this stage of its development). But digital wayfinding and smart cities are on the rise, so it’s important to consider the benefits and challenges before assuming it’s not for you, or before investing in the technology without a clear idea of how it fits into your overall wayfinding strategy.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock / GaudiLab
A Blank Slate
Digital signage is a blank slate, and that is a BIG benefit. With traditional static signage, you are limited to a finite space (i.e. the dimensions of the sign), but digital signage allows a layered approach. You can post news and information, and change it frequently to keep up with timely information or even to simply provide more information. Smart touch-screen kiosks on a city street can show visitors where to go and what’s happening. Branding pieces can be intermixed to create a local flavor. Visitors can pull up a map to get directions or discover a hidden gem.
On a smaller scale, touch screen directories in buildings, such as those in medical centers, can help people find their way. Sure, you can still scan a static sign with a list of names and room numbers to find your doctor, but in many of today’s medical environments, a touch screen with a search function will allow you to find your way faster and may even provide step-by-step instructions.
Scenarios like these point to making life easier – for visitors as well as employees. Various departments – operations, marketing, communications, etc. – can update information more easily, quickly, and at a lower cost, which creates efficiencies internally. Although there’s a larger initial investment in the hardware, you can save money over time not having to print and reprint information, or manually change it out on-site since updates can be done remotely.
At the same time, you want to make sure the functionality is worth the cost. We don’t recommend it for every building or city unless it clearly serves a purpose. Do you have a lot of visitor-based destinations? If yes, digital signage may be a great option.
For example, we recently worked with Stamford, Connecticut – a city that is known for having a huge volume of commuter train traffic during weekday rush hour. But the city wanted people to stick around after work, enjoy dinner or catch a show. In this case, digital signage makes sense because there’s a continuous need for updated, timely information. Furthermore, the city implemented district-wide wifi to both improve the experience, but also to connect commuters and visitors to the wayfinding system, giving the city more influence on the visitor journey.
Possibly the biggest value in digital wayfinding is the real-time updates and personalization your signage can deliver. You can program screens to show different content during certain times of day. For example, the city of Stamford knows that peak hours are during the weekdays at rush hour, so they could potentially target their messaging toward their audiences and time it accordingly. For example, they may promote a citywide event to encourage commuters to stay awhile after work. You can also make updates immediately if a schedule changes or an event requires updated information.
Of course, technology is only as good as the people and the procedures behind it. We always work with our clients to make sure they have the capabilities to manage and update signage, keeping the content fresh. Digital signage can give a city a more modern feel. But if the content isn’t updated, the opposite effect can happen. Showing outdated content or having malfunctioning technology can be confusing, even annoying, leaving a negative impression of your city.
Another potential drawback is the evolution in technology. Wayfinding technology, like most forms of technology, seems to constantly change. Considering how buildings and public spaces are often planned years in advance, it can be a challenge to know what will be available down the road. How do you plan for technology when you can’t predict what’s next? Which leads us to another wayfinding technology innovation that is on the rise…
Beacon technology works with each user or visitor’s cellphone via Bluetooth to transmit personalized information. Today, destinations and communities can use beacon technology to tell followers about discounted admission to a museum or a public event that’s happening, and share that information at the right time and place. It’s also extraordinarily personalized with real-time updates and a filtering of information specific to the user.
What are the drawbacks? Like all things related to technology, startup costs need to be weighed against the end-use benefit. Will people use it? Trust it? And, the big question we ask, is it true to your brand identity and the experience you want to deliver?
What’s Next in Digital Wayfinding?
For now, customization seems to be driving innovation in the digital wayfinding space, but the sky is the limit. What if you could sync your grocery list with the store’s wayfinding to efficiently lead you through the store, item by item? Or an app that directs you to the nearest public restroom in New York City? Anything you can think of is on the list of possibilities and the opportunities are remarkable!
Don’t stress about taking on a wayfinding project. First, get the lay of the land and a clear roadmap with timelines and costs. Inquire about the Wayfinding Analysis.
When we reminisce on a visit, a trip, or any place-based experience, we often think of the time that we spent at the physical location. But a visitor’s wayfinding expedition often begins at home, perusing the website for their destination and getting the “lay of the land.”