Wayfinding Audits and the Dangers of Self-Diagnosis

Connecting Neighborhoods - UCI

How to determine the right wayfinding strategy for you

Here’s a story: Community X realized it had a big wayfinding problem. Actually, many problems. They heard people complain that existing parking was impossible to find while others said there just wasn’t enough of it. When asking another group, they heard the current signs were useless while others said they were helpful – but super ugly. Some city officials were concerned that visitors didn’t feel welcomed when they rolled into town and new businesses expressed they weren’t getting enough traffic. The list went on and on. None of it consistent. 

Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. A lot of places – cities, neighborhoods, businesses, shopping centers, and more – encounter these headaches regardless of their history, size, shape, purpose, or audience. It can be difficult to figure out which problems are real and how to address them. 

Unfortunately, many of them hear the complaints, make assumptions and jump to an all too common solution: MORE SIGNS! 

While, in some cases, more signage may be helpful, the fundamental drawback is that places are trying to solve a problem without knowing what the actual problem is, which can be a catalyst for – you know it! – even more wayfinding problems.

Here’s how to know WHICH wayfinding strategy is going to be right for your community. 

First off: There is No one-size fits all when it comes to a wayfinding solution

Just like you can’t get a reliable medical diagnosis without an evaluation by a specialist and unbiased analysis, wayfinding problems are hard to diagnose without an expert. While we understand and appreciate the ‘just do it’ mentality, testing out solutions to an undiagnosed wayfinding problem can be costly and problematic. As one of the most important aspects of your place’s experience, it’s worth taking the time and resources to evaluate your wayfinding before jumping to a conclusion or solution.

As we’ve mentioned before, true wayfinding doesn’t use signs as Band-Aids to cover up the cracks and problems. Furthermore, there are no universal best practices, assumptions or one-size-fits-all approaches that can be copied and applied to your wayfinding. What works for one place probably won’t work for yours. 

With that being said, there is a unique wayfinding strategy for your place, and the key to figuring it out is to ask and listen. 

Ask and listen

Wayfinding is a qualitative process in that, rather than just getting people from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, it’s about creating a well-connected journey that users enjoy and want to be part of. To get there, we ask a lot of questions to understand target users, the current navigational experience and the ideal experience.  

We call this process a wayfinding audit. 

The extent and complexity of a wayfinding audit is tailored to your requirements and needs. While it sounds intense and scary, an audit is really a conversation (plus a tour, depending on the size and scope of the project) between frontline staff members and your wayfinding consultant. Not only does it help the team identify problem areas where information is lacking, but it guides ideas and decisions at a conceptual level. 

Key considerations for your wayfinding audit

Regardless of your place’s characteristics – big vs. small, business vs. residential, easy navigation vs. difficult navigation – there’s a set of considerations that is important to dig into before you can develop a good wayfinding plan. 

Here’s a brief overview of some of the areas discussed throughout the audit discussion.

  1. Challenges and goals. When organizations say, “People can’t find us,” “Our signs aren’t working,” or “We need a new brand,” we have to understand WHY in the context of your place. What do you want to achieve and what’s stopping you from getting there? Are there certain hazards or problems that are disrupting the journey? Getting more specific helps illuminate the central issue so you can develop an effective plan and prioritize the big action items.
  2. Audience. Who are your primary users and where are they going? Your audience must be at the center of your wayfinding canvas. Specifically, you need to determine who your top two or three target user groups are so you can fill in the lines of your wayfinding plan with strategies that will provide them with a more streamlined experience.
  3. Brand identity. How would you describe your brand? What brand elements are you currently using throughout your wayfinding? Is there an opportunity to enhance brand awareness and exposure? Your wayfinding should be inspired by and connected to your brand, giving people a sense of your place and personality. If you don’t have a solid brand strategy, then that is the right place to start.
  4. Major attractions.  Our clients rank the top destinations within their place so the wayfinding system steers people toward the most valuable areas. For instance, a community may want to direct visitors to the downtown area, or a university may prioritize the student union or library. It all depends on your goals and priorities.
  5. New construction. Your wayfinding audit must take any new construction or developments into account. If you’re investing a lot of money in a new building or remodeling, it’s definitely worthwhile to maximize its potential through good navigation. Also, if construction is impacting traffic patterns for a long period of time, you need to include some wayfinding elements that ease the headache for users.
  6. Major access points. Your access points are the main roads, highways or paths that visitors travel along to access the major attractions and amenities within your place. Given people may be walking, biking or driving along these areas, you need to prioritize brand-aligned gateway elements, banners and signs to support a seamless journey.

A new perspective for your community

If a wayfinding audit sounds too fancy for your needs, ask yourself how you’re going to accomplish your goals without assessing the current state of your place. Sure, you can make assumptions, but justifying your decisions won’t be easy. Even worse, you could end up spending a lot of time and money on the wrong strategies only to find yourself starting over, once again. 

A thoughtful wayfinding audit helps you see your place with a fresh set of eyes, leading to clarity around which steps to take next. Ultimately, the insights you gather empower you to transcend traditional signage programs and create smarter, more meaningful ways for diverse users to make sense of your environment. 

Are you ready to start getting real answers to the problems you hear on a day-to-day basis? Guide Studio offers comprehensive wayfinding audits to help you diagnose the problem and outline the real needs. Get in touch with us for a free quote and details on what to do next.