“Do we need an app?”

Posted in Education, Social Media and Technology, Wayfinding Return on Investment, White Paper on December 10th, 2012 by Mark VanderKlipp – Be the first to comment

Increasingly we are asked this question by many of our institutional clients. While much has been written about the capability and potential of a number of interactive tools, we’d like you to consider the appropriateness of technology for your institution with stories from organizations whose priority is doing it right rather than doing it quickly. With regard to technology, remember this maxim: ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’.

Planning for simple, useful tools that are connected to print, Web-based and signage communications is critical to the overall success of any technology initiative.

Circuit Breaker
Having received a technology grant, a Midwestern health system called in a number of vendors to review interactive signage options for their new Cancer Center; Corbin Design was also asked to present. While the other speakers eagerly focused on the physical and technical capability of their specific offering, we asked broader questions: What research tells you this is needed? What kinds of information will you share? Who’s job description just expanded to include managing this system? Is this connected to anything else?

Ultimately we recommended that they use those dollars to step back and build a communications strategy that helps them speak to visitors simply and consistently, integrating a variety of tools (including interactive signage) into their environment. 

Many institutions have placed technology integration at the forefront of their organizational mission and goals, hoping to save money, connect with their constituents and establish credible “green” initiatives. And of course we congratulate them, because these are indeed important. However, as the story above illustrates, in order to gain the maximum value from an investment in technology, it needs to be thoughtfully integrated into an overall strategy: supported by internal departments, connected to all communications, and funded well beyond the initial rollout.
We often find that an organization’s technology aspirations outstrip the expectations, or the capability, of their users. The first step is to find out from your constituents (both staff and visitors) which technologies they’re using personally – and whether the solution you’re considering would be of use to them. Obviously the needs of Healthcare and University audiences vary greatly in this regard, but that’s a topic for another article. Suffice it to say that either audience will quickly adopt a useful tool, or reject one that falls short in terms of capability or delivery.
College students are especially adept at sniffing out a shallow app, and they’ll give it about two minutes of their time before deciding to keep or trash it. Successful or not, the technology will be a reflection of your institutional brand, tested hundreds of times a day by hundreds of users. Applying their input to create plans for simple, functional and relevant tools is critical to the success of any technology initiative.

Voltage Continuity Test
An internal outpatient center at a major health facility noticed that their patients were “checking in” on Foursquare as they arrived in the front lobby. Tracking this allowed administrative staff to confirm that the individuals were there, and would be on time for their appointment. While not everyone uses this, a certain segment of their patient population has responded favorably to it, and it’s become an important part of their scheduling confirmation process.

Once you’ve established the need for the technology solution, make sure you connect it to as many delivery devices as possible. That is to say, rather than being in the business of purchasing and maintaining disconnected and expensive technology assets, consider first the tools that are already available as plug-and-play applications.
As an institution, you should strive to be in the business of content generation, rather than in the business of building and maintaining complex systems. From health and wellness information to direction giving, faculty blogs to late-breaking news, institutions routinely generate relevant content that could be made available to staff and visitors. Well-designed technology tools can help users sort that information and select categories that are relevant to them.
We advise our clients to focus their energies on the message rather than the medium. Social media tools and micro-blogging sites allow you to put your best foot forward (brand and culturally speaking) without making significant investments in infrastructure. The majority of your constituents have already made the investment in a smartphone or tablet, and are comfortable using it. Take advantage of this!
Remember a general rule of thumb regarding content and tools: More is not better. Better is better.

Don’t get zapped
A major university contracts with an interactive signage provider to enhance the environment in their new business school, creating a high-tech utility that matches the entrepreneurial spirit of the program and the architectural context of the space. The building is chock full of touchscreen technology for direction giving, room schedules, program history and donor information. One year after installation, many of the screens have gone dark or have had furniture placed in front of them. Temporary information, such as a change in faculty office hours, is written on lined paper and taped to the front of the screens.

You’ve established the need, prepared content and built a communication plan that includes social media tools. Now you’re ready to connect that information in meaningful ways to the built environment. Congratulations!
A word to the wise: don’t be swayed by bells and whistles. One of the reasons the interactive screens in this business school had failed is because there were too many possible options, too many things to keep track of, and too much information to maintain. Their original plan did not include a continuous maintenance schedule, or a mechanism for reaching the people who are most responsible for creating change in this building – the faculty.
Remember that your primary goal is providing simple information, and ways to connect to it. Just because you can add a news crawler, a connection to a TV feed, flashing weather graphics and scrolling photos of happy students doesn’t mean that your users want those things. The average campus visitor is bombarded by messages all day long; to really get their attention, your interactive tools should speak simply, quietly and competently. They should be designed to meet the user at the point where they need or want the information.

Technology that Fits

A major western university had incorporated technology integration and energy efficiency into their overall brand platform. As part of an exterior and interior wayfinding program, they had a variety of options available to them to connect communications to the built environment, and to go green. Considering their available budget, internal resources and informational needs, they chose two technologies:

This map provides QR codes that link to a number of directional and informational resources available via the University’s Web site.


UVU Solar Pedestrian Kiosk

Solar technology makes illumination of this kiosk possible and quietly speaks to this university’s green initiatives.

Applied to a static map, the codes link to Web-based information for direction within their primary campus, and to other locations. Since QR technology will soon be replaced with updated smartphone-based technology (NFC, or Near Field Communication), the static map was designed for inexpensive updating and replacement by internal staff. The same is true for all interior kiosks. This kiosk serves quietly in its primary function as a wayfinding device, while also serving as a “gateway” for smartphone users who choose to connect more deeply with the university.
Solar illumination
Being out west, by far the most abundant available energy source is the sun. Since these kiosks needed to be located in areas where connecting to the traditional grid was very expensive, the solar option built in the flexibility to meet that need. The solar array on the top of the sign is positioned on a rotating stand, so that each kiosk can be positioned for a “heads up” viewing of the map rather than the most advantageous angle to the sun. As needed, these can be easily detached, repurposed or recycled.
The battery powers an LED light source in the information flag at night, and directs users to press a button to backlight the map as needed. The map is illuminated for 30 seconds, preserving battery capacity and allowing the solar array to be modestly sized.

Each of these tools is designed to support the users’ informational needs first, and to accommodate technology second. They serve as prime examples of our assertion that technology should be used simply, quietly and with discretion.

Note: This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of  American School & Hospital Facility Magazine

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