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Tech: Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

Posted in College Wayfinding, Education, Healthcare, Healthcare Wayfinding, Hospital Wayfinding, Published Article, Social Media and Technology, University Wayfinding, White Paper on March 19th, 2015 by Mark VanderKlipp – 1 Comment

“Do we need a digital signage solution, or maybe an app?”

Technology solutions often fall short of expectations, leaving users uninformed.

Technology solutions often fall short of expectations, leaving users uninformed and unimpressed.

Our institutional clients are increasingly asking  these questions. 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.

Case Study 1: Just because you CAN …
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 product, 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. In our opinion, this was a far better long-term outcome than spending those dollars on a short-term fix.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Case Study 2: Connected content
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 (such as interactive kiosks), 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.

Case Study 3: Technology Fail
A major university contracts with an interactive signage provider to enhance the environment in their new building, 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!

Thoughtfully implemented, technology is an effective addition to an overall wayfinding communications strategy.

Thoughtfully implemented, technology is an effective addition to an overall wayfinding communications strategy.

A word to the wise: don’t be swayed by bells and whistles. One of the reasons the interactive screens in this 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 or need 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 intersect with the information.

Conclusion: When considering investing in any new technology, be sure:

  • The effort is consistent with your strategic plan for communications, including other information in the built environment
  • Your audience has expressed a need, or at least an interest, in using it.
  • You’re fully aware of the extent of the investment, in time as well as dollars.
  • The content is designed to support the users’ informational needs first, and to accommodate technology second.
  • The content is absolutely consistent with other wayfinding tools: terminology and mapping are especially important.

As one of our clients often says, “there is no silver bullet for wayfinding.” Plan accordingly for a simplified, interconnected visitor experience.

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The FHWA has issued a clarification on the ruling it issued on January 25, 2016 terminating the Interim Approval of Clearview as an alternate font to the MUTCD. With regard to community wayfinding signage systems, the use of alternate fonts is still possible.

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  1. Brian Jones says:

    I have for a long time admired and been inspired by Corbin Design from the early Aspen days. This is a great piece that puts the technology in its place as a business tool, not a gimmick. Well done.

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