Making the Connection Part I: Why Research is the Ticket to Successful Airport Wayfinding

The last time I blogged on GS&P Dialogue, our environmental graphics team had recently completed the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Report 52, titled Wayfinding and Signing Guidelines for Airport Terminals and Landside. Using the best practices we established in the guide, our team has since completed several wayfinding programs and studies for airports across the country. While each project has its own unique environment, objectives and challenges, wayfinding solutions all start with the same common element: research.

To begin with, wayfinding is more than just signs; it requires a holistic approach based on communicating information that helps people make the right decision at the right time. The components of a wayfinding program begin as motorists enter the airport area from nearby roadways, and they continue until the passenger has arrived at his or her gate. So a thorough understanding of the airport’s design, current wayfinding problems and complete passenger experience is essential when improving your airport’s wayfinding program.

Our comprehensive wayfinding studies for major international airports include data collection, passenger feedback, surveys and analysis that serve as the baseline for all recommendations we make to each airport. Wayfinding research is based on data obtained through one or more evaluation methods:

• Ergonomic Sign Assessment
• Frequently Asked Questions Survey
• Task Analysis
• Survey of Unfamiliar Passengers

These types of data paint a clear picture of existing conditions and target the major focus areas in a way that goes beyond the typical approach to a wayfinding study, which usually just evaluates the physical airport areas.

For instance, it is important to understand what the passenger knows before arriving at the airport and how that knowledge impacts his or her wayfinding experience. At one large hub airport we learned from passenger surveys that only half of passengers knew what terminal they were looking for prior to arriving at the airport. Furthermore, only one out three passengers knew their concourse and one out of four passengers knew their gate number prior to arrival. All too often, proposed recommendations that are primarily based on observations fall short of a true holistic wayfinding solution. However, by knowing what the passenger knows or doesn’t know, we were able to include this data to make wayfinding recommendations based on actual customer feedback.

Sufficient study and analysis is also crucial for establishing realistic expectations of what signage can and can’t do. While good signage can’t always overcome architectural barriers or non-intuitive wayfinding environments, it can still help achieve a high wayfinding success rate for the majority of passengers. It also helps us identify where problems lie for other passengers, so we can make refinements based on reliable data. However, it’s important to remember the law of diminishing returns. Absent an unlimited budget, airports will realistically never achieve a 100% success rate, so reasonable expectations are key.

Most importantly, we believe that research is the foundation of the four key components of a successful wayfinding strategy: consistency, continuity, connectivity and confirmation. We’ll explore those 4 Cs (and the 3 Vs of communication – verbal, visual and virtual) in more detail next month when we discuss the functional aspects of a good wayfinding system. We’ll also explain in future blog posts how research supports the decisions that airport operators and designers must make in relation to roadway signage systems and intra-airport navigation tools. So be sure to stay tuned to GS&P Dialogue as we take a more in-depth look at airport wayfinding in August and September as part of our “Making the Connection” series.

At the end of the day, it is interesting to see how our commitment to wayfinding research mirrors GS&P’s own internal “Listen, Think, Transform, and Prove” approach to projects. Our work begins with listening to and understanding our clients and their customers, then thinking through existing conditions, identifying obstacles and establishing objectives before arriving at the solution. Only then are we able to truly transform through the design process and achieve successful outcomes for our clients.

See also the other three posts in our aviation wayfinding series: Making the Connection Part II: Making the "Walk Versus Ride" Decision, Making the Connection Part III: "Zooming In" on the 3Vs of Airport Wayfinding, and Making the Connection Part IV: The (Airport) Road to Wayfinding Safety & Success.


Comments (3)

DISCLAIMER: We encourage comments and welcome your thoughts; however, GS&P reserves the right to edit or remove any comments which are off-topic, blatant spam, abusive or slanderous, or violate copyright. Comments posted are not necessarily the viewpoints of GS&P. As each project is unique, the information contained in this article only represents general design related concepts and issues based on the author’s knowledge and experience, not specific design guidance or legal advice.

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  • August 24, 2013 @ 2:20 AM

    Tony Marshallsay

    1. I think a survey of unfamiliar passengers should be top of your list of four items, because signage should be primarily aimed at those people - others generally know where they have to go.
    2. In my experience, FAQs aren't. Rather they are lists of questions which designers - in their wisdom - THINK that people will want to ask. Consequently, they are rarely the questions which users (in this case passengers or those seeing them off or meeting them) ACTUALLY ask. Instead, put surveyors on the ground at an Information desk just inside the terminal entrance - and also at other strategic locations - to note down the questions that people do ask, then sort and compile them to produce a list of GENUINE FAQs.
    3. I have great difficulty in convincing Architects that a transfer ventilation grille in a door is a pretty good indicator that there is a Toilet behind it. That is, it is a non-verbal, universally intelligible sign for a facility that is often urgently needed.

    • August 26, 2013 @ 2:48 PM

      Jim Harding

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your feedback and thoughts. We absolutely agree the primary audience for wayfinding planning and design at airports is the unfamiliar passenger. However, what was surprising is our research has shown that at complex airports, familiar users depend on the signage to find their way almost as much as unfamiliar passengers!

      Regarding your comment about the FAQ data; maybe the blog wasn’t quite detailed enough, because do we gather that research exactly as you described. We either have surveyors on the ground stationed at the information desks or we have the staff at the desks keep a log. Sometimes a combination of both. These methods document questions that passengers actually ask and provide valuable data that is included along with - Ergonomic Sign Assessments - Task Analysis and Surveys of Unfamiliar Passengers to deliver a holistic wayfinding solution.

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Jim Harding

      • August 27, 2013 @ 2:44 AM

        Tony Marshallsay

        Hi Jim,
        I too was surprised to hear that familiar users still need to use the signage. I guess airports differ from hospitals, in that the hospital staff generally know their way around, while patients and visitors both are generally unfamiliar with the layout.
        I am also glad to note that you assemble your FAQs the proper way - unfortunately this often not the case with software providers!
        Best regards

        Tony M

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