The weighing of words—choosing the right words, in the right order, for the occasion--has always fascinated me. This probably comes as no surprise, considering my chosen occupation. I’m perpetually striving to find the clearest, most elegant, and most effective way to make my points. Hell, it took me 10 minutes just to write that first sentence.

Unfortunately, this obsession with words and clarity, combined with an innately weak sense of direction, mean that whenever I’m required to go somewhere unfamiliar, I’m often deeply annoyed. Why the vast conspiracy of confusing signs and misleading written directions? Why does the universe want me to be lost all the time?

So I almost hugged the person who greeted me when I arrived at the Healthcare Innovation Workshop put on by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) in Cincinnati last week, because the directions SEGD had sent out included precise, step-by-step instructions not only to get to the correct parking garage, but also to find the pay kiosk, walk to the venue, and choose the right door to enter.

Of course, I should have expected that. SEGD members live and breathe wayfinding and clear, proper signage as a matter of course. These are my kind of people.

The day’s events were centered on the importance of wayfinding in our industry, and it included lots of case studies, research, and discussion to help SEGD members understand the unique circumstances of healthcare clients and users. It was all good stuff, but the session that stood out most to me was about—of course—the words.

Designer Kate Keating spoke about a wayfinding master plan project she’s currently doing for Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, focusing on on-site research regarding nomenclature and how it’s informing the plan. The two-year research study presented patients, visitors, and other potential users with terminology currently used at the hospital in signage and other communications, and tested how well the terms were understood. The findings:

  • Only four out of 23 acronyms tested were correctly identified half the time or better. The four were ICU, MRI, EKG, and CT Scan. One that had 0 percent recognition? NICU—which, at this hospital, stood for North Intensive Care Unit.
  • 85 percent of those surveyed said they look for room numbers or a unit letter rather than a unit name.
  • Confusion over medical terminology is a problem. For example, 100 percent of the testers correctly identified “cardiovascular” as specific to the heart. But 82 percent also matched “cardiothoracic” to the heart, rather than to the broader category of “chest.”
  • 100 percent of those tested said they prefer layman’s terminology on signage over technical medical names.

Consistency in naming was another problem at Lucile Packard, and that came up in a later session, as well, by Greg Nelson from Gensler’s L.A. office. He discussed user-centric design and planning on a project his team is doing for Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. While the directions may say, “Check in at the outpatient clinic,” Nelson offered as an example, what visitors actually experience is, “This building says ‘Spielberg.’” And vague directions to “take the elevator to the 5th floor” cause confused visitors to puzzle out: “Which elevator? There are so many to choose from.”

I’ve talked about wayfinding before, and I think the examples here speak for themselves in terms of proving (if not belaboring) the point. There are those who'd rather not give much thought to precision and word choices, assuming that when it gets down to it, people will just figure it out. And maybe they will, eventually. But when the people in question are patients in a healthcare setting, and they’re filling out an HCAHPS form about the experience, will the ease of wayfinding affect their answers? Yes, it will. Mark my words.