In the swirl of the global pandemic and recession, at a time where the healthcare industry’s margins are razor-thin, where does an organization find resources to fund and fuel innovations
On December 12, 2020 Northwest Lower Michigan experienced its first winter storm of the season. And combined with holiday lights and a wood-burning fireplace, it made for some spectacularly festive views. Blu, our 19-month-old Vizsla especially enjoyed a return to smashing through snowdrifts.
But imagine if you were a tree in the woods, rooted in place and dealing with this onslaught.
Individually, each snowflake is manageable. During the course of the storm, there are millions that float by in their seemingly innocuous trajectory. However for those that land, the weight becomes less and less manageable until ultimately, the tree is bent almost beyond recognition. Some snap under the strain.
But wait - aren’t all trees able to handle this? What is it that assures some survive? The answer lies in their design.
Some deciduous trees have shed their leaves, once useful for photosynthesis; but in a snowstorm they become a liability. Many trees invest in multiple trunks using different angles to share the burden of feeding the main body. Similarly, coniferous trees with a solid base seem to manage the additional weight more easily.
In the middle of a forest, however, some trees put all their energy into one primary trunk as they seek sunlight in competition with taller trees. They hold their leaves longer to maximize their investment as more sunlight becomes available later in the year. And as they invest in concentrations of leaves or needles at higher altitudes, they sacrifice the necessary balance of a strong, stable base.
Okay, so all these hiker’s observations may be interesting (or not), but how do they relate to wayfinding?
Think of your staff: the hardworking caregivers circulating through the halls everyday, posted at unit desks or in offices close to public circulation. Much like the tree in the middle of the woods, they are rooted to their units, their routines. They see people “float by in their seemingly innocuous trajectory.” However for those that “land,” those in need of help, the weight of distraction, interruption and personal escort become less and less manageable.
But wait - aren’t healthcare cultures and facilities meant to handle this? What is it that assures that some survive? The answer, again, lies in their design.
Yes, you have a policy to greet everyone with eye contact, a warm smile and an offer to help if needed. But the combined “weight” of these interventions may eventually cause your culture to snap. Mitigate this by designing a system of proactive wayfinding elements so guests are empowered rather than asking for help.
With the widespread release of vaccines, we can look toward a day where COVID-19, with its visitor restrictions, won’t be as much of a barrier to human interaction. Eventually that “snowstorm” of patients, family members, new residents, vendors and others will return to the physical and virtual hallways of your institution: each with their own trajectory. The time to prepare for this eventuality is now. Like the trees with multiple trunks, willing to shed their old leaves or designed with a solid base, your culture, people and facilities will be better able to manage the inevitable - by design.
These challenges are magnified with the pandemic-related loss of staff and the inability of many healthcare cultures to maintain a strong financial base. Early investments in proactive wayfinding design can ease this burden. Like a successful tree, starting from a strong strategic base, making smaller, more diverse investments and maintaining daily discipline while adapting, learning and branching out - a flexible wayfinding approach will result in positive outcomes for months and years to come.
No matter what storms arise.
Gain an understanding of both physical and informational environments
Now this is decidedly not brain surgery. Most would obviously choose the interaction in the Scenario 2. And yet, in the world of healthcare wayfinding, we often find that clients approach a consultant expecting that they’ll respond like the doctor in Scenario 1. In fact, they may have reinforced their own assumptions becoming more convinced of the worst-case scenario:
Sure, these scenarios are exaggerated, but we’ve shared them to illustrate a point: as consultants that care about your outcomes, our standard of practice does not allow us to take on a wayfinding project without first doing an initial assessment. Like the doc in Scenario 2, it may take a bit longer to understand the decisions that led you to your current status; we may need to do a quick physical review of your facility and interview both staff and patients/families to gain a clearer understanding of the challenges they face. But only by doing this can we give you an accurate assessment of how we might help truly resolve the problem. In the long run, the up-front investment can pay off exponentially in ROI.
To continue the analogy, there are two aspects to your physical health that a doctor needs to know: 1) the clinical basis for the current condition, and 2) the aspects of your lifestyle that may have caused the condition. Similarly, we need to look closely at the two aspects of your wayfinding challenge: physical and informational.
The physical environment is often a barrier to wayfinding. Anyone who's ever gone to a complex hospital campus can attest to how confusing and frustrating the experience can be. By taking time to walk the facility with the client team, we use our experienced eyes (and the input of people we meet) to see the things that our clients typically miss.
We’re not saying it’s anyone’s fault. This is mainly because they have “problem blindness,” the fact that familiarity with the facility means they walk by the problem every day, never realizing its impact. This always leads to multiple a-ha moments - “OMG I never realized that was there!” or “why do we use that word?”
The review of the physical environment also includes the nuts and bolts aspects of the work of wayfinding: form, color, scale, materials, reflecting the architecture and the brand, and a study of the existing installed base of standard wayfinding elements: digital tools, printed information, static signage elements.
We start off by making observations in the physical environment. But we may very well find that empowering staff and patients with information in advance can resolve many of the wayfinding issues, often at a much lower cost, with more successful outcomes.
Working with our clients in an iterative process, we learn more about internal constraints and opportunities while at the same time understanding the “levers” within the culture that determine how things get done. Only then can we design a process to navigate these opportunities in ways that will be sustainable.
This initial process of discovery results in multiple low cost, high impact ways to improve wayfinding. Through site tours, observations and team meetings, we develop a customized action plan to improve both the spaces you occupy and your staff effectiveness in delivering the wayfinding experience.
We know for sure that all clients have limited resources to expend on this effort, especially in the new landscape of COVID. Further, we understand that this might go beyond the scope our clients anticipate for the initial project. But we also know that wayfinding signage alone may solve a short-term problem, but will not fully address the underlying condition. We help our clients to be effective stewards of the resources they have, testing and proving the value of wayfinding tools before expensive long-term investments are made.
Now you might be asking, what does it cost to do this initial assessment? Of course, we can’t say for sure without understanding more about the size of your facilities and the scale of the problem, but of course this all begins with a conversation. Our initial assessment phase includes the following:
There is no silver bullet for wayfinding. Signage alone cannot solve the problems of unfortunate architectural decisions, and the latest digital technology is an expensive diversion if not handled as part of a systemic wayfinding strategy.
An empowered staff member or volunteer understands the behaviors and tools that work together to deliver an experience. An empowered patient comes to you confident, stress-free and ready to address their primary concern: the health issue at hand. By listening carefully, building trust and uncovering your hidden assets, we can strengthen your facilities, systems, people and culture to catalyze sustainable change from within for greater experience impact.
That was the question.
As part of a broad digital strategy, Westmead Hospital, a 900 million dollar redevelopment project in Sydney Australia, was contemplating the potential impact of a kiosk-based “arrival” system. They engaged in a research process led by ID/Lab, a Melbourne-based design consultancy which has been developing a comprehensive wayfinding design strategy for Westmead. Connect_CX were asked to consult and peer review this research process and findings.
We established from the outset that one potential finding must be that kiosks are not necessary. Based on extensive surveys and interviews with staff, patients and family members, the goal was to first define the need for such investment, and second to understand the terms by which the system might be designed and integrated into the broader wayfinding strategy and IT environment.
“On a busy day probably 50% of our time is spent directing patients — navigation kiosks would be really helpful. If patients could “arrive” themselves that would also save a heap of time — that’s a significant part of the job.”
— Therapies Clinic reception staff
We’ve written extensively on the need to design the nouns and the verbs when a health system considers an investment such as this. Facilities and operations may be able to check a box once the tender is complete and the purchase order is signed, but every person around these new kiosks must have a basic knowledge of how they work in order for the investment to pay off, and processes must also be adjusted accordingly.
Additionally, they must integrate with other forms of communication so that users are not confused by the provision of different content, including terminology, numbering systems, map graphics and the like.
And finally, they need to be designed and tested alongside end users (staff, volunteers, patients and families) so that designers/developers have no blind spots with respect to content, usability, form, maintenance, etc.
These key findings are recorded in the report:
1. There are significant problems with the entire system of wayfinding communications tools at Westmead, which results in high costs on staff time and negative consumer experiences.
2. A vast amount of staff time at points of service is spent on the following:
3. Consumer and staff attitudes towards self-service kiosks are generally positive, as long as they supplement rather than replace options to interact with service staff.
“If people could self-serve using a kiosk it would free me to spend more time better organizing the appointments, speaking with patients on the phone to confirm their details and create a better experience for them.”
— Dental reception staff
4. Consumer frustrations are most acute when dealing with the Emergency Department, but simple interventions could help alleviate negative experiences.
“Rather than standing at triage and being ignored, it would be good to know earlier how long you need to wait…real time updates would help a lot with our anxiety when waiting.”
— Jacqueline, ED and outpatient consumer
5. Consumers want to be able to book appointments online and access more information online about planning their journeys to appointments within the hospital. The kiosk should integrate with these pre-visit efforts.
“My one wish is that we could book outpatient appointments online — I’ve waited 45 minutes on the phone to do a simple administrative procedure.”
— Belinda, ED/outpatient consumer
6. Consumers want better and more flexible queue management systems at appointments and to avoid duplicate filling in of health data (via digital tools, printed forms, verbal confirmation, etc.).
7. Consumers are confused about the hospital services and amenities that are available to them, and receive conflicting information.
8. Students on hospital placements have distinct wayfinding needs that entail general familiarity with the hospital, and this need is not currently well served.
9. Appointment letters are inconsistently designed and often ineffective in communicating wayfinding information.
The focus groups were especially helpful in determining design considerations for the kiosk. On the whole, attitudes toward kiosks were positive and many consumers expressed their preference to use them rather than approaching staff. These were their comments:
“I would not use the kiosk if it looked dirty.”
— Andrew, ED and therapy patient
Westmead Hospital has integrated these findings into a tender process and is now seeking software development and hardware providers to begin the design process. ID/Lab, as primary wayfinding consultant, will be integrated with this team once a decision has been reached.