Navigating the Best Wayfinding Techniques  on the College Campus

Navigating the Best Wayfinding Techniques on the College Campus

Author Christopher Gardner will be presenting a general conference seminar at EduComm Expo 2015 entitled, “Navigating the Best Wayfinding Techniques on the College Campus,” on Thursday, October 1st, from 3:00-4:00pm at the Georgia World Congress Center. For more information about EduComm Expo, or to register for this or any other educational seminar or workshop and learn more about digital communications technologies and strategies go to

Designing messaging for a digital signage communication network can be similar to designing a website; you must understand your audience, what is of importance to them, how they are most likely to use the tool you are designing, and how you can attract and engage new viewers. These considerations are also important when determining how to incorporate wayfinding into a campus digital signage network, which is why University of Michigan programmers contemplated not only the complexities of navigational direction, but also factored in applicable user identification, average information retention, and location as well as accessibility.

The University of Michigan uses digital signage to communicate with three key target audiences: students, faculty, and staff. When studying target engagement, results indicated that faculty and staff, already familiar with most campus locations, were less likely to use wayfinding features; and students, once acclimated to the campus environment, relied less on this function after the first two weeks of classes. These findings raised two important questions: 

  1. Which audience is most responsive to campus-wide digital communications?
  2. What is the best way to attract attention and create engagement with those already familiar with the campus layout?

Universities across the country are considering incorporating wayfinding, not only for students, faculty, and staff, but also for a secondary target: campus visitors. Programmers are being asked to design wayfinding features that are readily visible and easy to use, whether it is to find the nearest restroom or a conference location.

Stimulating engagement with primary audiences in specific buildings or locations can be accomplished by considering which information students, faculty, and staff need in response to their physical location in order to encourage them to view the digital signage network as a beneficial resource. Wayfinding needs often transcend single location information, since target audiences often visit other parts of campus. Providing such information did not require mapping out each individual building, but rather providing directions to frequently visited locations such as the student union, campus bookstore or local dining options. There are limitless opportunities to provide other functionality to engage users who might otherwise be uninterested.

Providing direction beyond a single physical location not only creates additional technical complexity, that complexity also challenges an individual user’s ability to retain the information, particularly if the route instruction requires cross-campus navigation. The key is to make wayfinding information memorable and portable.

One of the simpler methods for remembering a route is known as a "breadcrumb trail." Like the visual it calls to mind, it provides step-by-step directions in addition to visually displaying the route on a map increases the usability of the message. Digital displays can provide users with textual recordable steps that can easily be followed as they progress along the route. QR codes can also enable users to scan the code with a handheld device to retrieve textual or graphical representation of the route through to their destination.

Those responsible for navigation design can take simple steps to further enhance memorability and portability by following basic web usability standards and providing text that is clear and easy-to-read. High contrast, large font size, short descriptions, and uncluttered maps improve readability and usage. Map routes should contrast and vary in color when detailing egresses such as stairs or elevators. The use of layered maps can also highlight differences in topography and egress points in different physical locations.

Accessibility should also be considered in navigation design. This is especially true for wayfinding. Users with physical limitations or special needs must also be accommodated and may require different methods of interacting with displays. Those designing and programming such systems need to consider these requirements in designing the network layout, display placement, and interactive options, and in directing users to their destinations.

One example of this is visible at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, where the fastest route between two points usually involves stairs. To accommodate audiences with accessibility challenges, all signage was coded with an accessibility option. When this option is enabled, all interaction on the display moves to the bottom third of the screen. This also removes the option of using stair egresses between floors, directing navigation through the lobby elevator; an option that is greatly appreciated by the many visitors to the building who are unable to use stairs.

While there are many challenges facing digital signage designers and programmers related to wayfinding on university campuses, there are also opportunities to partner with users to design signs that meet their needs. Combining this foresight with some simple user experience guidelines and accessibility standards will ensure that wayfinding is relevant to users’ needs and an integral part of digital communications messaging for all target audiences on campus going forward.

Christopher Gardner, Business Systems Analyst, University of Michigan has worked in IT for over 15 years and pioneered the use of digital signage at the University of Michigan.  He works closely with a small team of consultants to manage the infrastructure behind over 300 signs in over 50 units across campus.

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