Wayfinding: the Importance of Assessment

Mark VanderKlipp
6 min readDec 14, 2020


Gain an understanding of both physical and informational environments

Which interaction would you choose?

Scenario 1

You’re not feeling well: dizzy, a bit nauseated, a headache that keeps coming and going, occasional blurred vision. So you make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Once you sit down with him, he asks about your symptoms. You share the details, telling him you worry that this might be some form of brain cancer. He takes your word for it, schedules an MRI and refers you directly to a brain surgeon.

Scenario 2

You’re not feeling well so you make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Once you sit down with her, she asks about your symptoms. You share the details, telling her you worry that this might be some form of brain cancer. She asks a few more questions about what you’ve been doing since the symptoms began, gives you a quick but thorough exam, then tells you you’re dehydrated and prescribes Gatorade and a good nights sleep.

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:

  • They’ve worked hard to build a Request for Proposal that details the very problem they’ve diagnosed for themselves.
  • They look for vendors who will do both the MRI and the brain surgery, choosing the vendor who can demonstrate they’ve done the same work on someone that looks just like them.
  • Or worse, mandating the work go to the lowest bidder. Or even worse, choosing the firm that built the MRI machine (e.g. a sign company) to do it all.

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.

But what people KNOW is more important than what they SEE.


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.

The Details

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:

  • Virtual research: In advance of the trip, we schedule multiple opportunities to meet virtually with representatives from across the organization to understand the issues you face in terms of terminology, connectivity and the tools you use to deliver wayfinding. These cross-functional calls allow many voices to be heard and stories to be shared — safely, at a distance.
  • Three to five days on site for “boots on the ground” research:
  • Observing patient and staff behaviors, interviewing individuals to understand workarounds that they may have designed for lack of a better system.
  • Meeting with leaders across disciplines to assess the “interoperability” of the current wayfinding system, physically and informationally.
  • Talking with both staff and patients to understand what challenges they’ve faced; often this information is freely shared in the moment because we are neutral facilitators, and are there to actually solve the problems they’re sharing.
  • Designating one or two problematic routes to which we might apply new wayfinding logic and tools.
  • Scheduling meetings with internal patient advocacy groups such as Patient Family Advisory Councils.
  • Photographing the environment and building a data set for further study.
  • Final deliverables:
  • A comprehensive initial needs assessment that includes potential terminology and tools as part of an initial testing phase;
  • A photograph-driven narrative of proposed sign types to prototype along a designated route, and a process for design, specification and fabrication of the prototype test, and
  • Once prototypes are built, a process for touring the facility and receiving feedback from patients, visitors, volunteers and staff.


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.

Originally posted to www.connect-cx.com on November 25, 2020



Mark VanderKlipp

Partner at Connect_CX, The Adjacency; speaker, facilitator, systems thinker, healthcare experience designer: www.connect-cx.com