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Can Virtual Response Testing Help Architects Improve Wayfinding Design in Healthcare Facilities?

User experience (UX) design is typically a term used by digital architects when building websites. This nomenclature borrows from the mechanisms of complex wayfinding design in cartography and real-world architecture. Recently, researchers have been using Virtual Response testing to capture biometric data that can, in turn, help architects and designers deliver truly intuitive experiences for staff, patients, and visitors alike when navigating healthcare services in real-world facilities.

When Robin Snell, Parkin Director and healthcare architect, led Parkin as part of the design team along with B+H Architects, for the new award-winning Corner Brook Acute Care Hospital, he wanted to create a user-centric blueprint that could deliver a truly intuitive wayfinding system for staff, patients, and visitors.

The Corner Brook Acute Care Hospital is a 164-bed facility that provides acute care for a catchment area of approximately 300 kilometres. It’s a seven-storey, 56,000-square-metre hospital that offers a cancer care program, including radiation services. As the only acute care hospital in that portion of western Newfoundland and Labrador the facility needed to balance the quality of the patient and staff experience with optimized operational efficiency.

Snell teamed up with Cornell University’s Dr. Saleh Kalantari who is the director of Design and Augmented Intelligence Lab (DAIL). Together, they set out to apply Dr. Kalantari’s research methodology to gather user-generated evidence that could support the effectiveness of an enhanced wayfinding and signage design strategy for improved patient and visitor outcomes.

For patients and their loved ones, navigating a healthcare facility during a crisis can profoundly affect their sense of well-being. From parking, to reception, to figuring out where they need to be, wayfinding design is the first contact most facility users will depend on. Efficacious wayfinding design can help alleviate stress and anxiety for users and staff, but it is often approached as an afterthought once a facility has been designed and built.

An effective human-centred wayfinding design is more than just mapping. Colour, signage, spatial elements, and material usage can all play a role in helping users navigate a space. Each of these elements represents a significant expense, and it would be logistically implausible to evaluate different wayfinding systems after a facility has been built. At the same time, while stakeholder input is valuable information, self-reporting on user experience provides designers with limited, biased data.

By combining virtual-reality (VR) technology with biometric feedback, Snell, Dr. Kalantari, and the research team were able to test the physiological responses of various users much earlier in the design process. They planned then implement their findings in a more efficacious wayfinding system.

Together, they developed a method for rigorously testing and optimizing wayfinding design strategies prior to facility construction. While there are some limitations in generalizing from VR findings to real-world contexts, this approach can fill an important gap in current design practice since biometric data can add an additional layer of empirical feedback from stakeholders as they virtually experience various wayfinding modalities.

A total of 100 research participants were recruited using a purposeful virtual reality sampling technique based on Dr. Kalantari’s methodology. Each study participant was fitted with a non-invasive EEG cap to record electrical brain activity, as well as electrooculography sensors (EOG) to record eye motions, electrocardiogram sensors (ECG) to record heartbeat, a galvanic skin response (GSR) unit to record skin conductance, Hospital staff, patients, and visitors may each have different needs when navigating a space, so participants were assigned different VR simulation-based navigational tasks in inpatient and outpatient units to complete. This process virtually immersed participants in a fully designed space where they could give feedback to the design team about various design elements. Architectural design cues like colour contrast and specific materials use that highlighted destinations proved to benefit wayfinding tasks and reduce stress for users.

In the end, complications due to COVID protocols and some technology glitches delayed the team’s research goals, so they ultimately were unable to use the research to inform the final design. The results did, however, validate their approach after completion. By using this methodology, designers in the future will be able to test and implement the most effective wayfinding strategies before construction begins. Rather than being approached as an afterthought, wayfinding strategies can become an integral part of the overall design process from the earliest design stages.


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