Environmental Communications: How Understanding Experiences in Virtual Space Can Influence the Design of Experiences in Physical Space

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
September 22, 2014

UX professionals are accustomed to thinking about how people interact with digital user interfaces. Whether we’re designing a mobile application or a marketing Web site, it’s in our DNA to consider what would be the optimal experience for people. But digital user interfaces are not the only elements of an experience with which people interact. In services, people may also interact with each other, with processes, with communications, and with physical spaces, and it’s the responsibility of the service designer to understand their needs and create an optimal experience that considers all of these diverse elements. Plus, while the goal of a service designer is to think holistically about how these elements work together in a service experience, each element has its own discreet set of design considerations.

For example, we can script the interactions between a coffee-shop employee and a customer, then train employees on how to greet customers, take their orders, and exchange products for money. You have to anticipate customer responses, determine what any exceptions to the typical dialogue might be—as well as employees’ subsequent handling of them—and make sure that you train employees accordingly. Any elements that surround a service are relevant to interactions with customers, so designers need to be aware of them. In our example, you’d need a menu of the coffee products that maps well to both employees’ and customers’ understanding of the products. However, the design considerations for orchestrating the interpersonal interactions between employees and customers would be different from the design considerations for, say, organizing the information on the menu to make it clear and easy for customers to scan.

Once you realize that, in designing services, you need to think through so many additional elements of the experience beyond the digital ones, this can be overwhelming. In particular, dealing with the tangibility of physical spaces—in contrast to designing virtual, digital spaces—may cause some angst in UX designers. Whether the space is a coffee shop or a local hospital, physical space provides a tangible, structural context in which customers move.

Architects and designers work with walls, displays of products, registers, floors, signs, entrances, exits, and elevators. In contrast, the tangibility of the digital world ends with users’ physical interactions with a touchscreen, mouse, or wearable technology. Beyond that, the space in which users move is more abstract and cognitive. UX designers’ challenge is to make it obvious how to navigate that virtual world in the absence of physical and tangible elements. Navigation structures, screen layouts, and labeling are all necessary elements that help people to make sense of a virtual space.

The differences between designing a physical space and designing a virtual one are obvious. However, the research that I’ve conducted on how people interact with physical spaces—whether in stores, restaurants, hospitals, zoos, universities, or museums—tells me that numerous similarities also exist between designing physical and virtual spaces. In this column, I want to share what some of these similarities are—in the hope that UX professionals who are accustomed to designing digital spaces, but aspire to expand their skillset to designing physical spaces will be able to understand how relevant their existing expertise is to designing them.

Environmental Communications

Before diving into the similarities between physical and digital spaces, it’s important that I communicate what I mean by physical spaces and a UX professional’s ability to understand and design them.

Often, when I become involved in a project relating to the design of a physical space, an organization is updating their branding or introducing new services. The organization is interested in understanding how to optimize the signage—or wayfinding—and communications within the space to support those efforts. For example, I’ve received requests for research in the following situations:

  • A hospital and a university were in the process of rebranding their interior and exterior signage and, before designing a new wayfinding system, they wanted to understand how useful their current wayfinding system was in helping people to find their way.
  • A university was redesigning their campus map and wanted to understand how helpful the existing map was and compare it to proposed new versions.
  • Museums and zoos were launching new mobile-based educational services and wanted to understand how to improve people’s awareness of them.

These requests for research were not to inform the design of a brand new building or structure. No one expected me to tell them where to put the walls or whether the number of floors was correct. Rather, the findings and outcomes of the research related to designing environmental communications such as signs outside entrances, room numbers in hallways, maps, or directories. On these projects, the corollary to digital design was the placement of navigation, nomenclature, and information architecture—the elements that help people to find their way. As with digital design, these environmental communications are critical to the success of people’s interactions with physical spaces, and it’s these communications that UX professionals can help optimize through their understanding of designing digital spaces.

Applying Digital Research Methods to Physical Spaces

To understand how people interact with a physical space and any related environmental communications, you need to conduct research. UX professionals’ skills in figuring out the right research method to solve an identified problem, conducting research with the right balance between rigor and practicality, and distilling insights into meaningful findings and recommendations all apply to the physical world. Next, I’ll describe some of the most common research methods that I’ve used in service design. As you’ll see, they are identical to those for UX research.

Intercept Surveys or Interviews

When conducting a brief survey, you can approach people who are, for example, waiting for a doctor appointment or idly looking at their phone and ask them whether they are willing to answer a few questions. Typically, I’ve asked questions about the ease or difficulty of finding their way, whether they recall seeing or using any signs, whether they called or asked anyone for directions, and what other tools they may have used—for  example, a printed map. One interesting lesson that I’ve learned: If we asked whether people “got lost,” they usually said, “No.” But if we asked whether they were ever “turned around,” they said, “Yes.” This is not dissimilar to what we see in usability testing when participants—who have a much higher tolerance for bad design than we do—say an experience was easy to use when they clearly had difficulties in completing the tasks that we gave them.

Shadowing and Observing People

As is often the case with digital research, surveys and interviews can elicit only people’s actual feedback on a past experience or their anticipated feedback on a future experience. To see exactly how people navigate a space and use communications, observing them as they are doing so is the optimal approach. Of course, you can first create a checklist of observation areas such as the number of people who proceed in one direction versus another, whether they turn around and backtrack, and whether they notice or use signs and maps. Shadowing an individual, though tricky and potentially creepy, is one of the most insightful methods of research.

For example, at a museum, I shadowed visitors who approached an information desk. I heard where they were going and the directions they were given, then walked about 15 feet behind them to see whether they were able to find their way. If they had problems, I could see where they had issues and hypothesize why—for example, they may have missed the sign for the elevators or have gone out the wrong door. I could then brainstorm with the graphic and interior designers on solutions.

Shadowing people who are unfamiliar with a space is key. As with digital design, once users become familiar with a space, they’re comfortable navigating it. You’ll get more insights from observing users who are unfamiliar with a space and the communications that you’re researching.

Task-based Walkthroughs

Working with stakeholders, you could identify the five to eight destinations that are part of a task for volunteers. Then, either you could do a walkthrough, or you could ask another project team member to do it. Participants would try to find each destination and report back on how easy or difficult it was and whether they used any signs.

Concept Testing

Similar to digital design, when testing new communications, you can test everything from placement, prominence, and labeling to design and layout. The physicality of a space, however, presents different challenges from those that you encounter when testing a digital user experience. For example, when researching a physical space, you can neither use a neutral lab or testing facility nor use a test mobile device to simulate the experience as you could in digital research. Rather, you need to conduct concept testing on site because the physical space is the context that you want to understand. And you cannot separate people’s use of the space and its communications from the space itself.

If you’re testing a wayfinding communication such as a directional sign, it’s important that you place the sign where you intend to install it permanently. Then, compare your findings to the results of people’s using the current signage system. Did people notice the signs more, were they more useful, did people have an easier time finding their way? If you’re testing a map, you’ll need to intercept people and ask them to show you where they currently are on the map and the destination to which they are en route. And you’re testing a sign whose purpose is to create awareness of a new service or offering such as a mobile service in a museum, you’ll need to test the concept in different locations to compare how often people notice it and even review analytics—for example, calls they make to the mobile educational service.

The Importance of Hierarchy in Destination Finding

One of the major themes that you’ll uncover when conducting research in physical spaces is that a hierarchy exists in them, in much the same way that it exists in digital spaces. Breadth is evident in how wide the digital or physical space is that you’re researching; depth is evident in the almost-infinite number of paths that people can use to get to a destination. As a UX professional, you know that you can show a Web site’s breadth on its home page by, for example, using six main navigation sections; its depth by displaying 45 screens within those sections; and you know how diverse the taps or clicks that people use in finding a specific destination can be. When optimizing environmental communications in a physical space, you can apply similar thinking. For example, the hierarchy for a city hospital would be

  • city—adjacent buildings, streets, and mass-transportation systems
  • hospital campus—all of the real estate that the hospital comprises
  • specific hospital building—a single structure within the campus
  • specific wing in the hospital building—a section of a building—for example, Pulmonology
  • specific hallway—access to a group of rooms in a section of the building
  • specific suite or room—a single doctor’s office

As people navigate down a particular path through this hierarchy to their final destination, they’ll look for maps and signs that indicate where they are and where they need to go. They’ll use the physical structure itself to facilitate following their path. Walls and Do not enter signs act as boundaries; stairs provide a back-up plan if they can’t find an elevator or escalator. Plus, they’ll rely on people such as security guards and hospital personnel as their security blanket if they really get turned around.

The different burden in navigating the physical world in comparison to navigating the digital world is that people move their own body through the space. If users get lost on a Web site, they can just bail. But if people get lost in a physical space, it can be more frustrating—for example, if they’re in a museum and miss a live event—or even devastating for them—for example, if they’re in a hospital and miss a child’s birth. The stakes are simply higher.

That said, UX professionals do have the skills to help move people through a physical space effectively. In digital design, we work with nebulous, intangible spaces, which can be even more challenging than designing for physical spaces. We have to create visible structures and paths that are invisible. We rely on digital wayfinding elements such as navigation, You are here identifiers, and labeling to help people find what they’re looking for and give them confidence in navigating the virtual world. A UX professionals’ expertise in understanding people’s tasks, their paths, how to handle exceptions, and where to put wayfinding signs along the way in digital space is a perfect fit for designing wayfinding communications in a physical space.

Clarity and Consistency in Nomenclature

We all have our war stories about redesigning digital experiences and discovering that our nomenclature doesn’t match users’ expectations or that design elements and patterns differ throughout the experience. Our job is to find out what makes sense to users and ensure their experience hangs together. For physical spaces, these skills are just as relevant.

For example, hospitals use clinical and medical terms that people don’t understand for naming its sections. Museums and zoos come up with cutesy names for exhibits that don’t indicate what’s part of them. Instead of calling something a Student Center, a university might call it something like the John Doe Annex, naming it after a donor. What’s worse, if different stakeholders own different parts of the experience, Radiation on a hall sign may be called X-Ray on a map. UX professionals can help address such nomenclature inconsistencies. In fact, for several of the projects that I’ve worked on, a style guide was one of the final UX design deliverables. The research that I did provided input to the final guidelines for addressing nomenclature and consistency issues. 


Now, let me tell you a story: I know someone who was Manager of a UX department for a healthcare company. When the company was moving headquarters, he became involved in a project whose goal was to help employees make the transition to the new space. He tested the functionality and comfort of various pieces of furniture. He did pilot testing with rotating groups of employees to gain their feedback on using open-concept, collaborative workspaces rather than the historical cube farm. He did such a good job on helping with this transition between buildings that he became the Head of Change Management within the Facilities department.

Over the last few months, I’ve given presentations and written articles about UX professionals’ stretching themselves beyond designing for the digital world. User experience is evolving to be more strategic. Designers can do more than just create wireframes. They can design services. They can help their organizations and clients to understand environmental communications and influence their design. People may wonder, “Man, why do you keep harping on getting us to do something different from what we’re already doing.”

If, as a UX designer, you continue to be excited by what you’re already doing, you probably stopped reading much earlier. But many UX professionals reach a point in their career where they wonder, “What’s next?” My belief is that the skills that UX professionals have are of such tremendous value and are so easily transferable that you can apply them to designing numerous different types of experiences—moving beyond designing digital spaces, even to designing something as seemingly divergent as physical spaces. 

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

Other Columns by Laura Keller

Other Articles on Service Design

New on UXmatters