The Signage Of A Good Experience

I was in an airport this week and got lost trying to find a taxi. There were some initial signs pointing to the taxi area, but then they disappeared. So I ended up walking around the road in front of the airport for about 5 minutes — until I accidentally found the right spot. How many times has that happened to you — looking for a taxi or your baggage claim area or the right airline ticket counter? The real question is how many thousands (maybe millions?) of people does this happen to every year?!?

But these issues aren’t unique to airports. One of my research efforts is the evaluation of Web-to-store experiences. So we’ve been looking at retailers’ in-store experience. It’s striking to see how many retailers do a poor job helping customers find their way in a store. If you want to find something in a big store, often times you need to wander aimlessly and hope that you’ll eventually find the right area — whether it’s bedding or TVs.

What’s the solution?


This may not sound very sexy, but good signage can really make a difference for many customers. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Directories at every entrance and near all elevators, stairs, and escalators. Our research has found many stores that don’t follow this practice. Make the directories very visible.
  • Overhead signs at every decision point. As people wander through a store or an airport or a bank or any other area, they come to spots where they need to make decisions like going left or right or straight or up the stairs or down the stairs. At every one of these decision points, customer should be able to see signage that helps them make the right decision.
  • Clear language. It’s not good enough for the signs to exist, they need to make sense to customers. We actually were in a department store that had overhead signs that pointed to “bedding,” “home goods,” and “domestic textiles.” We were looking for linens — but had no idea which area was correct (“domestic textiles”[whatever that is] turned out to be the right one).
  • Good legibility. Make sure that customers can read the signs from wherever they need the information.
  • Test it. We often do expert experience reviews where we attempt to accomplish tasks as-if we were customers. Another approach is to invite target customers to come to your store/terminal/branch/etc. and have them try to find some things. Walk with them and ask what they think. Any confusion is an issue. Don’t rationalize the issues — just fix them.

The bottom line: Help customers find their way — it’s a sign that you care.

Written by 

I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about leading-edge XM topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

6 thoughts on “The Signage Of A Good Experience”

  1. Brian: Great catch. I totally missed that article — so the timing of my post was just a coincidence. Interestingly, I started looking at airport experiences like this in 2004 — when I worked with Paul Sonderegger on a review of airport kiosks. Our kiosk review methodlogy has 3 parts: software, hardware, and environment. The environment portion of the review (which was updated in 2005) has 10 criteria that span 3 categories: location, signage, and workspace. So I’ve been “looking” at signage for a while. Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Helping customers is a sign that you care, but what if it decreases sales? In a grocery store, for instance, they’ve made an art of directing your eye to the more expensive versions of a product (bulk sizes on the bottom shelf) and putting displays in aisles so a bottleneck will influence you to pick up an impulse buy. Where is the balance between helping customers find what they want and helping customers find what they don’t yet know they want? Do you observe both usability and sales results? I’d love to hear that stores with better signage have both happier customers and greater sales.

  3. Jennifer: Great comment. Let me start by saying that there are a lot of things that companies can do to improve the experience (with signage, etc.) that do not in any way conflict with their business goals. The example that you highlight is a good one. What happens when an investment in customer experience will cause an apparent negative business impact? I believe that IN THE LONG RUN, firms are better off helping their target customers successfully accomplish their goals even if it appears to have some short-term impact in sales. But the trick is to prioritize the experience for TARGET CUSTOMERS. So, I would not just assume that those key customers want the lowest-cost bulk items — maybe they don’t. And if grocery stores make their end cap displays too much of an inconvenience, then they may very well lose some customers (who don’t like inconvenience) in the future.

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