Los Angeles Metro's Hollywood and Highland station. Courtesy CHK America
Wayfinding — the science of navigation in public spaces — and cognitive load — a term used to describe the intellectual pressure that is placed upon a person during decision making situations — are inextricably linked when discussing the successful use of a public transportation network and to understand how they work together, I will provide a little background on each.
We all use wayfinding information whenever we leave our homes, whether it’s to find a store or an office; or catching the right flight at the airport; or the right doctor or ward in the hospital. Public spaces are complex, and wayfinding tools help to navigate them — tools such as words, lights, sounds and graphics.
CapMetro's MetroRapid system. Courtesy: CHK America
Wayfinding is also used in public transit — traditionally this effort has taken the form of static information, such as flags on bus stop poles, system maps in transit centers, station identity names fastened to walls, and in-vehicle placards on railcars and in buses. All of this begins to build an information network for the rider. However, with few exceptions, deployment of a thorough and effective static wayfinding system in public transit has not been successful in the U.S. Why? Primarily, it comes down to the cost of maintenance of deploying the necessary amount of static information and then maintaining it. When a schedule or route changes, static information must be updated, which required enormous time and money from agencies, especially when thousands of stops are involved.
Public transportation is such a complex system, we as an industry need to go to extra lengths to assist our customers and with today’s technology, we are now in a position to do so. Suddenly, we can provide up to date, accurate information quickly and extensively. We can make understanding public transportation “easy” for a fraction of the cost, right? Yes, we can. And, one might argue that with multiple touch points to access information digitally — we have mobile phones, digital watches, interactive kiosks, digital signage, etc. — you should get all the information out there to everyone all of the time? No, definitely not, and this is where the whole issue of cognitive load becomes extremely important.
Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District's ConnectPoint transit kiosk. Courtesy CHK America
CHK addresses these key issues with each and every new project. The correct balance between providing detailed wayfinding information for public transit users and cognitive load is essential. Our research indicates that the customer has a tolerance of eight seconds before frustration sets in. We are careful to work within that design guideline.
Remember, cognitive load is a term used to describe the intellectual pressure that is placed upon a person during decision making situations — it is the amount of information that needs to be processed to complete a task — and the more complex the decision making process, the higher the cognitive load. To complicate this important topic further, everyone has a different cognitive capacity. My guess is that Einstein would be cognitively overloaded much less frequently than I am, for example. Riders would not and probably could not sift through the masses of service data to find what is relevant to them. It would be overwhelming. In wayfinding, therefore, reducing cognitive load means providing the person with the minimum amount of information required to find their way at the right time and place. It means taking into account what an acceptable amount of information can be provided to an average individual during their decision making process to deliver relevant, useful information rather than lots of information.
It is then a question of marrying up the correct information with the correct digital device. With our new digital products, we give careful consideration to what information is useful and understandable in the digital environment and the appropriate devices that need to be put in place to allow transit agencies to maximize the effectiveness of their efforts in distributing their service information.
Valley Metro neighborhood map. Courtesy CHK America
I think we all agree that a mobile phone is an excellent medium for next departure information. The message is short and unambiguous. At the same time, I think we can all agree that asking a rider to use a mobile phone to analyze a complex system map probably isn’t the way to go. There are more and more delivery systems being developed for digital data. Watches for example.
It is up to us to understand how to best use these delivery systems and what information is useful on these systems and what information is irrelevant. Combining traditional wayfinding techniques with digital wayfinding strategies offers our industry an unprecedented opportunity to remove the barriers and problems that so many people find frustrating. Delivering accurate, timely service information through the appropriate interface has the effect of reducing cognitive load, delivering relevant, quickly understood information to the customer and providing a sense of success to all parties involved.
Rick Wood is the president/CEO of CHK America Inc., a premier best practice provider of customer information solutions reaching over two billion, fully 20%, of all U.S. public transportation customers.
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