PatientWay Blog

Wayfinding: factoring vision, low literacy and language differences into your strategy

Written by Jay Lawrence on December 17th, 2012. Posted in Hospital kiosk, Hospital Wayfinding

Wayfinding confusion Wayfinding: factoring vision, low literacy and language differences into your strategy“Sigh…don’t they see the signage?”

Such a thought has likely passed through many a hospital staff member’s mind when approached for directions by a patient or visitor.

Yes, your hospital’s wayfinding signage may make perfect sense…to you. But certain personal limitations can hinder others’ ability to see, read and understand even the simplest of directions.

To ensure your signage is the most effective possible, here are three considerations you should always factor into your hospital wayfinding strategy:

1. Vision problems

Approximately 142 million adults over age 40 in the US have some sort of vision problem. And by 2030, it’s estimated that the rates of vision loss will double.

As a result, the need for visually clearer signage is increasing rapidly.

It may sound obvious, but it’s imperative that signage can be easily read. This means considering all types of design factors including:

  • Scale,
  • Type size and font(s),
  • Spacing and borders,
  • Lighting,
  • Color contrast, and
  • Viewing distance.

2. Low levels of literacy

According to Pro Literacy, almost 100 million adults in the US read at or below an eight-grade level.

Moreover, research shows a strong link between low literacy and poor health. This means many folks walking through your hospital’s doors can only deal with simple, clear materials involving uncomplicated tasks.

Adding more words to explain directions more explicitly is not the solution: in fact, doing so may only compound the problem.

A good wayfinding strategy will take into consideration the ability of the average person to:

  1. “Read” your content—whether in the way of words, universal health symbols or otherwise;
  2. Understand what you are trying to communicate; and
  3. Apply that insight to their next steps.

3. Minority languages

While English is still the predominant language in the US, census data shows that Spanish, Chinese, German, French, Korean and Vietnamese are the main languages spoken in 40 million homes across the country.

Facilitating multiple languages through signage is not an easy feat. To do so using “physical” signage (e.g., made of metal, wood, fabric etc.) is not only visually overwhelming, but can run up manufacturing costs.

Electronic wayfinding, offered through self-service kiosks, is a viable option that allows patients and visitors to select their language of preference.

Don’t forget to consider regional language differences: for example, French is spoken differently in the US than it is in Canada, and in France—and they may use different terminology or nuances to explain the same concept.

Wayfinding kiosks can be customized so the translation of certain terms is reflective of those subtle—yet significant—language differences.

You should also consider using more common, easy-to-understand, rather than complex scientific, words. For example, instead of “oncology,” use “cancer.”

It’s just good customer service

The hospital environment is intimidating enough without introducing the complexity of navigation into the mix. But by making your wayfinding strategy as inclusive as possible, you can expect to get fewer requests for directions to the nearest elevator or doctor’s office.

Lindsey McCaffrey is a freelance web and social media copywriter/blogger based in Ottawa, Canada. Read her Absolutely Write blog at

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