Skip to main content
Posted on October 6th, 2011 by
This is a picture of the fire escape route from a hotel where I recently stayed. I am sure this image is perfectly clear to the architect or engineers that worked on this building. Unfortunately, the designers of the information failed to understand their audience and, more importantly, the context in which the information will be consumed
First, failing to understand the audience for which the information is intended. The view of the building is a horizontal slice through the structure, shown in great detail. This view makes little sense to people whose mental map of the building is developed by walking through hallways. It also contains a great deal of extraneous information. The image shows the location of the electrical closet and air ducts. Why would a hotel guest care?
Second, and more importantly, there is a failure to understand the context in which the information will be used. People are trying to escape a potential fire. They are in a state of panic. In this "fight or flight" mode, the portions of the brain associated with processing complex information are all but shut down. The only way information has a chance to get through is by keeping it very clear and very simple. The diagram fails for several reasons.
Poor information architecture. The critical "area of refuge" call out is grouped with call outs for air ducts, laundry room and electrical closet, displayed in the same font and style. There is no visual indication that this piece of information is more important than the information around it.
Warning overload. If you make everything critical, nothing is critical. There are a total of 9 "red" notifications. People can pay attention to one, possibly two of them in a state of panic. With nine, people will simple not know what to do.
If people had to rely on this information in the case of a fire, it would fail them. The consequences are potentially dire. It just so happens that the last time I was in this hotel, the fire alarms went off at 1:00 AM. Most people opened their doors, half-asleep and confused. They stood in the doorway unsure of what to do. Some people were walking down the hallway, as if they knew where they were going. Everyone started to follow them.
Fortunately, proper information design came together with an understanding of the audience and the context. The lighted exit signs. The signs contain only the necessary information: the path out. It only shows one piece of information at the time. One decision: Come this way. Once you are there, there is another sign showing you the next step. The signs are large, well lit, easy to read and consistent across thousands of locations. Clearly the designers of this system understood that people would be in a panic, the may be groggy and darkness or smoke could make it hard to see. A beautiful system indeed.