Design AV Based on Observed Needs and Behavior

airport signage delayed last call on time

In April, my wife and I took a vacation trip to Florida. On our way back we had a layover in New Jersey — but our first plane was delayed and we now only had an hour and a half. So, when we landed, we were in a rush to get to our new gate, which was in a different terminal. While taxiing to the gate, the airline crew told us how to go to the new terminal (go to Gate 28 and take the escalator down).

That information is critical to the rest of the story. Because of the delay, we were in a rush to get to the terminal and knew where to go, so granted, we were not paying a lot of attention. Yet, something was nagging in my head as we walked through the terminal. I knew something was not right or looked different, but I didn’t put in any effort to figure out what it was. About halfway through the terminal I finally took a look at the arrival/departure board and it struck me. All the digital signage had an emergency warning on it. When I say all, I mean ALL the digital signage in the entire terminal. The pictures included here are actual pictures taken from that day.

Scott Tiner - signage in the airport

But why were the signs activated in an emergency state? It may have been an actual emergency, it may have been a test of the system or it may have been a mistake, I never found out.

What really struck me, however, is that I did not observe a single person who seemed to pay any attention to the signs. No one stopped to read the signs and stopped to sit down at their current spot. In fact, and this is important, I did not see or hear anyone even seem to notice the alerts or talk about them. Here are my lessons learned from this experience.

If this was a test, then it was a poorly planned and executed one. These signs are meant to alert people to an “emergency condition” and teach people how to behave. What was I taught during this? I was taught that these signs are not to be taken seriously. If the airport staff wanted to test the signage, they needed to do it at a time when the airport was completely closed. Granted, it was close to that; we were walking through the terminal at 9:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, not exactly a bustling time, but there were still planes arriving and departing, so it was still technically an active terminal. AV should learn from IT here. IT never conducts maintenance during regular working hours. If there is no such thing as a time when a terminal is completely closed, then there should have been some type of notification that the system was being tested.

If this was human error or a system malfunction, there needs to be better and faster communication to fix the problem. We were in the terminal for approximately 20 minutes and the signs never changed. Twenty minutes has to be more than enough time to change the content of the digital signage. If the staff cannot react within 20 minutes, then one has to question the point of posting an emergency. Many emergencies would have come and gone in 20 minutes.

Scott Tiner signage in the airport - 2

Finally, let’s think about human behavior because this was my biggest shock and lesson. Let me reiterate that not a single person reacted to these signs, and that includes my wife and me. As we talked about it later, one thing became clear. Because we were in a rush, and because we knew where we were going, we were not paying attention to signage. We were walking quickly and only looking for the static signs that show gate numbers. When planning an emergency alert system, one needs to think about multiple senses and methods to attract attention. In this case, there was no sound or alert noise playing. There were no flashing lights or strobe lights that would attract attention. The system relied exclusively on digital signage.

Of course, there is much I don’t know about why these signs were displaying this message on the night we walked through the terminal. There are a plethora of reasons for this, many of which are not emergency situations. It did, however, reinforce the concept that we need to watch, study and design based on human behavior. If I had sat in a design meeting and the plan for emergency notification on the digital signs came up, I would have thought it was a great idea. Of course, people in an airport are paying attention to the signage. Witnessing what actually happens clearly taught me that was not the case. Additionally, as we plan technology we need to keep in mind that humans often react based on how others are reacting. In this case, I think part of the reason that no one reacted was, well, no one else was reacting. So, along with training on how and when to activate the alert system, there needs to be training with airport staff on how to behave in that situation. Staff should be either modeling the behavior the signs are calling for “stay in your present location, remain calm”, or they should be in the terminal drawing attention to the signs and helping direct people on what to do.

One of the worst things we can do in design is to design based on assumptions and not actual information. Doing so may end with us designing, selling and installing systems that do not do what the customer actually wants. In this situation, that could not only be a waste of money but could be a threat to safety.