05 June 2006

Way finding: “get (in and) out of Denver baby go, go”

For the last couple of weeks I have been taking a much-needed break in the front range mountains of Colorado. I love it here, hope to make this my home soon and have combined recreation with some prospecting and networking. Along the way I had the opportunity to be a frustrated “new user”, so I though it worth writing as that perspective is always relevant.

On a couple of occasions I drove to Denver International Airport to either pick up or drop someone off. In airport terminology these are referred to quite logically as “arrivals” and “departures”. Though I had been through this airport on a dozen or more connecting flights I had ever seen it from the outside.

Driving from west Denver it is simply a matter of following I-70 until you see the exit signs for the airport. And, as an added bonus, you can see the airport’s tent configuration from miles away. So what is the problem you might ask? Well, having never been to the airport before, I was prompted with some 7 potential exits miles before reaching the airport. At each one I wondered if I was passing “my” exit. At no time was short term or terminal parking even mention as an option. Not until I was 100 meters or so from the terminal itself did the first and only sign mention short-term parking. The signage never directed me the wrong way… nor did it ever confuse me… it just never gave me any reassurance that I was headed the right way. For at least 5 miles I found myself wondering if I should have already exited to reach the terminal.

Additionally, the signage on several occasions refers to the east and west terminals. In reality, they are two sides of one large terminal. Arriving on the wrong one seams of little consequence to some but not all travelers.

As I track back and think about the users that might have been identified by the airport signage authority (I am supposing there is one), there were likely four main groups of visitors aside from people that work there. 1) The layover passenger with no need for the directional signage. 2) The veteran user, who after a trip or two sharing my experience, or having taken direction from someone with more experience, has no problem navigating to the correct curb (more on this later). 3) The arrival passenger that is getting into his car (rented or otherwise). 4) The local departure passenger that will park in one of several long-term parking lost. And lastly there is me, the novice, dropping off or picking up a passenger for the first time. Granted, mine is likely the smaller of these groups, but new users are fundamental to any system. Getting me through my first experience with confidence and reassurance ought to be a priority - coming second only to satisfying existing customers.

As an aside, the trend appears to be that curb drop off and pick up is routine. I am accustomed to parking (short term) and accompanying my passenger into the airport. Even more traditional, is for me to great my guest at the gate when they arrive and come off the plane. In Denver, there is no short-term parking for arrivals. They are expected to find their bags and their way to the curb to be picked up. To me this seems a lot like pulling into the driveway and honking to pick up a date.

Directional signage is one of the best disciplines that graphic designers have available to them as a reference in architecting navigable web sites. The parallel of course is that while we don’t want to inundate the seasoned user with redundant or elementary instructions, there is a middle ground where both the new user and the experienced user can be addressed simultaneously. Maybe it was just a small thing, maybe it was just me, but I was certainly without reassurance until the last possible moment in my Denver Airport orientation.