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The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) turned to Design Council for support with a project to improve navigation around its head office in order to help its staff work smarter and reduce cost.
The wayfinding project’s rationale was around efficiency savings and improving navigation. We needed better signage and wayfinding within the building.Carsue Curniffe, BIS Policy Officer for Project Management and Finance
BIS is the government department responsible for economic growth. The department is headquartered in central London at 1 Victoria Street which houses approximately 4,000 staff and receives an estimated 6,000 visitors a month.
It was restructured in October 2010 as part of the government’s focus on reducing the deficit and promoting growth. As a result, its running cost was reduced by 22 per cent. The restructuring also highlighted the importance of everyone within the department working smarter. As such, a number of initiatives were then undertaken to gauge how this could best be achieved.
One initiative involved research which showed staff at 1 Victoria Street spent an estimated two hours every week trying to find colleagues and places to meet within the building. Furthermore, visitors and new staff had a poor experience due to inadequate information and signage.
Faced with the prospect of even more visitors using the building with the planned introduction by central government of a new system of inter-departmental access passes for government departmental staff, BIS decided to improve the way people navigated around its work environment.
The aim was to improve efficiency and people’s experience. The project would coincide with a wider initiative to improve BIS’s technology, space, processes and protocols including the department’s visual identity.
“The wayfinding project’s rationale was around efficiency savings and improving navigation. We needed better signage and wayfinding within the building,” said Carsue Curniffe, BIS Policy Officer for Project Management and Finance.
With little experience in dealing with design agencies, however, in 2013 BIS turned to Design Council for support and expertise.
“We needed Design Council’s user-focused, analytical approach to problem-solving and its design industry experience. These were skills and expertise necessary to effectively structure and manage the project which we just didn’t have in-house,” Curniffe added.
What we did
The BIS building was not a great visitor experience and every aspect of that had an associated cost – the project was about money-saving and finding better ways of working.Gavin Pryke, Design Associate
Design Council assigned experienced Design Associate Gavin Pryke to work with BIS. Building on work already undertaken which had highlighted the navigational problems at 1 Victoria Street, Pryke led Curniffe and his team through further detailed analysis of the issues to ensure the design solution was constructed according to user needs.
“The BIS building was not a great visitor experience and every aspect of that had an associated cost – the project was about money-saving and finding better ways of working,” Pryke explained.
On Pryke’s recommendation, BIS decided the project would be phased. The first step would involve the appointment of a design agency to design and develop a navigational solution which would then be piloted in selected areas within the building. The next would be to refine the initial design according to user feedback before implementing it building-wide.
Gavin provided us with a clear focus – helping us clarify what was needed, write a design brief, then select the most appropriate design agency.Carsue Curniffe, BIS Policy Officer for Project Management and Finance
Pryke explained the risk involved in the project: “The biggest threat to success was rushing ahead too quickly and ending up with a solution that didn’t fully meet users’ needs. With budget an important concern, it was essential to guard against this happening,” he says. “That’s where prototyping comes into its own. Piloting different design elements and user testing are important ways to ensure what you end up with is the best design solution.”
With Pryke’s help, the project’s parameters were encapsulated in a detailed design brief. Pryke then introduced the BIS team to a number of external design agencies with relevant skills and experience. Navigational design specialist Applied Wayfinding was selected and work on designing a new navigational and wayfinding system began.
Curniffe found Pryke’s detailed knowledge of the design industry “extremely helpful”. He explained how the Design Associate worked: “Gavin provided us with a clear focus – helping us clarify what was needed, write a design brief, then select the most appropriate design agency. Overall, the process was far smoother and quicker than it might otherwise have been and we ended up with a design brief that was far more succinct.”
The design team’s first step was to undertake further research to understand in greater detail what users wanted and highlight specific areas to address. An environmental audit produced a number of important findings.
“Reception contained no information for the building. Staff didn’t always know where to send people and often deferred to security,” said Ben Acornly, Applied Wayfinding Creative Director. “On arrival it was not immediately clear how to access floors. Few visual cues indicated what was at the end of spaces such as corridors.”
There were also many ad-hoc meeting spaces in unexpected areas and hand-written notes and sheets taped to doors. Meanwhile, interviews with staff conducted by the design team revealed confusion arising from a proliferation of different names for different areas within the building, and an unnecessary hierarchy of room names.
The designers explored design options and considered colour coding and branding within the BIS brand design framework. Concept designs were then developed for Curniffe and his team to review.
A navigational system based on powder-coated aluminium boxes for permanent information and using a dark blue colour palette was developed. This was tested in February 2014 then refined and retested.
In April 2014, a prototype design including a variety of wayfinding improvements was implemented in two pilot areas within the building and tested over six weeks on the building’s ground and third floors. The aim was to evaluate the time saved finding people and meeting rooms. Different elements of the design including colour, typology and sign positioning were also assessed.
Research involved testing user experience in adapted and non-adapted areas and comparing the results. This research involved a variety of different techniques including eye tracking – a process of monitoring either where a person is looking or eye motion in order to gauge ease of use.
Looking back, I doubt we could have conducted the project we did without the support we had. I can’t fault any element of the process.Carsue Curniffe, BIS Policy Officer for Project Management and Finance
Following completion of the pilot project in spring 2014, a business case was written and presented to senior managers. This was needed to secure the additional funding required to roll out the new navigational and wayfinding design throughout 1 Victoria Street.
By the year’s end, a decision on whether and, if so, how to proceed was still being awaited. Despite this, Curniffe believes Design Council’s support has been invaluable. “Looking back, I doubt we could have conducted the project we did without the support we had. I can’t fault any element of the process,” he says.
“Working with our Design Associate gave us an approach to procuring design agencies we would not otherwise have had. We built understanding of the design industry, too – something we didn’t have as most of the design work we needed previously was handled through our estates contracts,” Curniffe adds.
“He helped us to be totally clear about what we wanted from a design agency – this was critical, because you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. But perhaps the most important thing of all was the license it gave us to try things out differently.”