I've seen the insides of a few too many stores and airports over the last 3 weeks. Normally, I spend most of my time looking at e-commerce websites; doing competitive audits, looking for emerging best practices, and yes, buying stuff.
After what I've seen in stores and airports lately, I'm convinced that the "real" world is actually no easier to navigate than the online world. In fact, it's probably worse, but we're all just more forgiving because we live with it every day.
I wound up on the wrong road to the airport in one city despite Google maps, courtesy of bad road signs. Once I found the airport (just in time, thank you), my walk to the gate was dangerously close to going in the wrong direction, again, thanks to overlapping signs that contradicted one another. And why is it that when this happens, I am the one who feels stupid?
This experience prompted me to revisit an article that appeared the WSJ late last year: To Clarify Sloppy Signage, Airports Hire 'Wayfinders'.
The article left me optimistic that there is indeed someone watching us flounder, and that they do want to help (for a fee, of course). As it turns out, wayfinders (short for professionals that specialize in environmental design and signage) don't have it any easier than information architects have it on the web.
In my conversations with great IAs over the years, what irks most of them is that time after time, things that would make the site truly useful to customers wind up getting axed or convoluted by politics and conflicting business goals. The airport folks have it just as bad, as it turns out. Building ordinances, foreign languages, legal concerns, safety and maintenance issues, the list goes on. Everyone wants to be sure the sign works for their department, but few, if any are looking out for the 'whole' customer, who just wants to find their gate quickly, thanks. The article even cites one pathetic example of signs being so bad that an airport resorted to dedicating an employee to stand and give directions to passengers.
Chances are, the same issue exists in your retail store. There are signs telling your customer where the women's department is located, signs directing her to the ladies' room, signs telling her that shoes are 20% off and signs telling her not to smoke or bring her dog in the store. And in some cases the 20% off shoes are called 'shoes', in other cases, they are called 'footwear'. Chances are a number of people in the store can order signs, decide what they say and put them pretty much where ever they think it makes sense.
Signs can be conversion drivers or conversion killers, just like website navigation. Just like web teams solve these problems, stores can too. Watch your customers as they come through the door, locate what they're looking for, seek out dressing rooms and get details about their pending purchase. Where do they breeze through the store? Where do they have to ask for help? Where do they give up and walk out (assuming they can find the door, if it's properly signed "exit")?
For some good (and amusing) examples of signs gone wrong, visit one of my favorite sources of usability foul ups, This Is Broken. Based on the example below (one of my favorites), it looks like some signs might be a source of confusion even before you get the customer in the store....so what exactly does this store sell....?