Critical Findability in the Physical Space

During a recent trip to Barcelona I decided to catch up on some reading on the plane. I have several UX books piling up lately and admittedly I was behind. For my outbound trip I selected Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability, a book I have honestly had for a while, but time was never there. It was a quick, very digestable read – awesome considering how easily this could have become a convoluted mess. The book not only helps you understand how people find what they need, but what the roots of wayfinding are both in the digital and non-digital realms. It turns out my reading choice would be very appropriate for the trip.

My wife and I found navigating the ancient streets of Barri Gotic and El Raval challenging but fun. It was really great time using some of the wayfinding methods mentioned in the book, and being self aware of when I was using a particular method. Not to mention pestering my wife about it. She was sure glad I read that book.

A few days later my wife and I packed up our bags for home and hopped onto our flight that would take us to a connection at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. From a findability perspective this was a total disaster. We had limited time to make our connection, and no experience whatsoever with these surroundings. We taxied very close to our connecting gate, so I figured it was not an issue. When we landed we were immediately shuttled by bus all the way to the other side of the airport, unloaded, and left to hope for the best. At every turn we were confronted with duplicate, inconsistent and contradictory signage. We were far from our gate with little time to spare, and quite frankly guessing where to go as we sprinted to our flight.

I would say this was due to our fatigue at the time, but the fact that crowds of travelers were scratching their heads in confusion at every turn, doorway and staircase tells me we weren’t alone. Going through both customs and security we were told to get in a line contrary to what the signs led us to believe.

In the end, we made the flight back to Chicago, but just barely. I can’t say I was very impressed with the gauntlet we had to run under pressure. These days missing any flight usually means a huge helping of misery. They didn’t do things this way at Heathrow.

Granted, the airport as it was conceived and designed probably could never have anticipated the stringent security the French have in place today, and it was pretty obvious that some of the discomfort in this process was a necessity. I’ll give the security folks their due, they are pretty thorough. It’s much easier to overhaul a website or piece of software than it is a massive building complex that sees 60 million physical visitors a year. There is no development environment for something on that scale. All of that aside, I think there is a handful of things that could be done to make the process a lot smoother.

  • Travelers coming in on our flight were left with little to no instruction. We were just told “You are being transferred by bus.” Transferred where? A little context would have gone a long way. “All passengers will be transferred by bus to terminal 2D so they can go through French customs and airport security before going to your connecting flight.” would have helped. It’s not hard, print it on an index card so the flight staff can get that correct.
  • The terminal and gate numbering in CDG is so odd as to be deliberately confusing. Like any major airport it’s going to expand. The system needs to be scalable. Splitting a terminal into two buildings with a backwards network of buses is going to confuse people.
  • Consistent signage in the right place. Almost every turn forced me to ask – is this right? I shouldn’t have had to ask this question even once. Buildings take some time, signs don’t.

When I can’t find what I want on a shopping site, I just shop somewhere else. When I can’t find what I want in an airport I might get stranded. When I can’t find what I need in a emergency I might get hurt or worse. The only wayfinding method we used in Paris was exhausted guessing, panic and instinct. Morville forgot those in his book.

I’ll be doing what I can to avoid CDG from here on out.