Last semester I taught a seminar course at NC State University’s College of Design where I asked the students to identify, as part of a weekly assignment, two instances: one where design thinking had thrived and another where it had failed. Towards the end of the course, students had collected a series moments that proved that only a simple nudge was required, many times at no extra cost to anyone, to set a series of problems right. Recently, I came across one such example.

Last week, due to the birth of my nephew Gonzalo, I got to spend some time in the maternity wing of the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital. It was indeed a short time, yet most of it was spent waiting for the baby to make its appearance. I had time to look around. A few things came to my attention, but this particular emergency door stood out the most out of anything else that caught my eye.

An <del>Emergency</del> Door in the Maternity Wing of the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

An Emergency Door in the Maternity Wing of the Auxilio Mutuo Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The subject in question is located on a hallway directly across from the nursery of newborns. As you can imagine, a lot of people congregate in this area. Upon further investigation, four things were of interest to me:

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1) The standard, internationally used emergency exit sign;
2) An ink-jet printed sign which informs that this door does not provide access to the ground floor;
3) The familiar red sign that indicates to use this exit in case of an emergency; and
4) A photocopy which explains, in paragraphs, what to do in case of a problem.

Can you imagine what would happen, God forbid, if there was an emergency in this space?

As humans, we rely on the construction, understanding and employment of schemas for the day-to-day operation of our motor behaviors. These are particularly important when it comes to emergency situations, for it is through these schemas that we instantly know, without thinking, to go to the nearest emergency exit. Clearly not thinking about this, the hospital exit is a disaster waiting to happen. If a moment came when there was a true reason for the people inside to evacuate, I can bet you anything that you will get a high concentration of them showing up in this door. Just the standard, official-looking red exit sign will do the trick.

If this were an emergency, I can imagine a few possible interactions that could take place: in a state of panic, people would not read the two home-made signs and spiral down into a dead-end; someone could reach the door and try to read the signs, but the avalanche coming from behind would just push him or her in, again on a path to no exit; or maybe people might stand to read the signs, but others behind them, with no visible access to the text, might get impatient and run to find another way out, thus creating chaos on the space.

An easy fix? Remove the top sign labeling this door as an emergency exit. I think the cost of the electrician that needs to do that job is worth not having a major disaster in a hospital. Or so I would think. If by law this door has to remain labeled (it happens), recognize that there is not easy way for potential users of your signs to manage this overload of badly placed and hierarchically misleading information. Add a graphic or map to illustrate where people have to go. Again, not that much of an investment. If it comes to spending a bit of money, label the floor with a red line that people can follow from this space directly into the right exit.

In the end, more things could be suggested, but it is important to understand how a failure in logical thinking can affect human behavior in ways that can lead to unwanted outcomes.

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2 Responses to Schemas confused by a failure in design thinking

  1. Mark says:

    Ahh, the dilemma of too much time and an overactive brain – you start to problem solve everything around you.

  2. Mike says:

    Could it be that the stair does not lead to the ground floor but rather to the outside?

    The ink-jet printed sign is to warn you that there’s no re-admission to the lower floors.

    In a fire, there’s no need to reach the ground floor, just to reach the exterior. So there’s no dead-end, no problem.

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