Today I got direct experience with what it must be like to live in a world with no information radiators at all: Heathrow Airport. When I got off my flight from the states there were no signs, no people to answer questions, no monitors, no papers taped to the wall, nothing. Passengers had to navigate literally miles of passageways and empty corridors, shuttle buses and escalators without any information displayed to guide them. Nothing!
At first I was completely appalled by the situation. Electronic monitors were present, but they were just blank, or worse yet, inaccurate! How could anyone expect to navigate one of the largest airports in the world this way? Especially in a hurry!
But here’s the thing: I think we all (more or less) managed to do it. We all got to our destinations. So obviously, despite the apparent lack of information, there must have been enough of the right kind of cues for use to make the right decisions. It’s really quite remarkable that anyone gets to their destination at a place like Heath row when you stop and think about it. I’ve actually worked on rat mazes (how many people can say that?) and I can tell you that we never made a maze for rats that was anywhere near as complicated as Heathrow! Escalators, elevators, shuttles – literally dozens of different mechanisms to guide us off our desired path, and yet we still make it.
So what is it that gets us poor beleaguered travelers through the airport without any obvious cues? Thinking back on it, there were a few things I relied on:
- We had been given one instruction, follow purple for continuing flights and orange for domestic. All the sign-age, and in some cases the floors were using these color cues. You didn’t know if you would actually find your flight, but it kept you on track until you could get enough information to actually do so.
- There was the occasional surly employee whom if confronted would give you a clue (Zenda anyone?).
So to put a positive spin on it, the color information gave you just enough information (and certainly no more) to get you to the next step in the process. Perhaps giving us information that early in the process, before we had made it through immigration, etc. would actually have been a waste of time. It was also further validation that, for those of us who chose too, we could use face-to-face communication to far greater effect than just about any other mechanism.
Now I’m still not sure I enjoy walking for miles without any information about where my next flight is – and I know I would hate it if I was in a rush – but it looks like the system works pretty well, if only producing some additional anxiety.