Redesigning an Acronym
TEAM: AMBER LEE, RACHEL KIM
How do you redesign an acronym?
That was a question my team—Rachel Kim, Amber Lee, and I—answered when we tried to redesign parts of CMU's navigation and wayfinding system.
We took this opportunity to look at wayfinding and signage at Carnegie Mellon University. CMU is an extremely hard campus to navigate for both experienced and inexperienced users, due to a variety of factors.
In order to propose solutions to this problem, we first had to understand it. We started by brainstorming potential scopes of the problem we could focus on later. These included whiteboard exercises, we we identified stakeholders and potential research opportunities.
Next, we interviewed students about difficulties they faced while navigating campus, touching upon some of the pain points we established in our pre-research exercises:
1. Confusing building abbreviations/acronyms
CMU utilizes building abbreviations, most notably in their online scheduling system, which students reference when finding classes. Students generally did not find them intuitive, leading to extra steps when looking up a location for a class or a meeting.
2. Lack of signage and contextual aids
Another common frustration is the different floor numbering system of each building. In some buildings, the ground floor is labeled "1," while in other buildings, the ground floor can be "4" or "5," leading to a lot of confusion for new students or visitors to campus.
To summarize some of our thoughts, we created a territory map and a research plan. In our territory map, we listed the different aspects of way-finding and navigation at CMU, including frameworks that exist on the physical and digital level.
Addressing the Acronyms
These are some of CMU's existing acronyms:
At first, they look functional, but we knew there were some serious issues that hampered usability. We took a closer look:
We noticed a common pattern in many acronyms: the first letter or two represented the name the building was named after—proper nouns such as "Baker," "Cyert," "Posner," and "Scaife."
The last letter in the acronym often represented the building signifier—"Hall" was the most common, but the last letter could also represent "Library" or "Center."
Because so many buildings at CMU have the same initials (eg., Porter Hall, Posner Hall, Purnell), this meant that there is a lot of ambiguity in the system, illustrated below:
We felt that this system put too much weight on the building signifier. After all, the crucial identifier is the proper noun, since CMU has many different "Halls." We noticed this too in colloquial use around campus—students often say something like "I'm studying in Wean," abbreviating the building's full name to just the first word. Therefore, the "H" that represented "Hall" feels like wasted space.
Sticking with a three-letter acronym, we tried deleting the "H" and allotting more letters to represent the proper noun. This also helped clear up any ambiguity or confusion in the acronyms. We came up new proposed adjustments to the current acronyms:
User Research and Testing
To test whether or not our acronyms could be more effective, we asked students from a wide range of majors to fill out quizzes, requiring them to name the full name of a building when given its acronym.
To get a benchmark, we first tested the existing acronyms. Depending on the student, there was a large variety of scores. People who scored higher seemed to correlate with amount of time spent at CMU or amount of leadership roles and activities.
Next, we tested the proposed acronyms on different students, to see if they could figure out which building each acronym represented.
After comparing scores, ewe were excited to find that overall, these students were able to score just as well, if not better than the original benchmark group, even though they had never seen these acronyms, which validated our approach to redesigning the acronyms.
Even though this project was relatively small and simple in its scope and findings, I felt that this project went to show how design can really impact our lives, in both small and large ways.