Wayfinding, Purposive Desire, and Service Design


My last post dealt with transformations in the grocery shopper’s service journey in the United States since the late 19th century, after creation of the shopping bag. It noted that, before the shopping cart was introduced into grocery stores, the shopper’s journey started with paper grocery bags and noted the transformation required to get shoppers to use shopping carts.

In recent years, local and state governments, grocers and other retailers, as well as many shoppers increasingly understand the environmental impact of using so many disposable bags, whether paper or plastic. Not to mention the direct costs to the grocer in providing the disposable bags.

Paper bags cost four cents each on average and plastic bags one cent. The cost per year in the United States is over four billion dollars, leaving aside all the unintended harm to the environment. This post suggests that shoppers exhibit a purposive desire to use reusable shopping bags. When will the large grocery chains design the customer journey to reinforce the purposive desire of their shoppers? Customers expressing such a purposive desire need symbolic resources to aid them in remembering to take their reusable shopping bags,

from here

or here

to here

and, finally, here

Let’s start off with an anecdote.

Schnucks is a grocery chain in the St. Louis area that I sometimes frequent. The particular store I shop in seems to stock the best Bibb lettuce in my area and that is the main reason I go there. Earlier this year, as I entered that store, I experienced the simplest solution you could imagine to a recurrent problem many retail shoppers face.

Someone in this store took the time to mount a reusable Schnucks bag onto a matte board and attach it to the Enter doorway. Even though I was almost in the store when I saw it, the mere sign with no call to action gave me the motivation to turn around and go to my car trunk to retrieve some reusable bags. 

My household owns 15 – 20 reusable grocery bags from various retail chains in St. Louis, Schnucks and Dierbergs. I keep several of those reusable bags in the trunk of my car to use whenever I go shopping, especially for groceries. I’m sure many of you do the same with stores in your area. Needless to say though, I can’t count the times I’ve reached the checkout counter and realized that the answer to the “paper or plastic” question is, “Oh crap, I forgot to bring my bags in with me.”  

As a recent Twitter poster noted:  


A Facebook group even exists for I always forget my green bags.  

For those of you who own reusable shopping bags I’d wager you know the experience. In fact, one of the reasons my household has so many of these reusable bags is that my wife often forgets also, but she is not reluctant to just buy another one or two bags instead of using paper or plastic. Don’t ask!  

In addition to an inexplicable sense of inappropriateness, which my wife says she shares, in bringing a Dierbergs bag into Schnucks, and vice versa, or banish the thought, to bring a Schnucks or Dierbergs reusable bag into Whole Foods or Trader Joes, the main culprit for my failure to remember is usually just getting in a hurry.  

Consider the following numbers:  

40% of 1,000 people surveyed by Consumer Reports in the United States say they own reusable shopping bags and use them along with grocery supplied plastic and paper bags  

17% of 104,830 people surveyed by MSNBC in the United States say they consistently use reusable shopping bags  

Any way you look at the numbers, many more people own reusable bags than use them consistently. Someone at the Schnucks store who posted the sign is obviously listening to those customers who end up at the checkout and express dismay over forgetting their reusable bags. None of the other five or six Schnucks stores I occasionally shop have posted such signs. Schnucks lacks a strategic communications strategy for addressing the green customer need in question, i.e. the desire to remember reusable bags.

Schnucks isn’t alone. Dierbergs doesn’t provide signs to support reusable bag shopping at the start of the customer journey. Neither does Whole Foods or Trader Joes, at least in St. Louis. Nevertheless, the Schnucks store discussed in this post developed a workaround for the overall failure of the company to engage the shopping journey needs of its customers. It serves as a paradigmatic example of service design brought to the wayfinding challenges of grocery shoppers who are interested and motivated to minimize their environmental impact.  

 A customer that voluntarily expresses dismay over leaving their reusable shopping bags in their automobile trunk, or at home, is also revealing a desire, an emotional response to their own failure to remember a personal commitment to a larger purpose, i.e. they want to act in an environmentally responsible way. It is a purposive desire. I suggest that such purposive desires are relevant to service design and wayfinding, and the sections below outline how.

Signifying Purposive Desire in Wayfinding

 The connection between the sign at the Schucks store, described above, and the challenge of wayfinding occurred to me as a result of reading David Gibson’s The Wayfinding Handbook a few days before I first saw the sign. Gibson’s book really offers a nice overview of the whole concept of wayfinding in physical environments and the uses of visual communication by those designing for it.

Previous posts here dealt with the uses made of the wayfinding model by information architects like Peter Morville in his book, Ambient Findability. In Peter’s rendition the three-dimensional concept of wayfinding is reduced to a metaphor for findability on the web. With the emergence of augmented reality applications there is no doubting the relevance of such a metaphor out in the physical world.

To date, the emerging augmented reality applications (Yelp and FourSquare, for instance) seem to relate more to questions about, “What do other people think about this thing or place?, or “Who is at that place that I know? ” rather than “How can I recognize things or places that interact by just walking down the street without doing anything special on my phone?” Foursquare seems to understand this challenge, but without a real solution offered so far. As I noted in a recent post on the intelligibility of interfaces,

Dan Saffer, in Designing Gestural Interfaces, touches on the fact that we are currently missing common symbols for indicating when an interactive system “is present in a space when it would otherwise be invisible,” or when we just wouldn’t recognize it as such. Adam Greenfield’s Everyware made a similar point a half decade ago.

Alternatively, Gibson’s work approaches wayfinding from the more traditional point of view of visual design for finding one’s way, primarily through physical environments.

Gibson lists four basic types of signs that signify specific properties of wayfinding:

  1. Identification signs: visual markers of a name or function of a place or space (e.g. Schnucks at Ladue Crossing)
  2. Directional signs: provide the cues needed to navigate through a space (e.g. Aisle Numbers and Product Categories)
  3. Orientation signs: display overviews of the relationship of routes through a space (e.g. Store Layouts)
  4. Regulatory signs: display the dos and don’ts of a space (e.g. No Smoking, No Cell Phone Use)

Based on my experience with the reusable bag sign, I suggest a fifth type of wayfinding sign exists that relates to signifying purposive desire. The information provided by the type of sign I’m referring to is typically not missed until the desire it conveys goes unfulfilled, or fulfilled poorly in specific situations. Some signifiers are notable largely by their absence. These signs signify something different from, though sometimes overlap with, the social signifiers mentioned by Don Norman’s example of an incidental, or accidental, signifier — such as an empty train platform indicating you’ve missed the train, or people milling around indicating the train has not arrived.

In the case of service design, realizing a needed sign is absent often results from recognizing that customers need clues to complete their journey in a desired manner. Such signs are needed to signify practices developed from personal or social motivation to fulfill a cultural purpose larger than the “job” or “task” at hand. These desired purposes, even though sometimes facilitated by organizations, are often not incorporated into established service processes. Though, as I contend below, when they are incorporated into established service processes the manner in which that integration happens for retail environments makes it important to pay attention to the brand to guide implementation.

Observing the routine experiences of customers, and empathizing with their wants and needs, provides insights about missing environmental clues. These insights support design actions to provide consumers with the visual communication they need to facilitate the experience they desire.

Paper or Plastic? Green Shopping and Reusable Bags

To explore the concept of purposive desire in service design I want to take a look at retail grocery shoppers’ use, or not, of reusable shopping bags. In doing so, I draw from both personal experience, intercept interviews of shoppers outside stores, interactions with staff at the checkout counter, and third-party analyses of ecologically conscious consumers. As a recent study of the motivations and convictions of green moms done by The Social Studies Group indicates:

Differences in motivations and ideologies aside, the one factor tying all of these women together is a desire to lessen their impact on the environment, even if the steps they take may vary, and greatly.

The visual communication described here isn’t a regulatory sign. As noted above, my observational research across a range of leading grocery chains in my locale (St. Louis, MO) indicates none of them provide official visual communication to support customers who want to remember their reusable bags when they shop.

Indeed, from my observations, the overall approach taken by retail shopping outlets, grocers or otherwise, fails to provide signifiers to customers that might jog their memory to bring in their bags, short of an accidental social signifier like seeing another person entering the store with their reusable bags in hand and remembering you have some in the vehicle’s trunk. Rather, the most consistent use of signage relating to reusable bags is for sales, providing customers the option of purchasing such bags, and typically placed at the checkout counter.

The retail outlets that do integrate policies about reusable vs. single use bags into their service processes are those that charge customers for bags (such as IKEA), or provide incentives for customers who bring their own bags (such as Target). Consider ALDI, which charges for bags as part of its brand as a low-cost grocer. ALDI requires a deposit on shopping carts as well in order to incent shoppers to return the carts, thereby reducing the cost of managing carts in the parking lot, and offers no bagging services. Aldi brands these practices as follows:

In addition to all of the “green” you save by shopping at ALDI, you’ll enjoy the feeling of doing your part toward saving our planet. From smaller, energy-saving stores, to recycled bags and cartons, your entire ALDI shopping experience captures the very essence of conservation.

Granted, a number of cities and local governments are starting to pass legislation requiring retail outlets to charge customers for single use shopping bags. However, the overall service experience in such instances assumes people rationally calculate the costs involved in failing to buy reusable bags, or in forgetting to bring their bags with them, disregarding the emotional underpinnings of purposive desire and the frequency of just plain forgetting them.

Give Me a Clue Before I Start the Service Journey

 The next time you go to a grocer, whether a large regional chain like Schnucks, or larger national chains such as Whole Foods or Trader Joes, take note of the first time you see signage reminding you about reusable bags. Most of these stores sell reusable bags, but none that I’ve seen so far attempt to remind customers to bring their reusable bags into the store. It appears just part of the customer experience they haven’t thought about. Expecting shoppers to begin their shopping journey with a bag is, essentially, a transformation in the customer’s service journey.

Shoppers are not accustomed to starting their service journey with a bag anymore. At one time they were, as our previous post indicated. Grocers seem to expect them to transform their customer journey by remembering to keep bags in their automobile, bring them into the store, and then use a shopping cart.

Fictional Parking Lot Signage

As with my own experience of remembrance, repeated now several times since I initially saw the Schnucks sign, how much more effective would such environmental graphic design prove if such signs were positioned on the light poles in the parking lot?

A strategic experience design strategy might combine visual and social communication clues for customers to bring in their reusable bags to qualify for discount programs, or incentive programs, or shopping games implemented around a social network, such as a Facebook Fan Page. Perhaps something along the lines of PepsiCo’s recycling Dream Machine, but online rather than physical.

How do you remember to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store?

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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13 Responses to Wayfinding, Purposive Desire, and Service Design

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