Research Summary

Comparative evaluation of the attention capture and holding power of novel signs aimed at park visitors

Novel Signs Get Mixed Results in Capturing Visitor Attention

Journal of Interpretation Research

National parks and other informal learning sites often rely on signs to convey important information to guests. Unfortunately, the ability of signs to capture visitors’ attention and convey messages varies widely. This study’s authors aimed to find out if they could increase people’s attention to signs in Yosemite National Park by applying communication theory when developing several test signs.

The researchers developed five types of signs—four novel signs and one control that represented a “typical” park sign. The content of all signs was similar: Instructors focused on the importance of food storage for bear safety. They placed the signs in three locations within the park (the Upper Pines campground; Curry Village, which offers more developed accommodations; and the Wilderness Trailhead) and observed visitors as they passed the signs, noting if they ignored, glanced at, or read the sign for an extended period of time.

Based on their review of communication theory, the researchers developed the following five signs, which were similar in graphic design and length but varied in content:

Empathetic Appeal (Title: Attention Humans!). Written from the perspective of a bear, this sign was designed to arouse empathy with the use of the first person and an appeal to save the lives of bears. Part of the sign reads, “Sometimes we get hurt or killed just for liking your food. Don’t help a good bear go bad.”

Narrative (Title: My Bear Story). Because research has shown that narratives can capture and hold attention, this sign tells the fictional story of a boy who has an encounter with a bear because of improperly stored food. The story begins, “A bear broke into my family’s car last night. I was real scared.”

Humor (Title: Top Ten Reasons to Put Your Stuff in the Locker). Some studies suggest that humor can be an effective communication tool. This sign, with its reference to a popular late-night comedy sketch, was designed to use humor to capture attention. The number-one reason the sign offers for putting your stuff in the locker: “Keep bears from drinking all the beer in your cooler.”

Telegraphic (Title: Leave It in the Locker—Not in Your Car!). Because research shows that few people read beyond the title, the title of this sign conveyed the sign’s main message. The remaining text is straight-forward and factual. For example, one sentence reads, “Store all food and scented things in the bear-proof storage lockers.”

Control (Title: Black Bears and Human Food). The researchers included a sign created from existing park messages about bears and food storage. The title did not convey any specific instructions, and the sign did not incorporate novelty, narrative, humor, or emotion. It includes the following sentence: “Proper food storage is required by federal law. Help protect your property and yourself.”

In addition to observing and interviewing visitors, the researchers also conducted manipulation checks to be sure that viewers perceived the characteristics the researchers intended. For example, did visitors think the “Top 10” sign was humorous, or that the “Attention Humans” sign made them feel sympathetic toward bears? The researchers found that while each sign performed as intended, the experimental signs were not considered any more “vivid” than the control.

And, related to that finding, the control sign representing the existing approach did not fare as poorly as the researchers had expected. It ranked third or fourth (depending on location) in the number of people who ignored it, and ranked second to fifth in extended viewing.

The “My Bear Story” sign was most likely to capture visitor attention: it generated extended views from visitors and was least likely to be ignored. “Attention Humans” was likely to be ignored, but, when people did read the sign, they read this sign the longest. The “Top 10” sign was least effective at sustaining attention, and it generated the most critical and confused comments in interviews. “Leave It in the Locker” was judged by viewers to seem very familiar, and most campers and those staying at Curry Village ignored it. Most hikers, though, glanced at it. And because the title conveyed the message, a quick glance might’ve been all that was needed to glean the relevant information.

The researchers conclude that humor does not appear to be an effective approach in this setting, but the narrative structure is effective. They also believe that an informative title, or one that indicates the content of the sign, as in the “My Bear Story” sign, does appear to help. And given that in all the locations, fewer than half of all visitors viewed the signs for an extended period of time (which researchers defined as more than two seconds, far less than the time required to read the sign), conveying information quickly may be critical.

The authors also note that one reason for the large differences in performance between the signs could be the different audiences encountered at the different locations. Trail heads and campgrounds likely contain very different types of visitors with varying interests and motivations. The researchers conclude, “A sign that is relatively attention grabbing in one location might well be largely ignored in another.” And they note that had they only tested the signs in one location, “we would have been misled about the ability of most of the signs to attract and hold attention.”

Finally, the researchers conclude that “the highly variable attracting power and holding times for the different messages across locations suggests resource managers need to attend closely to audience and site characteristics if they expect to communicate effectively with signs.”

The Bottom Line

In developing signs to communicate with visitors, it appears that narratives can be an effective tool in capturing and holding attention, while humor failed to generate positive results in this experiment. However, the results varied widely according to where signs were placed, and a typical park sign that did not include attention-grabbing tactics performed equally well as the experimental signs. Overall, few visitors read the signs for any length of time. Capturing and holding visitor attention with signs remains difficult, but tactics such as the use of a narrative and an informative title can help. Finally, managers must keep in mind that different locations may draw different audiences, and signs may need to be adjusted to meet the needs and interests of unique audiences.