We are relying ever more on technology to help us out. In this article I am discussing how people form mental models of urban environments, and how technology can augment and even replace our wayfinding skills.
This article is an extract from my upcoming talk at EuroIA 09, The Future of Wayfinding.
Faced with any complex system, we form a mental model. Cities are no exception. Our models (known in the wayfinding domain as cognitive maps) combine cues from across our environment. Some cues are implicit, woven into the fabric of our surroundings: urban density, landmarks, or even the flow of traffic. Others are explicitly designed to describe the structure of a city, such as maps, signs and street naming conventions.
As with any designed system, some cities are more learnable than others. Contrast the regular grid, tall landmarks and self-explanatory street names of New York with the organic sprawl of London:
New York has information architecture baked in; London does not. Kevin Lynch named this quality ‘legibility’ – an apt term implying, as does its typographic equivalent, a deep relationship with the identity and DNA of a system.
Good cognitive maps make use of survey knowledge, an understanding of the topological structure of an environment. Centuries of designers have built survey knowledge by printing maps. Some are, of course, more successful than others. The famous London Underground map is so long-standing and ubiquitous that it acts as an ersatz cognitive map for many Londoners. Unfortunately, being designed to show connections below ground, it doesn’t correspond well with London’s surface geography. The map, as they say, is not the territory, and ironically the Tube map hinders effective wayfinding, as people take Underground journeys they would be better off walking.
Survey knowledge gleaned from maps is orientation-specific (this is why maps favour the principle of forward-up equivalence – ‘up’ on the map means ‘straight ahead’). However, we learn areas better by exploring them, which gives us survey knowledge that isn’t based any particular direction. This means that cognitive maps are fluid, changing with context and time to form more coherent wholes.
Different wayfinding tasks
- naive, or exhaustive, search – where the user doesn’t know where the destination is (eg. finding a postbox in a city he doesn’t know)
- primed search – where the user knows the destination’s location (eg. driving to his parents’ house)
- exploratory – where there is no set destination (eg. going for a walk)
User experience folk will no doubt notice parallels to digital information retrieval, including the understanding that most wayfinding tasks will mix these modes. For example we may use a primed search to navigate to a shop found on a shopping mall directory, followed by an exhaustive search for the right aisle within the shop. We can also recognise other concepts from the digital world: the concepts of information scent and berrypicking are both entirely relevant to real-world wayfinding.
Complementing survey knowledge is procedural knowledge: the means of getting from A to B, via C. Sometimes this can be sufficient alone. Plan a route in advance or get directions from a passer-by and you may well find your destination, but if the instructions are flawed or there’s a change in conditions (roadworks, for instance), procedural knowledge collapses quickly and you’re left to improvise or retrace your steps.
Good wayfinding takes survey knowledge, procedural knowledge and also landmark knowledge, an appreciation of the locations of notable points of interest. Building these three platforms has traditionally been the domain of wayfinding designers, architects and town planners, but now the technologists are getting their turn. Online maps and route planning software have revolutionised the wayfinding business, and computer scientists are attempting to standardise the language of geography through systems such as KML.
While it’s important to know the environment, the user must also know where she is. Technology can be a great help here, with GPS today’s crown jewel. However, although it’s tempting to think that this solves the location problem, GPS is only accurate to 3 metres and, being a line-of-sight technology, doesn’t work indoors or in heavily built up areas. We also need another layer of codification and processing to turn longitude and latitude into human vernacular such as “Junction 12 of the M1” or “tenth floor of the Empire State Building”.
Mobiles are of course well suited to act as the vehicle for GPS and this codification layer, and have been an understandable vehicle for wayfinding technology. The typical limitations of screen size and user context apply, but the advent of GPS and compass technology in mobiles has led to a sudden commercial interest in ‘augmented reality’, already well on its way to becoming the next misappropriated buzzword.
Beyond mobile devices, wayfinding provides an excellent stepping stone into the world of ubiquitous computing. Unlike many other ubicomp applications, wayfinding is highly task-driven, meaning many of today’s UCD approaches could be relevant. Imagining a world of ambient informatics, we see thousands of potential output devices. Public LCD displays, signage, buildings, even the street beneath our feet can be our canvas.
The ideal system
The ideal wayfinding system dissolves into behaviour. It requires no inputs, and automatically knows our location and destination. Its feedback to us can take the form of subtle visual, audible or tactile cues – highlighting the path ahead on some display, or even providing a gentle tap on the shoulder when we move in the wrong direction. However, it’s not easy for systems to truly anticipate our wayfinding needs. Although early adopters are habitually advertising both location and destination via services such as Dopplr, FireEagle and Latitude, systems aren’t particularly good at inferring intent. We often don’t navigate rationally – we take scenic routes, stop to pick up lunch, or become distracted by window shopping.
We can consider some technologies (such as QR codes, RFID and GPS) as bridging points between the digital world and the real world. At these touchpoints, we are effectively designing an API that allows both worlds to interact. The information architecture must be harmonised, and the correspondences should be carefully aligned. As a prosaic example, labelling and signage used in digital systems must correspond to those used in the real world. It’s clear that the roles of the UX designer and wayfinding designer will start to blur.
Bringing wayfinding into the ubicomp domain might also allow the dimension of time to affect our wayfinding choices. Spimes could help us navigate by highlighting the past actions of others. It’s helpful to know that 95% of all previous travellers to the stadium turned left at a particular turning (of course, this is nothing new to the animal kingdom). Collapsing the past into the present also opens up exciting opportunities to reintroduce our favourite digital mechanisms into the real world. Collaborative filtering, recommendations and other ‘wisdom of crowds’ phenomena could mean wayfinding is no longer a solo pursuit. The notion of anthropocentric wayfinding has impact far beyond technology. It causes flashmobs, football riots and even political revolution. It mobilises us as a combined unit and could even be said to demonstrate emergent hive intelligence.
As with any dream of the future, this picture is utopian and perhaps unrealistic. Much of the world doesn’t yet have running water, let alone a broadband mobile network. Even when these systems are in place, the interaction between people, places and technology will inevitably prove both overly rigid and frustratingly sloppy in various contexts. And isn’t there some joy in getting lost in a new city and stumbling across something beautiful? The advertisers certainly think so:
Finally, in the words of McLuhan, “every extension is also an amputation”. It is conceivable that we will find ourselves relying on technology to such an extent that in the event of its inevitable failure we will struggle at even the most basic wayfinding tasks.
There are clearly challenges ahead. However, getting lost and getting found is an inherent part of human life, and therefore wayfinding is well within the domain of future user experience work. With skill and empathy, we can bring a layer of humanity and usefulness to wayfinding technology.
Interested in more? I will be presenting a session on ‘The Future of Wayfinding’ at EuroIA.