Wayfinding Through Technology


EuroIA is the primary European Information Architecture conference. In 2011 it took place in Prague, The Czech Republic.

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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.

Mental Models

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:

Maps of New York and London at the same scale (from OpenStreetMap.org) demonstrate the difference in structure of the two cities.

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.

Survey Knowledge

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.


Screenshot from the Trails iPhone app

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.

Nearest Tube iPhone app from Acrossair

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.

Map/Territory from Timo Arnall demonstrates how the urban environment could act as a wayfinding 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.

Ubiquitous Computing

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.

Cennydd Bowles

Cennydd Bowles works as a user experience designer for Clearleft in Brighton, England. Bored of an M.Sc. in Information Technology, he leapt into the mysterious world of user experience seven years ago and hasn't shut up about it since. He is an active mentor, an erstwhile manager and regularly writes and rants about user experience design. Previous clients include Gumtree, JustGiving, UpMyStreet, Business Link and the WWF.

19 comments on this article

  1. Wow, what a thought-provoking article. I’d love to live in a world where all these things are possible and well implemented, although you’re right, it probably would take something away from the experience of being in a new place “and stumbling across something beautiful”. For people who don’t speak the same language, or have cognitive disabilities, I can imagine these sorts of systems proving invaluable, but they shouldn’t be a replacement for poorly signposted areas.

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  4. Matt Pitone on

    Great article. I’d be interested to hear your perspective on how the future of wayfinding will (or will not) support the variability of human navigation strategies and capabilities by individual or sex. Additionally, how can we influence the design of future wayfinding devices to accommodate these differences and facilitate the user’s end goal, be it point-to-point route guidance or situation awareness and creation of that mental model. It’s shown that direction “up” orientation supports users who navigate with egocentric strategies (environment in reference to SELF), and also improves the usability of route guidance by decreased workload as it requires a lesser degree of mental rotation than that of north “up” orientation. On the contrary, individuals who navigate via allocentric strategies (environment referenced to environment) may prefer their wayfinding device to provide cardinal directions preserved, or north “up.” This strategy has also shown to facilitate creation of a mental map, and individuals who use this strategy can more easily re-orient themselves after being placed arbitrarily in the environment.

    How can the future of wayfinding devices support these strategies, or improve their downfalls? How to design a route guidance system that requires minimal mental rotation and cognitive resources while also providing geospatial information to support the mental map? How can we facilitate the creation of a mental map for those individuals who lack the ability to code with allocentric strategies?

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  6. Very nice article, very complete and full of interesting departure points. I am very interested in what you talk about in the last sentence, the joy of getting lost, of finding instead of knowing. I might be saying something you already know here, but it’s worth seeing the first chapter of \Analog in, Digital out\ by Brendan Dawes, and this interesting book I stumbled upon by accident: \Universal Experience – art, life and the tourist’s eye\ published by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. It discusses in many aspects the experience of traveling. Cheers!

  7. A fascinating and well crafted article. It raises many issues.

    Unspoken, however, is the value of serendipitous discovery as an organizing principle, geospatially as in other dimensions.

    My partner recently took a roadtrip with a girlfriend, intending to explore a wholly new urban milieu. How disappointed she was, then, when her friend incessantly turned to her onboard GPS to solve all their navigational “problems” — in fact, generating new problems in terms of inadequate interfaces and faulty data. The trip became a tedious, often blithering experience of technology rather than an appreciation of a heretofore unknown landscape.

    Without unduly romanticizing the pleasure of being lost — the basis of the labyrinth and the maze — I question whether a more perfect wayfinding technology would result in losing not just the overt joy of discovery but also some undetected human ability to make sense amidst uncertainty…and wonder.

  8. Thanks all for your insightful comments.

    Matt: Honestly, I don’t know yet. As you point out, although there are guiding principles, we form mental models in a manner specific to ourselves. We can of course design systems that have modal flexbility: ie. ego- and allo-centric models, and allow the user to switch between them – but this feels like the classic design cop-out of providing an option instead of a design decision. Technological solutions to wayfinding problems are in their infancy, and I think we’ll only find the answer to your wise question through substantial amounts of trial and error.

    Vitorio: Interesting references, I’ll check them out. Thanks.

    Bob: Absolutely. Without the chance to practice spatial organisation, perhaps that ability will weaken. I dearly hope that designers of wayfinding technology will find the right balance, whereby their systems support rather than replace our own navigational tactics.

    One addendum; I realise guiltily that I neglected to credit some of the material that made this article possible. In particular, Adam Greenfield’s Everyware, the Legible London research by AIG (www.legiblelondon.info), Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability and Rosati and Resmini’s talk ‘Toward a cross-context IA’ are important reading for anyone who wants to explore these topics further.

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  11. David Sonnen on

    The phenomena you describe will inevitably happen as people become more involved in two-way generating, use and distribution of data about their worlds. We’re seeing early examples in Google’s crowdsourced maps and real-time updates in municipal sites based on citizen inputs. Like William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed”.

    You’ve described an exciting future that, I believe, will happen.

    Thanks for a very provocative post.

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  13. Technology is constantly changing and becoming more innovative. I think traditional signage systems will always have a place on the amrket though. Particularly for places like city centres and shopping mall’s where other technology is too big.

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