The sexy topic of "How to turn observations into wayfinding solutions"

When standing in front of a new wayfinding project, it’s key to study how people find their way around the site, in order to uncover where confusion occurs. As a supplement to mere sitting, watching and trying to photograph situations without looking like a total creep (in danish: lurefrans), I often conduct surveys with invited test-people.

A test can work like so: I give people the name of a destination in the project area and ask them to find it, with whatever the means they like. I also ask them to speak their thoughts out lout, so to hear all their constant surveying, considerations and concerns.

I make sure to repeat this exercise with up to ten people, as different people use different strategies and have different strengths, challenges and stress levels when it comes to navigating the build environment.

Finally I end up with a lot of fluffy data, that needs to be catalogued. Here I have found that the Danish wayfinding guru (yes we have our very own guru) Per Mollerup, has a key. In his book ‘Wayshowing>Wayfinding” he teaches us that there are nine ways in which the human animal finds its way:

  1. Follow a marked route - like marked poles in a forest or a line in the floor at a hospital.

  2. Follow an explained or learned route

  3. Educated seeking – like how we just know that the biggest door on a building is usually the main entrance, that the milk is in the back of the grocery store and so on.

  4. Inference - following numerical systems

  5. Screening an area for fx. a gas station or public toilet

  6. Aiming, like for a landmark

  7. Reading a map

  8. Compassing, east, west and so on

  9. Social navigation - the entrance for the concert is by the crowd.

Let me give you an example on how to use this to turn data into design.

When I was still at the academy, I did a project on how to improve wayfinding on campus – a beautiful and historical landmark, but oh so confusing.

I called in some people I knew had never been there before and therefore didn't have any knowledge about the place prior to the test.

They all began at the same spot: the busstop and received the same mission: to find building 92, entrance U: A google maps dead-end.

Common for them all was to start looking for a main entrance or a sign for the campus. They eventually found an overview map, which gave them the location of the destination point.

From here something interesting happened - as soon as they turned a corner, they couldn’t remember anymore of the map. Not even whether the destination was before or after crossing water. Maps are great at giving a sense of scale and direction, but needs to be followed up by signs.

When they finally reached the right building, they were puzzled by the look of the lobby, which looked something like a combination of a workshop and a storage room. This made them hesitate from entering and instead they walked back into the hallway to see if they had missed something.

A lot more interesting behavioural observations where made, but to sum up, I concluded that the participants used a marked route, an explained route, educated seeking, inference and reading a map.

I the took the categories and divided them into three wayfinding solution categories. I gathered that I could solve mapping and routes by ‘signage’, educated seeking with ‘interior design’ and finally inference with ‘renaming’.

As a result I created a traditional wayfinding design with easy to spot maps with signage to follow up where needed.

I systemised the campus numbers and replaced it with names where it made sense - f.x. it makes more sense for the visitor to call a café ‘café’ rather than ‘entrance F’.

Lastly and most excitingly I created a guideline for public spaces; the lobby in building 92 had a sign that said ‘Lobby’ and an interior that read student’s workshop. Instead of reading the sign, the visitors used their educated seeking, which said that they were looking for a public place and must have taken the wrong entrance, as this clearly gave a private ‘student quarter’ vibe.

In the guideline I wrote down how to decorate the room in order to give the right impression for the visitors. It could be an exhibition space or a lobby with lounge furniture.

Wayfinding is so much more than signage – watch and let real people reveal what confuses them and be creative with the solution.

If you want to read about the basics, Per Mollerup’s ‘Wayshowing<wayfinding’ is an excellent place to start.