Better Visitor Experience Through Wayfinding

Ever been to a museum or site that really underwhelmed you? We all have I’ll bet, and it’s really disappointing. Sometimes it can be the content or the presentation that just doesn’t engage and inspire. But you know, I find that I can overlook a lot if it feels like they’re really trying. What most often leaves me fundamentally disappointed are the “visitor experience” things.

Great visitor experiences are about the visit feeling frictionless: the impediments to accessing the content are few and the atmosphere is welcoming and inviting. Unfortunately, the opportunities for having negative impressions are many — bad parking, grumpy staff, long ticket lines, poorly maintained washrooms…you name it. These are mostly possible to manage and mitigate with a small amount of extra effort from staff and managers, and the payoff in visitor satisfaction is huge. But there’s one visitor irritant that I see over and over again in museums and sites, and it’s an important one: lack of wayfinding. It’s frustrating to visit a museum, pay your fee, and not be able to find the things that you came to see.

There are a few simple wayfinding principles that almost any site or museum can apply that will boost visitor’s satisfaction with their experience. The key to implementing the principles lies in understanding how your visitors find their way around in the built environment. There are two basic ways that people do this: spatial orientation (mapping) and linear guidance (directions). Some people rely on one strategy, some rely on the other, and many need a mix of the two. The part that I find fascinating is that what works for me, might not work at all for you. Finding your way around unfamiliar environments is at its core, a navigation problem and the analogy that I like best is driving while on vacation. When I’m driving in an unfamiliar location, I like to look at a map, get an idea of the route, and kind of wing it. I do like to know what towns or major intersections are on the way, so I can confirm I’m on course as I go. But that’s about it for me, I’m a spatial orientation kind of guy. My wife Bernadette is exactly the opposite — she has no interest in seeing anything on a map if it has to do with navigation. Just give her accurate turn by turn directions and she’s happy. She likes to know what landmarks we might be passing as a confirmation too though. As you might guess, Bernadette leans heavily toward linear guidance as her preferred method of getting around unfamiliar places. You will doubtless see yourself in these examples as well, perhaps even believing as I do, that your way really is the best! My point is, there are several ways that people find their way in unfamiliar surroundings, and an effective wayfinding program addresses them all.

Almost any site or museum has at least made an attempt at providing spatial orientation tools in the form of maps. It’s a good start, but even a map, if carelessly done, can do as much to confuse visitors as help them. Although Geographers will tell you differently, north does not have to be at the top of a map. It is very important that fixed maps, mounted on walls or pedestals be oriented to match the view in front of the user. Maps that ask you to rotate their content in your mind as you use them are doomed to fail for all but the most spatially agile. Sounds simple, right? But it’s a mistake that gets made again and again. What about paper map hand-outs? Those can be rotated at will, and that’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing if the map has clearly defined circulation corridors or paths, and if there are landmark features identified on the map to help visitors orient themselves. If those orientation aids are missing, it’s a bad thing — visitors then have few cues to help them determine where they are and what direction they’re facing. I’ve seen people standing and rotating a paper map around and around trying to figure out which way is up. That’s bad visitor experience and a wayfinding fail. Providing good, effective spatial orientation tools is pretty low cost and should really be considered a must for any institution.

Linear guidance is definitely more complex to implement. It used to exclusively mean wayfinding signage, but with the rise of personal GPS in smartphones, there really are two options. An in-depth look at GPS driven wayfinding is a bit beyond the scope of this post, but it’s an increasingly viable option with much lower visual impact on its surroundings than signage, and could be a good fit for those with the right situation and sufficient budget. For everybody else, there’s wayfinding signage. A good linear guidance signage system requires a bit of upfront analysis of user requirements and the opportunities and constraints of the existing space. Once you know where people need and more importantly, want to go in your space, routes to those destinations can be mapped out on a floorplan. Places where the route branches are called decision points in wayfinding-speak, and these will generally be the locations where signage is required. Developing the messages and nomenclature for the signage should be done with care, and can be a bit of an art unto itself. Signage can be minimized where there are clearly defined circulation corridors and sight-lines to identifiable landmarks at the destinations. Confirmation of arrival is generally considered part of a wayfinding scheme, but may not be required if the exhibit or service elements are very obvious. Creating a wayfinding plan for a space of any size will be a fair bit of work — hiring a professional to assist is recommended.

Apart from implementing this two-pronged wayfinding approach, there are other things that sites and museums can do to improve visitor experience in navigating their spaces. It’s important to find ways to visually differentiate different sections or zones to make them identifiable as distinct from each other. That might be colours, symbols or numbers, but it needs to be distinctive. Wayfinding effectiveness is also increased when there are opportunities for unobstructed sightlines from one section to another. As already mentioned, clearly defined circulation corridors and identifiable landmarks will also boost effectiveness of the system. Some of these things are easier to do than others, and it will vary with every situation. Sometimes wayfinding issues are rooted deep in the architecture of the building, and are very difficult to fully resolve (blame the architect!). Before making changes, consider doing some informal user testing with some subjects that are unfamiliar with your space, it could tell you a lot about what’s working and what isn’t.

I hope that I’ve inspired you to look a bit more critically at how wayfinding can improve visitor experience at your site or museum, or at the very least, be a bit more empathetic to those who don’t share your navigation style. Do you have any stories of wayfinding success at sites or museums? Or maybe a tale of a museum visit that left you wondering what you missed that you couldn’t find? Please share them in the comments below…

Comments (3)

  • Great article! I can really agree with you completely. So much can be done so much better at museums. The worst experience I think I ever experienced was when I recently visited the Louvre museum in Paris and all descriptions were in French. It was a great disappointment and a hopeless stay with so many different buildings and floor levels as well.

      Thanks for the comment Sandra! I had a similar experience a few years ago when visiting the Louvre. I spent quite a while going in circles (I think!?) and never did get to see everything that I’d wanted to. Your point about language is important too – most larger museums should expect international visitors, and they won’t necessarily have a good command of the local language. Icons and zone identification can help of course, but it’s really about making visitors as welcome as possible, and not letting wayfinding get in the way of a great experience.

  • […] sounds quite a bit like following a linear guidance wayfinding sign system. As I discussed in a previous post, most of us have a bias toward one of these two ways of getting […]

Comments are closed.