The End of Wayfinding?

We’d better get ready – GPS is changing wayfinding profoundly, in ways we never anticipated. Two experiences last week convinced me once and for all about the disruptive power of GPS on the Wayfinding profession. The first was my reading of Alex Hutchinson’s article “Global Impositioning Systems“in The Walrus, discussing how our reliance on GPS devices is actually impairing the part of our brain that helps us find our way. If this research is correct, we may need to do some serious rethinking of our wayfinding strategies.

Hutchinson describes two main methods of finding our way around spaces: creating a cognitive map that encapsulates an understanding of the space, or a stimulus-response approach where the individual follows a series of cues. The first sounds a lot like using a site or paper map for orientation to a space, what wayfinders would call a Spatial Orientation approach. The second 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 around.

Not surprisingly, the cognitive map strategy places greater demands on our brains, specifically on our Hippocampus. It requires more thought and more understanding, but that cognitive cost pays dividends:

Cornell University human-computer interaction researcher Gilly Leshed argues that knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around. Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual.

So, not only do we find our way around, we also better understand and appreciate the space that we’re travelling through. The really great thing is that the more we try to find our way around using spatial orientation strategies, the better we get at it. The converse is unfortunately also true, the less we use our cognitive mapping skills, the rustier they become.

…neuroscientists are starting to uncover a two-way street: our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains.

Thus, those who increasingly rely on GPS to get around are losing those spatial orientation skills, and beginning to trust the device over their own judgements and instincts. We’ve all heard the dramatic stories of people driving their cars into rivers or onto clearly inappropriate logging trails based on the advice of their GPS units. Clearly they’ve begun to trust the technology more than their own senses. But what if GPS users are beginning to trust these devices more than the wayfinding systems in place on public roadways? Roadway wayfinding systems are pretty much always Linear Guidance systems, where information is offered in the form of signs at decision points to help users find their destinations. GPS systems are a very distilled form of linear guidance, completely divorced from the context of the surroundings through which the user navigates. The GPS in its simplest form just looks for the geographically closest route for a given destination, and then parcels out a series of instructions to the motorist that will get them where they’re going. Actual wayfinding systems, if carefully designed, do quite a bit more. The routing may seek to avoid busy or dangerous areas, may deliberately lead the motorist past their destination on the way to parking to aid in later recognition, or may take a scenic route that enhances the experience for a visitor. Yes, GPS systems claim to be able to do most of these things for us, but they fall far short of a thoughtfully designed wayfinding system.

This brings me to the second experience that I had last week. I was in a meeting about a vehicular tourist wayfinding system in which the client very astutely wondered whether tourists in cars are going to actually follow our scenic routing, or whether they’re just going to follow their car’s GPS, taking the shortest route. It was a really, really good question. We had put quite a bit of thought into the routing to make navigation easy and safe, but it was clear that a GPS unit, regardless of how it was set up, would not take this route. In fact, it was clear that GPS users would arrive at a different garage entrance altogether, probably on a much more unfriendly street. The implicit question was whether we needed to provide confirmation of arrival signage for those arriving by the GPS route. I’m increasingly inclined to say yes.

The widespread use of GPS seems to signal the beginning of the end of “public” wayfinding. What’s next, I don’t know. As we increasingly rely on our “private” GPS’s linear directions, will site maps in public places become obsolete? Will anyone even understand a map anymore? These are interesting times indeed for the Wayfinding profession.

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Comments (8)

  • Thank you for putting this so well. I have talked to many signage designers and nearly all of them love the idea of personalized, digital wayfinding, or, more accurately, wayshowing. I think it is high time we as designers began to take a more active role in shaping projects for the best solution in the long-tem, not just the trendiest right now.

      Thanks for the comment. I feel that designers need to keep in mind both the benefits that new technologies and approaches will bring, but also that not all of their users can access the new, at least in the short/medium term. In the project that I referenced in this post, we ended up providing confirmation of arrival for GPS users, something I wholly supported. I think the signed route is better, but the reality is that a smaller proportion of users take it, now and into the future.

    It’s a good article to read. Will GPS ended wayfinding somehow? I’ll say it’s liked comparing apple and orange. Myself was a researcher, looking for the behavior of people reading the map from paper map to digital map, I would say it’s totally difference between both of them, but still got a bit chain among both type of maps.

    It’s an interesting question isn’t it? Probably one is not necessarily better than the other, just different, and the user experience will be different as well.

    Indeed, my supervisor always advice me that difference user and environment have difference scenario.

  • […] The Wayfinding profession is at an important point in its history at the moment. Ubiquitous GPS is causing fundamental shifts in how wayfinding is delivered. The advent of personal wayfinding, enabled by route planning and […]

  • Agreed that personal wayfinding might be trumping public wayfinding, but the need for digital and interactive maps is typically a must for those who are new to a space and need to find their way around–such as in a building or square–where personal GPS stop helping.

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