Wayfinding the Web

By Brian Kempf

When we look out of our windows in the morning and see the sun rise we know we are looking east. In a very primitive sense we know where we are. We know that west is to our back, north is to our left and south to our right. In this simple example we used the rising of the sun to orient us to our physical space. This is known as wayfinding.

Early Polynesians used similar methods to navigate the open ocean without the aid of compass, sextant or GPS. The sun was a main guide giving early navigators a clear directional pointer twice a day. At night, they would rely on the rising and setting of stars. And, when these celestial pointers could not be seen, experienced wayfinders could navigate by laying down in their canoe and feeling the swell patterns of the ocean.

In recent years, wayfinding has been a term architects use for the user experience of finding and choosing a path within a built environment. This often includes, but is not exclusive to, signage and graphical communication and often extends far beyond interior spaces. For miles around an airport you will see signs and pointers that will direct you into and around the airport. Once inside you will see a number of international symbols (http://www.aiga.org/content.cfm/symbol-signs) to guide your way and whether in Zurich Kloten International Airport or Chitose International Airport, you should always be able to find the restroom. For fun check out some of these international interpretations of restroom signs (http://www.fareastmovement.com/st/rr-signs-in-different-countries/).

The concept of modern wayfinding has naturally been applied to the online world and is sometimes referred to as “structural wayfinding”. This is a natural adaptation as many of the same basic questions are asked by online users that are asked by visitors to a building. Where am I? Where do I want to go? Am I on the right path? Am I where I want to be?

While there are many similarities between architectural wayfinding and wayfinding on the web, there some distinct considerations that user experience professionals must take into consideration. Until teleportation becomes readily available it is unlikely that a person will be dropped into a room within a building and then be asked to find their way out. This is a common occurrence for online users that use search engines to find specific content then are dropped into a site. It is also rare that a person would not use a restroom if they couldn’t find it on a map in 15 seconds. They would likely take the time they need to understand the map, locate the restroom and identify markers that could navigate them to their destination. Many web users would not give this level of consideration to their online experience.

A high level view of how wayfinding affects the user experience can be seen by analyzing the first question. Where am I? A simple question that has deep implications when developing a robust web experience. Search engines, blogs, cross linking don’t always land users on a sites home page so we can’t depend on a linear home page driven experience. Instead, we ensure that users can quickly do three basic things when viewing any page. First, users must be able to identify the company through branding elements, clear urls and distinct visuals. Second a user must be able to understand where they are within the context of the site’s overall structure. This includes using clear understandable navigation and page labels, visual placement markers that reveal on states and navigational relationships and linear trails that indicate a content path. Finally, provide clear ways through to other content including primary and secondary navigation and dynamic content relationships (e.g. user that read this also read …). Users often better understand where they are by the content a page is associated with.

As with many things, the future of user experience design relies heavily on basic concepts of the past. Understanding the basics of how users interact with environments both online and offline will produce a better end product. Whether traversing the open ocean, walking your local mall or navigating the vast world wide web, wayfinding will be there to help guide you on your journey.


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