Wayfinding on the Web

By Guenther, Kim | Online, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview

Wayfinding on the Web


Guenther, Kim, Online


"What is more annoying than the feeling of having wasted time and energy in a futile attempt to reach a destination?"

--Romedi Passini, Wayfinding in Architecture

Just as some people have perfect pitch, others enjoy an innate sense of direction. Whether driving in the car or walking around a big city, those gifted few with an internal compass don't get lost. They can point out North, South, East, and West accurately and without hesitation. They orient themselves independently of any obvious indications from their surroundings. Admittedly, I'm not one of those individuals.

The directionally challenged rely on environmental cues to help them find their way. As I know from personal experience, we have problems navigating an unfamiliar place when many of the directional devices we rely on maps, signs, landmarks--are absent. In the world of architecture, the study of spatial orientation, or "wayfinding," seeks to understand how people process information found in the environment to orient themselves to their surroundings. I was recently reminded of how important these cues are when I attended a presentation aimed at improving navigation to, from, around, and within my university's medical complex.

As I listened, I realized that many of the foundational elements of effective wayfinding in the physical world have parallels in the virtual world of navigating Web sites. The presentation reminded me that planning a Web site is not unlike planning physical space within a building. Both require providing guidance for users so they can successful orient themselves and navigate the structure. Those cues are even more important as we move from spatial environments that are planar, such as driving from point A to B in two-dimensional space, to environments that are complex, such as the Web, where users can enter the environment at any point and travel in just about any direction via hyperlinked words and phrases. With the Web, destination is no longer a well-defined ending point. Sometimes it's a journey taken on a circuitous path defined as you go.

HOW DO PEOPLE FIND THEIR WAY?

"Expectations is the place you must always go to before you get to where you're going."

--Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Understanding wayfinding begins with understanding how users orient themselves within their environment. Spatial orientation relies on people's ability to form a cognitive map of their surroundings and locate themselves within this mental representation. The ability to form this mental model is based on cues a person gathers to help refine the model. Successful wayfinding relies on providing the necessary cues at the right time to facilitate people's ability to orient themselves within a spatial setting. The fewer the environmental cues to facilitate orientation, the less ability people have to form a mental model of their surroundings. Thus, the more likely they'll have difficulty orienting themselves and finding their way. Alternatively, too many cues to orientation may flood the mental map with unnecessary detail, hindering orientation.

Although wayfinding as a conceptual framework has largely been considered a part of architecture and space planning, the elements that dictate successful wayfinding can be applied to virtual environments as well--places where users must orient themselves to their surroundings and/or navigate to a destination. While the concept of wayfinding as applied to the Web may sound like something new, in reality we are practicing good wayfinding when we take the time to plan sites that leverage what users already know or find familiar. For example, consistent labeling of areas within the site is similar to providing street signs with consistent format and location.

Common containers or frameworks for information are built around an expected set of navigational cues. For example, most books have the expected structure of table of contents, chapters, headers, page numbers, and an index. …

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