Sunday, January 23, 2011

What is wayfinding?

According to Wikipedia, wayfinding is "all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place." defines it as, "signs, maps, and other graphic or audible methods used to convey location and directions to travelers."  An example of wayfinding could be "you-are-here" style maps in malls or amusement parks, augmented by color-coded trails to help you navigate.  If you have ever been to Disney World then you have seen great wayfinding in action.

One of my favorite examples was in the admin building of White Oak Semiconductor.  In this building, hallways were painted specific colors to indicate their purpose.  One color indicated that the hallway was used to transition from the outer corridors into the cubicle areas, while other colors indicated that the hallways led to stairwells to transition between floors.  White Oak also adopted a convention to locate restrooms in the hallways that transitioned from common areas or corridors to cubicle work areas.  These simple yet functional wayfinding techniques were easily adopted by the building inhabitants and eased navigation throughout the facility.

What's missing in both the definitions above is virtual wayfinding in the context of web site or application navigation.  To me, wayfinding is a key component (if not the component) driving usability engineering.  Unfortunately, wayfinding is missing in many web designs.  It really is as simple as adopting conventions that are intuitive for users to understand and retain.  Some wayfinding techniques are common to many successful applications (such as bread crumbs) while other techniques are specific to the application and users that the application serves.  However, without wayfinding, users not forced use your application will not return to your application or web site.  This leads to development waste and lost revenue.

To me, there are many ways to build wayfinding into your web site, but understanding your user base is the first stop.  As a designer or architect, you need to understand the whys of your application.  Using well-defined and universally accepted internet navigation standards should be your next stop.  Personalization is also a good idea.  The reason while web portals are so successful is that they allow users to customize their return experiences while utilizing standard techniques for navigation and information presentation.  Regardless of whatever techniques you decide on you should document those standards so that future changes to your web site also follow the same standards, until such a time as they become outdated and counter intuitive.

Wayfinding is meant to help answer questions for your customers/users while they use your web site to get what they need and give you what you want.  Some of these questions are:
1. Where am I, am I there yet?
2. Am I on the right site, in the right place, for what I need or want to do?
3. Where do I go next, or how do I get back to where I was?
4. Is this best choice for me?
5. Did I already see this?

While on your web site, users need to find what they want while also avoiding what they do not want.  If you do not engineer that ability into your web site then you are doomed to mediocre results.

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