Have you ever found yourself staring at something that is supposed to be helping you understand where you are and where you are going? Have you ever stood there long enough to finally realize that you won’t be able to decipher the unidentifiable cluster of lines, shapes and letters on the map without the aid of another human being. It’s frustrating, somewhat humiliating, and above all, makes you wonder if the person who designed it ever had to use their own creation to find their way.
Whether you are navigating public transit, a local college or an online store, the process of wayfinding is the same: Orientation, Route Decision, Route Monitoring and Destination Recognition. Or in other words: “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?”, “Am I still on the right path?” and “Ah-ha! I found it?” As designers, our goal is to always provide just enough context to help you move through each of the four stages.
Orientation is essentially determining your current location relative to nearby objects and your final destination. It can be as simple as finding the “You Are Here” mark on the store map or as difficult as trying to decipher the vague language of a website’s navigational structure. You can improve orientation by leveraging signage and landmarks. In an online context you can chunk related content and provide visual cues that allow the visitor to quickly orient themselves.
Route Decision is the process of choosing which route to take. Invariably, people will tend to take the shortest route—even if it happens to be much more complex. Decreasing navigational choices, adding suggested paths and using clear, simple messaging will allow users to adapt and quickly identify the correct route. Maps are a good way to create a simple mental model of the space and allow the user to quickly identify areas of interest that will enable them to find their destination. Online, we see this represented in site maps and more recently in Mega Dropdown menus and big footers.
Route Monitoring is the periodic determination of whether or not the chosen route is actually leading the user to their destination. Highway signage invokes this process by coupling a nearby, lesser known destination with a more distant, larger city to provide context. On the web, breadcrumb navigation is employed in much the same way in order to help visualize the route the user has taken thus far and expose convenient ways to back-track if necessary.
Destination Recognition refers to the identification of the desired destination. Road signs, building marquees and signage are positioned to provide at-a-glance identification. Online, destination recognition can be much more difficult as many users are arriving through search engines and only after scanning the page do they determine if they need to backtrack to the search results or confirm this is the page they were looking for. As more and more people utilize search engines to find the content they are looking for, it is extremely important to make sure your “signage” and navigational structure are visible, coherent and clearly helpful in navigating the rest of your website.
Wayfinding is the process of successfully using contextual spatial information to navigate complex environments. In cities and online, we look for markers—unique identifiers—that allow us to simultaneously know where we are, where we have been and hopefully where we are going. By paying close attention to the information hierarchy, the copy writing, and the navigational representation, you increase the effectiveness of your pathways. Hopefully, for your users, finding what they are looking for is as enjoyable as the process of getting there.