Week 9: Readings and Comments

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 699-2, Fall 2001, supervised by Dr. Luz Quiroga

This week I worked primarily on Romedi Passini's Wayfinding in Architecture. This is a great book, and I'm enjoying it.

Chapter 3 explored the nature of wayfinding in general. Wayfinding involves a wayfinding task, environmental information, wayfinding decisions, and behavioral action. The wayfinding task is generally to get to a certain destination, possibly by a certain time.

Environmental information includes content (the name, category, or nature of a place or setting), location (where one is within a frame of reference, whether that be ego-centric, fixed, or coordinate-based) and time (how long certain task took or estimates of how long they will take). Information processing and even basic sensory perception are influenced largely by cognition and existing schemas. Information can be sensory, remembered, or inferred. The less sensory information available, the more details must be recalled from memory or inferred from similar experiences. Relying on common learned or remembered information can be helpful in limiting sensory or information overload.

Once a person as a general task ("go home"), there is usually a break down into subtasks that need to be completed along the way ("find the parking lot", "get in the car", "drive home", etc). Subtasks frequently involve further subtasks. This creates a hierarchy of wayfinding decisions. These decisions-to-be-made are not determined all at once, but rather are evolved based on environmental information. If a subtask fails, it may result in a reformulation of one or more super-tasks, possibly even to the top of the hierarchy--the original wayfinding task (such as canceling the trip all together).

There seems to be two styles of wayfinding: a linear, sign-based approach and a spatial, coordinate-based approach. Those people who rely on a spatial approach are often disoriented when environmental information is not sufficient to that technique, even when there are adequate signs and linear-based wayfarers are having little difficulty in the same situation. What is interesting is that people can switch modes (generally spatial to linear) when given clues that they should do so, such as in an underground subway system where there are few spatial clues but numerous signs.

Another interesting finding is that people seek information pertaining to their current subtask, often overlooking other information, even if it is pertinent to a supertask. Thus, not only is it important to get proper navigational information to users, it has to arrive at the right time.

After examining environmental information, people turn their wayfinding decisions into behavioral actions. And so the feedback loop/cycle continues until the destination is reached.

I am assuming that wayfinding in the real world is similar to wayfinding in an information space. Indeed, many aspects of Passini's description remind me of a good online searching strategy, though searching may be slightly more thought-out ahead of time. The way people break down tasks hierarchically reminds me of traditional web site navigation hierarchies. Also, Passini mentions that people seem to store wayfinding and location information in mental hierarchies as well--a certain desk is in a certain room in a certain building on a certain street in a certain city--rather than in some abstract form (such as longitude, latitude, and altitude). I suspect that the information storing hierarchy and the navigational decisions hierarchy are closely related to each other. Linear verses spatial navigation remind me of following navigational links verses forming an overall conception of a site's structure. Indeed, if the navigation does not follow the structure, there could be some confusion if a user is not given clues of which one to follow (though, on the web, I imagine linear, navigational link-following is much more common than some sort of spatial, site structure wayfinding. (A good example of intentionally separating navigation from site structure is the multiple navigation schemes used at http://www.oldglory15s.com [since redesigned].)

The parallels been the online and offline worlds seem quite evident. I hope that the book's concluding chapter on designing for wayfinding will have some tips that can be applied to information architecture.

Post-discussion Issues:

To Week 10 →