Wayfinding research

Finding one’s way around public buildings such as airports, hospitals, offices, or university buildings often proves to be a tedious and frustrating task. Wayfinding in a complex setting with less than perfect knowledge requires decision making under uncertainty and we aim to identify the behaviours and strategies that people employ to navigate in such environments. 

Several researchers [e.g. 1, 2] stressed the role of familiarity with a building, and illustrated how training of sequential routes or survey knowledge can boost orientation performance in complex buildings like hospitals. 

Most studies on wayfinding performance and building complexity have limited themselves to investigations in the horizontal plane of isolated floor levels. Soeda et al. [3] were able to show that wayfinding performance in tasks involving floor level changes is largely hindered by disorientation during vertical travel on stairs or elevators, extending earlier observations [4]. 


The roll of maps

Thorndyke & Hayes-Roth [5] found evidence that the information learned from a map is quite distinct from information learned while navigating in an environment, since the map provides survey knowledge rather than accurate, direct route knowledge. 

Butler et al. [6] present evidence that you-are-here maps in a similarly complex setting had no positive effect at all, in fact, wayfinders attending to such wall-mounted maps lost time without gaining any navigational advantage. 

It is also well-documented that using a map that is misaligned with one’s current orientation can be detrimental [7], a feature of many standard floor maps in office buildings. 

Independent from map alignment all maps have to be transferred from survey perspective into route perspective. This transfer is associated with switching costs [8,9] 

Major wayfinding performance differences have been detected between participants who were familiar with the building and those who were not. [10] This finding was expected as it confirms the finding of familiarity effects by other researchers. It demonstrates how difficult indoor wayfinding in a realistically complex setting is for untrained users, the target audience of most public buildings. Even the familiar participants performed far from perfect in this setting, pointing to usability challenges in the multi-level multi-building ensemble. The observation that participants frequently forgot target room numbers suggests a severe memory load imposed by the complex building structure. [10]

When given the opportunity, unfamiliar participants tried to compensate for their lack of prior knowledge longer and more often than familiar users by making use of the wall-mounted maps. However, surprisingly it turned out that the floor maps did not have any positive impact on wayfinding performance, neither for first-time nor for regular visitors. [10]
In fact, reading the maps required additional time and did not receive any payback in performance enhancement [6]. One might suspect that the map deficits relate to a lack of alignment, but it turned out to be not a decisive factor [10]. 


The roll of landmarks [13]

Finding one’s way in an environment in search of a destination is part of everyday life. Unfortunately, a complex indoor environment may entail specific problems for wayfinding and navigation [14]. For example, the third dimension (i.e. various floor levels), which is characteristic for most buildings, has an impact on wayfinding performances [3]. Additionally, buildings are often composed of fragmented areas with a limited field of view and changes in direction occur more frequently than outdoors [15]. These elements lead to disorientation, which represents one of the main difficulties while moving through a building [16]. In order to resolve this loss of orientation, people can rely on landmarks, which are the basis of the cognitive model of an environment that is used by a navigator to find his or her way. Especially in the first stages of a mental map’s development, a space is seen as a loose collection of landmarks, which serve as anchor points, without spatial coherence [17] [18]. Reference [19] was one of the first authors to define (outdoor) landmarks as “physical elements in space which can be unambiguously referred to in route instructions”."  

Similar to outdoors, the complexity of a building can force a navigator to rely on route instructions given by another person, who is more familiar with the environment, or originating from indoor wayfinding applications. If these directions were formulated by another person, chances are that features of the environment were integrated to clarify the instructions. This brings us to a major principle with respect to direction giving, namely referring to landmarks (Richter & Duckham, 2008), which are seen as “conceptually and perceptually distinct locations” (May, Ross, Bayer, & Tarkiainen, 2003). These salient geographic elements structure a human’s mental representation of space, (Richter & Winter, 2014), which is central in our ability to navigate as it represents all known spatial relations between objects and locations and enables us to define routes and describing our location (Iaria & Barton, 2010; Kuipers, 1978). As such, the prime function of landmarks is to locate these objects and locations. They define a place. However, while a place exhibits a high level of information and details, a landmark is an anchor point that is abstracted to a node without internal structure. In this way, the representational complexity is reduced. Consequently, landmarks are ideal wayfinding tools for directing a person from A to B as they allow fast reasoning and efficient communication (Richter & Winter, 2014). Moreover, the use of landmarks is often linked with the quality of route instructions as they are related to the natural cognitive navigation process of humans (e.g. Hund & Padgitt (2010), Lovelace, Hegarty, & Montello (1999), May et al. (2003), Streeter, Vitello, & Wonsiewicz (1985))."



Wayfinding systems benefit from the technological advancements that became part of our daily life. High-definition displays, touch-screen kiosks, and online information are examples of these developments. With the widespread of smartphones and their concurrent applications, location- aware apps are developed to guide people navigation. They provide a new dimension to
traditional wayfinding systems by generating maps that show the shortest path to a desired
destination. Moreover, augmented reality (AR) is becoming part of these developments, in which digital information is provided through a phone’s camera (12).



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  2. Moeser, S. D. (1988). Cognitive Mapping in a Complex Building. Environment and Behavior, 20(1), 21-49.
  3. Soeda, M., Kushiyama, N., Ohno, R. (1997). Wayfinding in Cases with Vertical Motion. Proceedings of MERA 97: Intern. Conference on Environment-Behavior Studies, 559-564.
  4. Passini, R. (1992). Wayfinding in architecture (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company
  5. Thorndyke, P.W. & Hayes-Roth, B. (1982). Differences in spatial knowledge acquired from
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  7. Levine, M., Jankovic, I., and Palij, M. (1982). Principles of spatial problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 11, 157-175.
  8. Lee, P.U. & Tversky, B. (2001). Costs of Switching Perspectives in Routed and Survey Descriptions. Proceedings of the twenty-third Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Edinburgh, Scotland.
  9. Shelton, A.L. & McNamara, T.P. (2004). Orientation and Perspective Dependance in Route and Survey Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 30, 158-170.
  10. Christoph Hölscher, Simon J. Büchner, Tobias Meilinger and Gerhard Strube (2007). Map Use and Wayfinding Strategies in a Multi-Building Ensemble
  11. Ahmed Hassem Sadek (2015). A comprehensive approach to facilitate wayfinding in healthcare facilities. Design4Health 2015 European Conference. Sheffield Hallam University.
  12. Goldiez, B. F. 2004. Techniques for assessing and improving performance in navigation and wayfinding using mobile augmented reality. PhD Thesis, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL.
  13. Pepijn Viaene, Ann Vanclooster, Kristien Ooms, Philippe De Maeyer. "Thinking Aloud in Search of Landmark Characteristics in an Indoor Environment"
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  18. B. J. Stankiewicz and A. A. Kalia, “Acquisition of structural versus object landmark knowledge.,” J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform., vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 378–390, May 2007.
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  20. Hund, A. M., & Padgitt, A. J. (2010). Direction giving and following in the service of wayfinding in a complex indoor environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30(4), 553–564. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.01.002
    Iaria, G., & Barton, J. J. S. (2010). Developmental Topographical Disorientation: a newly discovered cognitive disorder. Experimental Brain Research, 206(2), 189–196. doi:10.1007/s00221-010-2256-9

    Kuipers, B. (1978). Modeling Spatial Knowledge. Cognitive Science, 2, 129–153. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0202_3
    Lovelace, K. L., Hegarty, M., & Montello, D. R. (1999). Elements of Good Route Directions in Familiar and Unfamiliar Environments. In Spatial information theory. Cognitive and Computional Foundations of Geographic Information Science (pp. 65–82). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

    May, A. J., Ross, T., Bayer, S. H., & Tarkiainen, M. J. (2003). Pedestrian navigation aids: information requirements and design implications. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 7(6), 331–338. doi:10.1007/s00779-003-0248-5

    Richter, K., & Duckham, M. (2008). Simplest Instructions : Finding Easy-to-Describe Routes for Navigation. In T. J. Cova (Ed.), GIScience 2008 (pp. 274–289). Springer-Verlag Berlin, Heidelberg.

    Richter, K., & Winter, S. (2014). Landmarks. Springer Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-05732-3

    Streeter, L., Vitello, D., & Wonsiewicz, S. A. (1985). How to tell people where to go : comparing navigational aids. International Journal Man-Machine Studies, (22), 549–562.