Complex versus non-complex buildings

In articles about wayfinding the expression “complex buildings” is often discussed. With indoor navigation the term is often used to show that the problem is larger than life, to be able to find the way within buildings and that indoor navigation proves to be the solution.

But what exactly does that mean? “Complex buildings”? When is building considered to be complex and when is it less complex?

Science does not offer a clear answer

McKean (1972) and Weisman (1981) argue that the ease by which one could form a cognitive map of an environment is related to the simplicity or good Gestalt of floorplan configurations. Symmetry, regularity, and continuity are among those qualities of good form (Canter, 1974). Symmetry can be helpful in interpreting vertical information of space, e.g., for spatial reasoning within multi-level buildings (Montello & Pick, 1993). On the other hand, symmetrical architectural settings are principally one of the foremost difficulties in spatial problem solving processes (Remolina & Kuipers, 2004). So, rules of thumb for designing a sound architectural setting cannot be the whole story. 

Research also shows that the wayfinding performance does not improve when people use a map of the floorplan, but it does improve when people can identify landmarks and can use these in their wayfinding process.

Characteristics of a complex building

These starting points are decisive for which type of indoor navigation system you should utilize.

A building is regarded as complex when the following architectural characteristics are applicable:

  • The building has several floors;
  • The floors are accessible via several elevating points;
  • The floorplan(s) of the floor(s) are not congruent.

A building becomes even more complex when the building consists of more building parts. More complexity arises if these building parts have been connected in a way where a person ends up on a different floor from where he started out, without having been elevated or lowered.

And then we have not even addressed the situations where wheelchair bound people or parents with children in a pram have to follow a completely different route because there is a stair present with 5 steps on the same floor.  Then we have to consider the mental state of people which aggravates navigating, such as in a hospital where people tend to be nervous or fearful.

Which kind of indoor navigation to use?

Before making the decision which type of navigation would be applicable, a good analysis has to be made about the building and the way in which people move inside that building.

In complex surroundings the photographic landmark navigation appears to be the best option. The complexity of the surroundings asks for support with visual recognition points. Exactly as is supported by scientific research.

In an environment with hardly any possibilities to support the user with visual recognition points it can be questioned if wayfinding performance can be improved by indoor navigation. In such cases where a building cannot be identified as complex there certainly are possibilities. Research has also shown that it works sufficiently for people to find their way in a building with just one floor and where the floorplan has been laid out in a grid. That already gives people a basic level of spatial orientation. Use of this is made e.g. in urban planning (Manhattan) or in retail (IKEA-warehouses, DIY-stores such as Home Depot or Gamma, etc.) or at expositions/shows.

For these environments a floorplan-based indoor navigation can offer sufficient added value. Even though the question arises quickly whether indoor navigation (mobile wayfinding) is the right means to achieve the most optimal wayfinding performance for building visitors. Environmental graphics and signage are perhaps better means in that case.  Because in the end it is not about the means, but the goal and that goal is to improve the wayfinding experience.