Navigational Apps for Destinations

Is it really worth it?

Like it or not, apps are ingrained in our daily lives and culture. With so many businesses and organizations using apps to enhance a product or service, we have come to rely on their convenience, particularly in a world of mobile users with on-demand expectations. Even cities, institutions and other destinations feel pressure to develop their own apps in order to compete in an increasingly tech-savvy market.


In our markets – places with people-traffic – a navigational app may seem like a practical wayfinding strategy or the on-trend thing to do. In terms of wayfinding, custom navigational apps are more of a buzzword than an actual strategy.

Why you should reconsider

Doesn’t it seem like a great idea for a city? Everyone needs to find their way around, so why not guide and brand it yours?

For starters, it’s expensive. Most civic clients work with tight resources and stretched budgets. Investments and services need to be cost effective. A $25,000 to $30,000 price tag may be just the price of admission for a robust navigation app. On trend or not, an app is only valuable if ROI is there. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. After an app is developed, it costs money to maintain and update.

A much more cost effective approach would be to implement the same wayfinding content on a mobile or responsive website. Most places already have a website in place with resources to actively maintain it. It’s a more affordable option that provides the same level of benefit that gives visitors a place outside the experience to familiarize themselves with the destination.

Furthermore, when people are exploring your place, do you want them looking down at their phone more than usual, or actively engaging in the experience? Memories aren’t built on a mobile phone, and a journey requires you to look forward not down.

At war with Google

It’s easy to take something as established as Google for granted. If you’re trying to build a custom navigational app, don’t forget that you would be competing with a goliath of online mapping and navigational tools. Google Maps and other apps like it, already excel at the same function a civic client would be creating from scratch. Beyond their impressive functionality, these sites and apps are so second nature that they are almost a reflex for when we need directions or advice on how to get around. So you have to ask yourself: will the experience of your app be enhanced to the point where it would make sense to invest a large amount of resources when anyone can download the same thing for free?

When is it a good idea?

Marketplace competition aside, let’s take a step back and examine when a navigational app is viable. According to our wayfinding experts, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that internal navigation apps (hospitals, museums, malls, etc.) offer more opportunities in terms of wayfinding and strategy. The bad news: even if it’s a great app, it still may not be a cost effective solution.

The question of viability and ROI is highly situational. For example, The Cleveland Museum of Art utilizes an app called ARTLENS, which allows you to customize your museum experience. The user can choose the artwork they want to see and get a customized path that takes them to each piece, or just wander and experience responsive wayfinding that shares bonus information on many of the works of art and exhibits. The app is fun and interactive, enhancing the experience rather than detracting or being purely functional.

Compare that to a hospital with it’s own navigational app. The service being provided is completely different. A hospital deals with plenty of emergencies and people with high volumes of stress. It is much less likely that a hospital patient or visitor would take the time to download an app instead of just asking an employee at the front desk or using wayfinding signage.

When it comes down it, a navigational app for the interior of a destination has to enhance the experience.

What the Future Holds

Due to the quick advancement in technology, it’s possible that apps or some type of electronic media will control the wayfinding space and become essential to strategy. Given the current landscape of wayfinding, navigational apps seem to have a narrow view of viability where success is situational.

Wayfinding doesn’t need an app to create a memorable on-brand experience. Until the costs of entry and implementation come to a more accessible level, navigational apps won’t gain as much traction in certain industries.

Just because a navigational app isn’t a feasible option, doesn’t mean you can’t transform a community into a destination, or that there aren’t exciting opportunities to leverage technology to further support the experience of your place. But it’s worth some consideration beforehand, take time and reach out to colleagues from other organizations that have developed an app to see how it has performed for them and what they’ve learned along the way.


Need some advice? Reach out to Guide Studio’s wayfinding experts to discuss your objectives and explore your options.

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