Social Wayfinding: How People Influence Navigation

Question: How do YOU make decisions?

Maybe you fancy yourself as an independent thinker who “does your own thing” and “thinks for yourself.” But in reality, you (along with everyone else) are still subject to outside forces that influence your decisions. Consciously or subconsciously, your family, friends, colleagues, role models and acquaintances pull you in different directions like a magnetic force. Even people you don’t know. Thanks to social media, blogs and online reviews, the realm of influence extends beyond your inner circle and into the digital world.

This collection of influencers impact where you live, where you work, what clothes you wear and what you’re eating for dinner tonight.

They also influence where you go and how you navigate through those places. Because of this phenomenon, we cannot view wayfinding as a solitary process. Sure, there are circumstances where one person travels to and from a destination alone, without the aid of others. But more often than not, it’s a social experience that is greatly influenced by other people’s presence, words, and actions.

The many forms of social wayfinding

One of the most obvious examples of “social wayfinding” is when two people walk to a destination – a restaurant, ball game, store, wherever. Together, they determine the most effective route, identify landmarks, and discuss what they see and hear along the way. Other times, one person takes the lead while the other follows.

Another example includes guided tours – one person leading a group of people – through a city, museum or university. A tour guide has a tremendous influence on what we see, hear, and experience, as well as how we feel about that experience afterward. Many college decisions are probably made based on the effectiveness of the tour guide. Hopefully, your human guides are leaving your audience with a positive first impression.

Social wayfinding happens in less obvious ways too. Have you ever followed someone because you think they’re going to the same place? Or maybe you took a short-cut because you noticed other people did too? When we work with university clients, we always come across both well-manicured paths as well as unintentional, worn paths formed by students taking quicker shortcuts to their classrooms or dorms. Which path do you think is more traveled? Usually the latter. Again, it’s all about people influencing other people

Design considerations

So what does all this mean for you? Anyone championing a destination can’t ignore how interpersonal communication and interaction impacts the wayfinding experience. Human-centered design is all about understanding people. It sounds so simple, but you’d be surprised at how many place-based brands get this completely wrong. Sure, you can create the most beautiful wayfinding program, but if it doesn’t take human interaction into account, you’ll probably be working on another wayfinding program in a few years. And no one wants that.

We try to avoid these mistakes by talking to people. Not just our clients, but their audiences – the people they are meant to serve. This process eliminates bias and gets to the bottom of how they make wayfinding decisions.

  • How do you know when you’ve arrived in a place? What are the signs and signals you look for?
  • Do you use any tools to help you get to/from the destination?
  • Do you travel with anyone to this destination?
  • Who else do you see as you navigate your way around this place?
  • What are the top five destinations you would tell other people to go to?
  • If you were giving someone directions, what route/path would you tell them to take?
  • How do you know when you’ve arrived in a place? What are the signs and signals you look for?
  • Have you ever gotten lost trying to get to/from here? How did you recover?
  • How would you describe this destination to someone else?

Hopefully, you can see what we’re trying to accomplish through this exercise. Instead of looking at a map and making ill-informed decisions about what people need throughout the journey, we use their feedback to guide the wayfinding plan. The goals, nomenclature, signage design, directions, and other educational components are all based on people and how they influence other people’s wayfinding decisions.

It doesn’t have to be hard

A new wayfinding strategy can feel really daunting. Especially when you need to take all of the social influences into account. But the information is all right in front of you. If you know who makes up your audience, take the time to put on a different hat and understand what they need from you. How are you supporting those needs? Where are the gaps? How can you do better?

With these insights on hand, you’re positioned to make smarter decisions about your infrastructure and programs. You’ll also have happier people who are ready and willing to shout glowing reviews from the rooftops.

Considering a future wayfinding project? Inquire about a Wayfinding Analysis to arm yourself with the information needed to secure funds and kickstart your next wayfinding project.



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