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Wayfinding in Glasgow University

A summary of a report based on a final year M.A. project by Nina Webster (July 1998).


In a large institution like the University of Glasgow, finding one's way is important, but often problematic. This report describes a project that carried out seven studies employing a variety of methods to investigate the issues involved, and test the effectiveness of a design intervention to improve people's success at wayfinding. The overall approach was to focus on the campus user's situation and perspective.

The studies

Two observational studies of people as they looked for destinations both indoors and outdoors revealed the existence of a three-stage process of wayfinding: locating a goal, establishing one's current position, and plotting a path between them. This process can be helped or hindered by the aids available (signage, maps and directions). Two experiments showed that simple changes to the campus map key and building floorplans can bring about marked improvements in their usability.

Two other studies investigated the cognitive representations of campus possessed by its users. One involved the analysis of sketch maps, and showed that campus knowledge undergoes qualitative and quantitative changes over time. The other experiment tested knowledge of buildings and departments, and concluded that we think of the campus in terms of different disciplines rather than building names. The implications of all the studies are discussed with respect to measures designed to increase people's campus knowledge and the provision of wayfinding aids. Evidence suggests that, for both of these aims, psychological considerations are as important as financial and aesthetic issues.

How people think about campus locations

Our representation of the campus seems to be organised in specific ways.

All the mental divisions of campus knowledge found in this report do not bode well for those trying to project a corporate image to investors and new students. They highlight the potential importance of interventions designed to promote an integrated knowledge of campus. It may prove that "deep" learning is as difficult to encourage on campus as it is in the classroom, but the methods suggested for promoting it are certainly worth testing.

Practical implications

Studies of people performing wayfinding tasks showed a general three-stage process we engage in to reach destinations indoors and out. It was shown that this process can break down when the necessary information at any of the stages is lacking (that of current location, desired location, or a path beteween the two). The current ways of compensating for the lack of information vary in their efficacy and in their ease of use, and can engender completely new problems. It is hard enough understanding a new environment without having to spend time and energy on the interpretation of what are supposed to be aids. These media should be designed to match the requirements and capabilities of the users. As has been illustrated in one study, it is easy to think that everyone knows the same amount as ourselves and does things in the same way as us. For designers, who spend a great proportion of their time looking at maps and signage, this tendency will affect their designs. It is impossible for them to truly imagine how newcomers to campus will view it. Evidence for this claim comes from work on expert knowledge organisation which suggests that experts think about things in a fundamentally different way to novices. For this reason, field work should be an integral part of the design process. New maps, floorplans, room numbering and floor labelling systems should be piloted before being implemented permanently campus-wide. This would allow the university to evaluate their efficacy before having spent so much money on them as to render alterations infeasible. Perhaps for this reason, the improvements suggested below are already infeasible, but they could provide some guidelines for the design of future wayfinding aids that complement the way we think about the university.

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