19 May 1999 ............... Length about 900 words (6000 bytes).
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Wayfinding in Glasgow University
A summary of a report based on a final year M.A. project by Nina Webster
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.
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
How people think about campus locations
Our representation of the campus seems to be organised in specific ways.
- There is the "known" and the "unknown". People only feel confident in
certain areas of campus and this affects their inclination to explore.
- There are clear distinctions between the faculties, especially the
traditional arts-science divide.
- We think of the buildings on campus by their departmental associations
rather than their new names.
- People regard the Main Building as the main reference point of the
university despite not often going there. We tend to have a representation of
the environment which derives from the way we interact with it.
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.
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
- Floorplans should be simplified, aligned to the building, depict rooms
and corridors in different colours, include an arrow showing current location,
and be presented opposite entrances and lift exits. Where multiple floorplans
are presented, the top map should correspond to the top floor and the bottom
plan to the lowest floor.
- The campus map should incorporate the new key changes. It should also
include information about departments, not only building names, since that
seems to be the way that most people think about campus. Perhaps thematic
maps for each faculty, service, or task could be produced which reduce the
amount of information that needs to be processed during wayfinding tasks.
- Campus tours put on for new students could be redesigned, e.g. as a
treasure hunt or orienteering exercise, to increase the amount of usable
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