Facilitating efficient wayfinding in complex human environments
Submitting InstitutionBournemouth University
Unit of AssessmentPsychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Neurosciences
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Psychology
Summary of the impact
Losing one's way in complex built environments wastes time and money, and
often causes stress
and anxiety. The BU Wayfinding Research Centre (WRC) has developed a
evidence-based approach to this common problem. Researchers have
knowledge from laboratory research on navigation and icon interpretation
to a diverse range of
private and public sector organisations (Frankfurt International airport,
World Heritage Site, multi-national
offices, hospitals). The method has replaced existing, unreliable
typically based on intuition and guesswork, with effective, scalable,
These have improved wayfinding in complex, unfamiliar buildings, enhancing
productivity and reducing users' inconvenience, distress and risk. The
successful delivery of the
WRC's approach proves this method works and has significant potential for
future application and
Wayfinding—the ability to find, retain, and communicate routes through
vital to everyday activity. Human spatial navigation performance is,
variable; sometimes seemingly effortless, but often highly error-prone.
Errors, which have trivial or
critical consequences (e.g., retracing steps; missing a flight; risk of
death), arise because
wayfinding is in fact an exceedingly intricate cognitive task, involving
mechanisms of learning and memory and higher-order symbolic and verbal
BU's focus on wayfinding was established when McDougall was appointed (BU
2007 to present).
Her on-going research programme in symbolic processing of icons/signage
was complemented by
Wiener (BU 2009 to present), who provided a neuroscience and computational
These appointments led to the launch of the Wayfinding Research Centre
(WRC), which quickly
made collaborative research links with UK and European institutions,
including Edinburgh, Warwick
and Freiburg University in Germany among others.
WRC's mission is to develop a deeper understanding of how basic and
processes interact to guide behaviour, particularly in complex man-made
environments. BU has
committed substantial infrastructural funds to wayfinding research,
investing £210K in laboratories,
eye-tracking equipment and postgraduate studentships.
Key outputs include:
- Wiener's work on the relationship between gaze and subsequent
pinpointed two distinct cognitive mechanisms underlying estimates of
position relative to a journey's origin (P4&5). Moreover, his
collaborative studies with
colleagues in Freiburg showed that these implicit direction-finding
differently from those that underpin the social or verbal communication of
a route to others
- McDougall's complementary, theoretically-driven research has
identification, usability and appeal. For example, drawing parallels with
picture naming (P3),
showed how signs can be designed to make them more easily interpreted.
Wiener and McDougall's work came together through funding from Cisco
Systems to develop
signage systems for intelligent buildings (G2). The grant supported the
development of a scalable
wayfinding intervention protocol that has subsequently been deployed in a
range of applications
WRC's research programme continues to develop. McDougall has recently
been commissioned by
the UK British Standards Institute (BSI) for similar work in relation to
BSI and Wiener is now
exploring how individual factors such as cognitive ageing (P6) and
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD) affect wayfinding. A better understanding of the processes involved
will lead to bespoke
solutions to wayfinding difficulties experienced by older adults and
professions that both risk
trauma and require navigational competence (e.g. armed forces, emergency
To summarise, internal infrastructural support and industrial research
funding has allowed WRC to
conduct well-controlled, laboratory-based research, strongly informed by
theory, to conceptualise
the processes underlying human navigation through complex environments
from first principles.
Wayfinding systems fail when they ignore these principles. They have been
applied to develop a
research-driven, evidence-based solution to wayfinding, which is scalable
across a range of
important applications. This theory-driven solution is in marked contrast
to a blind reliance on
guesswork, intuition or a piece-meal use of empirical methods seeking
merely to find out "What
References to the research
P1. Hölscher, C., Tenbrink, T. and Wiener, J.M. (2011). Would you
follow your own route
description? Cognitive strategies in urban planning. Cognition,
121, 228-247. DOI:
P2. McDougall, S., Forsythe, A., Isherwood, S., Petocz, A., Reppa,
I. and Stevens, C. (2009). The
use of multimodal representation in icon interpretation. In: D. Harris
(ed.), Engineering, Psychology
& Cognitive Ergonomics, HCII 2009, LNAI 5639, pp.62-70.
P3. McDougall, S. and Isherwood, I. (2009). What's in a name? The
role of graphics, functions,
and their inter-relationships in icon identification. Behavior
Research Methods, 41, 325-336. DOI:
P4. Wiener J.M., Hölscher, C., Büchner, S. and Konieczny, L.
(2012). Gaze behaviour during
space perception and spatial decision making. Psychological Research,
76(6), 713-729. DOI:
P5. Wiener, J.M., Berthoz, A. and Wolbers, T. (2011). Dissociable
underlying human path integration. Experimental Brain Research,
208, 61-71. DOI:
P6. Wiener, J.M., de Condappa, O., Harris, M.A. and Wolbers, T.
(2013). Maladaptive bias for
extrahippocampal navigation strategies in aging humans. The Journal of
Neuroscience, 33, 6012-6017.
Key grants/research income
G1. BU support to establish WRG: £210K. From 2010-date.
G2. 2010-2013: McDougall, S. and Wiener, J.M. The development of
signage systems in
intelligent buildings. Cisco Systems Inc. (UK). £25k.
Details of the impact
WRC's work has achieved impact through valuable research-based
consultancy to a range of
organisations. Through this work WRC researchers have trialled a number of
interventions, providing a research-driven, evidence-based solution to
improve signage and
mapping. This improves wayfinding amongst users of the facilities.
The following are a few examples of those organisations using WRC
services. These illustrate the
reach of the work across a variety of domains and its significance in
terms of beneficiary groups.
Each presents different practical wayfinding challenges to a diverse
variety of users. The
successful application of the approach is evidenced through field testing,
senior managers within the organisations, further demand for WRC services
and BSI research
Frankfurt Airport, Germany (FRAPORT)
FRAPORT is the second busiest hub in Europe and one of the 10 busiest
airports in the world (56
million passenger movements in 2011). This massive facility requires
communication of both fixed
(e.g., duty-free concession) and frequently changing (e.g., gate) location
caters to transient users from all over the world, speaking different
languages and using different
writing systems. However, wayfinding typically follows fixed cognitive
scripts, familiar to many
travellers (e.g. departure; arrival; transfer.)
Having identified problems with the existing signage system at critical
transfer locations, Wiener, in
collaboration with his colleagues at the Centre for Cognitive Science,
conducted empirical eye-tracking studies to evaluate alternative
wayfinding signage designs (R1).
Research-led improvements to the signage system were made in 2011.
constraints prevented a formal evaluation, airport staff reported
substantially reduced passenger
direction enquiries and FRAPORT management positively endorsed the
In a letter addressed to Wiener, dated 06/06/2012, Head of the Wayfinding
Department at FRAPORT stated: "Based on the results from these studies,
the signage system at
these critical transfer situations has been modified and improved. Reports
employees indicate that these modifications led to a substantial reduction
of the number of
passengers asking for directions" (R2).
This programme of work is on-going and WRC is currently investigating
general design principles
for complex wayfinding signs that will inform further modifications of the
existing signage system.
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich (Greenwich)
Greenwich is a World Heritage Site with several entrance and exit points.
It seeks to provide a
better educational/leisure experience for its multi-national visitor
profile by improving pedestrian
flow and increasing visitor donations.
In 2013 the WRC team was contracted to gather navigational survey and
data relating to placement of signs encouraging visitors to donate (R4).
Analysis of the eye-tracking
data provided the management team at Greenwich with key information about
place donation signs and insights into visitors' experience of the
attraction and the ease with which
they were able to find their way around.
The site's Commercial Director said: "The eye-tracking survey carried out
at the Old Royal Naval
College was a revelation as it exposed what visitors are really looking
at." She continued, "It
highlighted some significant gaps in our wayfinding system, as well as
issues around the visibility
of our donation boxes, all of which are now being addressed to improve
both visitor experience and
fundraising opportunities" (R5).
Development of International Sign Standards
International Standards have been developed to assess comprehensibility
of signs and symbols
which reference work by McDougall as a basis for the methods used. These
guidelines have also
been adopted as British Standards (R6). McDougall is currently helping
with pilot work to develop
updated comprehensibility standards (i.e. ISO 9186-3). Recommendations
regarding US homeland
security safety symbols has also cited work by McDougall (R7) and
recommendations for revisions
to design guidelines for pictorial communication symbols in Japan is in
part based on work by
In summary, the WRC's research-driven, evidence-based approach to
wayfinding problems has
provided a solution where previously only unreliable navigational
supports, typically based on
intuition and guesswork, existed. The successful delivery of the WRC's
approach proves this
method is an effective, scalable, research-based solution with significant
potential for future
application and development. Those using these facilities will continue to
benefit from significantly
improved wayfinding ability.
Sources to corroborate the impact
R1. 2009-2013: Wiener, J.M. Signage at Frankfurt Airport: The
efficiency of the existing system.
FRAPORT AG. £6.5k.
R2. Personal letter from Head of Wayfinding and Signage
Department, Fraport (available on
R3. Methodological Triangulation to Assess Sign Placement http://www.jan-wiener.net/publications/Buechner_etal_ETRA2012.pdf
R4. 2013: Wiener, J. and Miller, J. Old Royal Naval College
Greenwich: Establishing a better
sense of place. Old Royal Naval College Greenwich. £15k.
R5. Personal letter from Commercial Director of Old Royal Naval
College, Greenwich (available on
R6. ISO 9186-2: 2008. Graphical symbols — Test methods. Part
2: Method for testing perceptual
quality. International Standards Organisation.
R7. Mayhorn, C.B., Wogalter, M.S. and Bell, J.L. (2004). Homeland
security safety symbols: Are
we ready? Ergonomics in Design, 6-14.
R8. Morimoto, K. and Matsumoto, K. (2007). Design guidelines of
pictorial symbols for
communication support based on subjective evaluation of comprehensibility.