Wayfinding Study

thinkaloud, direct observation


Goal: Observe participants wayfinding through semi-familiar areas of their neighborhood, with an emphasis on journey planning and adapting plans to the environment, and then develop principles for designing wayfinding applications.

My role: This was an individual project, so I did recruitment, planning, testing, analysis, and wrote the recommendations. In this case I was also camerawoman as I filmed my participants on their journeys.

Three hands holding mobile phones with navigation apps open
Still footage from the tests


Though so much user research takes place in the lab, situated research has an advantage of capturing seredipity and context. As anyone who has used a GPS or a map might know, plans will change as you move through the real world, so I investigated how participants use navigational aids on real journeys.

Three participants were asked to pretend a friend had asked them to meet up, and navigate from their home Tube station to a specific cafe less than 2 miles away. (Two more participants were recruited but these sessions were canceled due to the pandemic.) Participants were given free reign to choose how they got to the destination, e.g. finding the location and mode of transport, to keep the task as realistic as possible.

Photo of P1 as they walk down a street with signage in the background
The observation captured the duration of the entire walk


The three participants who completed this test were unintentionally quite similar due to convenience sampling.

The two other participants recruited were urbanites who had never lived in New York City, one of whom was not in their 20s, and they may not have been predisposed towards exploring their neighborhoods. Their journeys could have lent more clarity and weight to the findings. Furthermore, this study only describes the lived experience of participants with no mobility impairments; findings would have been different had they had different levels of mobility.


The task started in an area that they were expected to be familiar with, and then see how their mental model supplemented unknown environment factors and affected interpretation of contextual data. And familiarity makes it hard sometimes to articulate decision-making, so the unfamiliar destination would also provide richer data.

Before the start of the task, they were given consent forms and information sheets, and reminded to try to behave as naturally as possible. During the session, they were asked to provide a thinkaloud of their decision process, sometimes prompted with open-ended questions from me to clarify their statements. I tried my best to make sure I didn't make assumptions or ask for predictions, but often followed up on predictions that the participants stated themselves.

A hand pointing to a bridge in the background A hand gesturing to a street map
Participants used their environment to navigate, such as personal landmarks or conveniently placed streetmaps

All participants chose to walk after identifying the distance to their destination on a navigation app and observing the weather. Each journey took between 30-40 minutes. Summary questions were asked at the end to gauge their overall impressions, get information on their habits, and clarify anything that I refrained from asking during their thinkaloud.


The journeys were recorded with permission, and then reviewed and selectively transcribed into a total of 22 pages of quotes. Quotes and notes were organized into a comparison chart based on differences and commonalities (such as "major roads" or "starting out") based on behavior, assumptions, and knowledge.

Because of the small sample size, data saturation was not conclusively reached, but there were enough commonalities between the three participants that patterns emerged. These patterns were then examined through existing literature on wayfinding, mental models, and situated action.

Table comparing directions, usage of map, attitude towards navigation, and turning the map behavior across participants
Sample image of the comparison table containing quotes and notes


The findings related the data through the theoretical lens of mental models and situated action. They were not shocking nor groundbreaking, but confirmed best practices in designing for navigation. For brevity, I've summarized the main points of each part of the findings below.

Design principles for designing for wayfinding under real world circumstances


A constraint to applying theoretical approaches in this context is that it's difficult to define what a "plan" might mean in a context such as a walk. Because it is so fluid, detours occupy a grey area between "planned" and "unplanned"—P1 explicitly stated that they enjoyed exploring new streets so detours are in somewhat expected. But exploration in general is difficult to plan for.

Mental models is also difficult to study because everyone has different prior knowledge, and so start with a different baseline. Both P1 and P3 were comparable in their confidence navigating, and both used their mental models, but P3 had more familiarity with their overall route than P1, who had never been to Stoke Newington at all. There may have been nuances that were not captured within this study.

As someone who really enjoys taking neighborhood walks, it was interesting to undertake a project that examined the decisions and assumptions I never consciously thought about. It was also enlightening to get a peek of how others do the same activity in ways surprisingly different from my own.