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.
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.
The three participants who completed this test were unintentionally quite similar due to convenience sampling.
- They were all London residents who had previously lived in New York City
- They had grown up in urban environments
- They were all in their 20s
- They enjoyed exploring their neighborhoods on walks
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.
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.
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.
- Forming a plan: Participants all figured their course of action by locating the cafe in question on a navigation app, but P2 was the only one to generate directions to the cafe. The other two considered the journey straightfoward and decided to use their knowledge of the area.
- Following the plan: Participants used their plans to orient their actions but ultimately their actions relied on circumstances; plans were revisited over the course of each journey to accomodate any unintended detours. All three reacted to environmental details to ensure success in following their intended course, using signage or landmarks or store names.
- Detours: Environmental factors caused participants to reconsider their plans. Spotting a crowd or an unknown park feature, participants considered veering off their intended course, and all mentioned a willingness to explore depending on the circumstance of a walk.
- Gulfs of execution and evaluation: Participants sometimes turned the map (P1, P2) to align their perception of the external world and the system's representation. Disorientation (taking a wrong turn or overshooting the target) also exhibited the gulfs between user understanding and the external world, and required the app to mediate.
- Visual metaphors: Participants showed evidence of internalizing visual metaphors into their mental models of navigation. P3 described themselves as "a little blue dot on Google Maps" during the journey. Participants also were accustomed to larger streets having larger street names on maps, which is a convention that has existed on physical maps too.
- Landmarks: Landmarks allowed users to match their mental models with the external world, but landmarks depended on the user's familiarity with the feature, and was a relationship that changed over time.
- Prior experience: Prior experience was an important topic when discussing mental models of a city and journey planning. Participants made mention of cardinal directions and their experiences navigating other cities.
Design principles for designing for wayfinding under real world circumstances
- Allow flexibility when guiding navigation. Users may prefer to use a set of directions as a baseline for navigation, or implement plans imperfectly
- Assist exploration, under the right circumstances. It may be good to include markers pointing to places of interest or recommendations, though this is not always appropriate so ideally there would be a way to turn these distractions off
- Allow personalized landmarks. Individuals have their own landmarks in a familiar area, and this might help to bridge mental models and digital representations
- Use appropriate metaphors. Participants found it easy to relate to visual metaphors that were consistent with their experience in previous systems and the physical world
- Provide feedback to assist navigation. Instances of participants checking the map can be divided into planning their journey or checking their orientation to take an action
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.