Designing digital wayfinding products for the built environment


12 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Mobile Technology

pexels tim douglas 6567268

The first thing that springs to mind when we talk about wayfinding or navigation is maps. If we need to find our way somewhere, we just follow the blue dot and Google Maps will guide us to where we want to go. If lost and our smartphone is out of action, nine times out of ten the person we ask for directions will turn to their own digital map for the route. However, as mobile technology becomes ever more sophisticated, how we understand and experience wayfinding is expanding beyond ‘simple’ maps and navigation. 

In his recent book entitled ‘Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way’, Michael Bond writes “We lose a great deal by relying on GPS. It turns the world into an abstract entity embedded in a digital device. In exchange for the absolute certainty of knowing where we are going we sacrifice our sense of place.” In this article I don’t plan to disagree, rather I seek to bring more wool to the wayfinding tapestry by showing how digital placemaking tools that help us navigate can also enhance our sense of place.

Photo of city canal
Photo: Gabriel McCallin, Unsplash

Drawing on practice, I’ll explore four key themes: navigation; information; interpretation and immersion – all underpinned by a human-centred design approach. Together, these lenses will ensure that we think beyond maps when wayfinding or navigation next comes up in conversation, or we are seeking to commission a project for our town centres, campuses, visitor attractions and so forth.

Benefits of digital placemaking for wayfinding

Wayfinding is all about finding one’s way using the information at hand to do so. In most settlements there are physical information signage and systems that we use to find a route from A to B, as well as the digital tools noted above. We also apply our spatial awareness, sense of direction as well as sociability – asking others for directions or confirmation that we are situated where we think we are.

Digital placemaking enhances a traveller’s wayfinding experience and can improve the experience of all locals.  

Digital technologies add new opportunities for wayfinders, such as:

  • Personalised interfaces allow users to access information in modes that work best for them
  • Voice control gives people with sight loss the ability to receive more detailed voice guidance and new types of verbal announcements for walking trips.
  • Additional types of information can be accessed from different sources
  • Dynamic interest-based route types provide ways to move around a place that most suits the visitor and can reduce bottlenecks, thus benefiting all in the locale
  • Location positioning of others helps when fathoming their whereabouts in relation to your own
  • Interaction with a setting enables people to engage with a site as they move through
  • Immersion and incidental wayfinding provide deeper and alternative ways to experience a location and develop a sense of place.

This list offers some ways that digital technologies are enhancing our wayfinding experience and expanding our framing of wayfinding, without eroding our sense of place.

Now, turning our attention to digital placemaking for improved navigation…

Navigation: accessibility and inclusion

Let’s start with a few stats from Scope that provide context for this section: there are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK, that’s 1 in 5 people. 40% of households have at least one disabled person and those homes equate to a spending power of around £274 billion per year. None of these numbers are small. 

This section focuses on digital tools to support disabled people to navigate public spaces independently and with confidence. To do so it draws upon two case references, both designed by Calvium in concert with the intended users, i.e. following an inclusive and human-centred design approach.

‘78% of disabled people say that having access to digital technologies is helpful or very helpful.’ –

NavSta is a mobile wayfinding system that aims to remove barriers to travel. It has been designed to support passengers with less visible disabilities to plan their journey through a railway station, undertake their journey and manage uncertainty during a journey. This includes providing dynamic routing, landmark-based navigation and critical information about specific stations, e.g. the availability of accessible toilets, stair-free access and quiet places.

Person with phone and headphones in underground station
NavSta was highly commended for Neurodiverse Research of the Year at the Genius Within Awards. Photo: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

The United Nations talks about the negative effects of disability-based discrimination and the World Health Organisation states that “environments – physical, social and attitudinal – can either disable people with impairments, or foster their participation and inclusion.” NavSta demonstrates how digital tools that are designed for and with disabled people can open up public spaces and enable them to become more active wayfinders and, therefore, participants in the dynamic life of a city.

Similarly, the UCAN GO mobile app enables people with sight loss to navigate complex indoor cultural venues. Mapped by visually impaired members of UCAN Productions, the routing feature supports a user to identify their position in a building and find their way around it, using visual cues presented as image and text. Visitors receive simple step-by-step landmark-based instructions that direct them to their chosen destination. This navigation app helps disabled people to be independent and confident wayfinders when taking part in cultural events.

Drawing on valuable insights from those two projects, I was invited to write a chapter for the esteemed Smithsonian publication, ‘Inclusive Digital Interactives: Best Practices and Research’. In it I discuss how the application of an inclusive and holistic design approach to the interconnected problem area of people, place, technology and data, can produce digital wayfinding tools that help users to overcome common barriers in the physical environment.

Layered information

PopMap and Bristol Parkhive are two digital wayfinding projects that demonstrate how layering information about a location can bring a place to life and transform how people understand and connect with local areas.

We partnered with City ID towards the end of 2019 to develop the PopMap app, which shows a detailed map of the events and activities that are happening in real-time in Bristol. Through an intuitive map interface and a graphical ‘radar’ that reveals real-time information to a user based on their preferences, PopMap allows users to tailor what they see based on the time, where they are and what they want to do.

Bristol Parkhive, meanwhile, uses GPS to identify nearby parks and green spaces to help people find and explore new areas of the city. In addition to providing directions to the area, the app also provides a range of enhanced content, such as individual stories about specific sites that have been co-created by local people, and lists the individual features of each park including toilets, play areas, sports facilities, cafes and water features.

Both PopMap and Parkhive are great examples of providing layers of information about a place in ways that encourage people to discover their locality – at the same time, boosting local cultural and tourism sectors.

Person walking in a park
Photo: Gautam Krishan, Unsplash


Another unique aspect of digital placemaking for wayfinding is the ability to open up the stories of a place, which is exactly what the Place Experience Platform (PEP) has been designed to achieve.

Developed for place managers to share the stories of their location to visitors and to guide them around the area, the Place Experience App presents layers of cultural meaning alongside familiar maps. Place managers have the power to provide plural heritages, enable multiple voices to be encountered, and alternative histories and future perspectives to be found. 

The platform has already been a finalist for the 2021 Platform of the Year Award and adopted by a number of European cities including London, Hamburg and Valencia. 

Carnaby Echoes reveals the hidden stories behind 10 decades of London’s Carnaby Street locale. As you walk around, the app connects the sounds, stories and characters from locations around Carnaby Street with a series of embedded commemorative plaques. These then link to film and audio interviews that are connected to individual buildings.

The suite of Hidden Cities apps, meanwhile, combine augmented reality and digital placemaking to allow people to navigate the streets of Valencia, Exeter, Hamburg, Diverter and Toronto, while fictional characters lead them through the forgotten histories of these European cities – all in their chosen language. An additional feature that serves to build people’s relationships with a place is the ability to move around a city using a 15th century map of the area – just like Hollywood actor Rebel Wilson in Florence!

We made it a design priority to design and build PEP to meet WCAG 2.1 accessibility guidelines; ensuring that the digital placemaking experiences can be enjoyed by as many people as possible, whatever their needs and preferences.


Carnaby Echoes and Hidden Cities demonstrate how digital wayfinding can be used to create meaningful experiences in physical environments. However, the potential of technology doesn’t stop there and it can even be used as a means to guide people around today’s built environments whilst being immersed in places that no longer exist. 

The Lost Palace of Whitehall might have burned to the ground more than 300 years ago, but digital placemaking technology allowed us to build an immersive visitor experience on its original site in the heart of London. Using a combination of expertly crafted storytelling, bespoke handheld devices, binaural 3D sound and haptic technology, we were able to create a dramatic performance located in the exact place where the palace once stood. Visitors were immersed in history, where it happened. 

Wayfinding played an essential part in The Lost Palace experience as the set and stage were the streets of central London. As such, being both critical and incidental to the immersive theatrical experience, the wayfinding solution was carefully crafted across the digital device and the physical location.

Early visitor feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 93% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the experience was unique compared to other experiences they had had at other visitor attractions. 92% agreed or strongly agreed that the experience brought the history of the time and place to life, while 90% said the experience made them feel more connected to the past and the history.

Human-centred design

The examples I have talked about in this article all have one key thing in common: they are underpinned by inclusive, human-centred design. At this point I’ll return to UCAN GO and the Inclusive Digital Interactives chapter mentioned earlier in order to illustrate the importance of adopting a human-centred design approach for digital wayfinding projects:

Photo of person in Wales Millennium Centre using UCAN GO on phone

UCAN GO is a standalone iOS app for visually impaired people to navigate complex indoor cultural spaces independently and with confidence. The app has two main functions: an overview option to orient users and a route finder to independently navigate a space. It is a free digital tool that “breaks new ground in disability research and mobile technology” (Fyfe and Vladichis, 2019).

At the heart of UCAN GO is an ethos that embraces inclusive research and design. As such, a co-design approach was employed from the start of the project and maintained throughout, from concept to deployment. Young people with visual impairments worked alongside the designers and software engineers from Calvium to imagine, research, design and map the mobile solution. It is in this way that the key elements that make up the UCAN GO solution were identified: personalization of the app’s interface and routing options, landmark-based navigation communicated in multiple modes, and a mobile solution which was not dependent on digital connectivity or technical hardware installed at the venue. 

“As the app has been designed by people with sight loss, it has features tailored to the needs or fears that the user group have.” – Digital Skills Officer of the Royal National Institute of Blind People

Once installed on an iPhone using a mobile data or Wi-Fi connection, the UCAN GO app requires no additional technology. Visitors to cultural venues only need to look at the interface or listen to audio instructions to use the routing function and move around the building. Due to the relative simplicity of the technology, users can also feel reassured that the app is unlikely to malfunction when they are in an unfamiliar venue. An additional benefit of this smartphone-based solution, identified during the project’s development, is that young people with sight loss appear to be using their phones in the same mundane way as their sighted contemporaries, therefore they are not drawing attention to themselves as being “different” or “vulnerable.”

In addition to it being a transformative tool for those with visual impairments — users [with] anxiety or simply those who worry about visiting new places said they also found the app extremely helpful. – Spence & Frohlich, 2015

The practice of considering inclusion in all aspects and at all stages of designing the UCAN GO wayfinding tool led to a solution that not only benefited the original user group, but had the potential for broader impact.


Whether through navigation, layering information, interpretation or immersion, this article shows how digital placemaking significantly expands how wayfinding is framed and places experienced.

It touches upon the ability for urban tools such as the Place Experience Platform to disperse people around congested hot-spots, spread footfall and spend to less visited places and bring in new revenue streams to local areas; demonstrating how wayfinding can provide value to all.

The article also highlights why it is imperative that human-centred design should underpin the digital tools that we design, focusing on the UCAN GO project as a case study.

I started this article by introducing Michael Bond’s book ‘Wayfinding’. In its epilogue he suggests that digital wayfinding tools that provide more contextual information about places would help us to “see more, remember more, feel more” – hopefully this article proves him right.

Digital wayfinding should be seen as an integral part of any place strategy. 

Contact Calvium to discuss how we can design human-centred digital wayfinding systems and products that will enhance people’s experience of the built environment you care about: email or call +44 (0) 117 226 2000.

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