NavSta: Mapping & wayfinding


7 minute read
Alumni: Kieron Gurner

Alumni: Kieron Gurner

UX & Design Lead

Digital Insights

London train line platform signs, showing station stops from the eastbound and westbound platforms.

Wayfinding allows people to orient themselves within a given space, allowing them to understand where they are currently, where their destination is and how to reach it. This can be done through signals like signs, maps and graphics applied to the environment. Indoor wayfinding presents a different set of challenges, especially when it comes to mapping them digitally.

For people with certain neurodiverse conditions, traditional wayfinding can be markedly more difficult, especially for complex indoor situations like airports and railway stations. While developing our digital wayfinding app, NavSta, some challenges we heard about included people with memory loss finding it difficult to follow a sequence of directions; those with dyslexia finding signage disorienting; and anxiety causing barriers to communication and navigation in a lot of situations.

A study published by Carnegie Mellon University found that “current wayfinding and navigation solutions often fail to address the needs of people with disabilities,” proposing that a more experience-centric approach coupled with interventions from technology could help fill this gap.

For the NavSta project, our team looked at indoor wayfinding specifically through the lens of accessibility and inclusive design. In this blog post, I want to take a look at how this approach can help neurodiverse people navigate complex buildings, starting with the challenges they encounter and how NavSta tackles this head on.

Physical Environment Challenges

When it comes to indoor spaces, the physical environment does not often support wayfinding well. As such, users can encounter the following problems and challenges:

Train station toilet door with an "out of use" sign attached and physical barriers blocking the path.

1. Easily Outdated Information

Once buildings are constructed, the fundamental structure doesn’t tend to change very often, so navigating a city with GPS can be reasonably consistent without needing daily updates to the maps (especially when global mapping companies are regularly surveying the streets of the world).

Indoor spaces, on the other hand, change frequently and GPS don’t really work where devices can’t “see the sky”, so it’s more difficult to give people accurate information and pin-point where they are. Many small changes can impact the way we navigate spaces: a wet floor sign changes the way you move across a lobby; toilets go out of order leading you to use another floor; or programmed events change the function of a space temporarily.

As soon as you start mapping the indoor space, these daily alterations become important to include, but the processes for doing this aren’t always clear-cut. Infrastructure, data entry and verification could all play a role, but each method comes with its own considerations.

In late 2017, Apple introduced its indoor mapping feature through the Maps app. Indoor layouts are now available for select airports worldwide, including the London Gatwick Airport and London Heathrow Airport. The app shows users the locations of gates, terminals, bag claims, shops, restaurants and restrooms inside the airports.

This is a great example of how indoor wayfinding could be done at scale and highlights the need – as with all scalable digital systems – for regular processes and maintenance of the content to keep the solution relevant for end-users.

2. Confusing wayfinding

At times, wayfinding information can be misleading or seem confusing. Giving travellers too many choices in train stations can be overloading. Signage can become hidden when the station is full of people. Crowds can move against the expected path at peak times, making it difficult for other travellers to cross the stream of pedestrian traffic.

All these things send mixed cues and travellers can become lost, disoriented or confused. When you combine this confusion with the temporary signage used when key facilities – like toilets, escalators and lifts – are out-of-order, the environment of a train station can become oppressive for all travellers. If you’re someone with additional cognitive or language needs, the situation can be something not worth considering as an option at all.

Digital solutions alone cannot solve issues that arise from the physical environment or rush hour – but they can provide an additional layer of context, to pre-empt challenging situations and guide users through them.

3. People’s Behaviour of Space Changes

People’s behaviour of space tends to change over time. For instance, people who want to take shortcuts from point A to point B often use pathways that were not originally designed for pedestrian use (e.g. cutting through grass or hedges). As a result, there are now worn tracks or flattened grass where people often tread, known as “desire paths”.

British writer Robert MacFarlane described the term “desire paths” as “paths & tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning.”

While the term usually applies to outdoor spaces, there are also instances when desire paths form indoors. Indoor wayfinding technologies today do not map out these changes in people’s behaviours—information that may prove to be crucial for regular users.

4. Different Maps for Different Users

As individuals, different users will have different needs for mapping. Many people may not know their preferred style, especially if they haven’t been exposed to alternatives that work better for them.

Just as people have preferred learning styles – visual, written, aural – people also have preferences in wayfinding. Maps are often designed from a bird’s-eye view, using street names and relationships between streets as the main navigational cues, but this doesn’t work well for everybody.

An increasing number of city planners and digital solutions are introducing maps that give users “heads-up” views, which show spaces from the direction they are looking. This can help users place themselves more accurately and has been used in Bristol’s pedestrian wayfinding system. Introducing visualised landmarks, like images of iconic buildings or physical features, can give people a stronger sense of space and scale than just street names alone.

Maps may be the wrong choice for some user groups entirely. Google’s launch of Live View is probably the largest scale example of an AR street direction solution that overlays directions on a camera view of the world. This completely removes the cognitive work needed for people to translate the meaning of a map onto real-world directions.

Mind The Gap: NavSta’s Inclusive Design

The spaces we inhabit have not generally been designed with neurodiversity or mobility in mind. Signposting, acoustics, steps, gradients, surface texture and friction all play a role in the way we move through a place – and certain choices by architects and town planners can create daily obstacle course for some citizens.

Our project NavSta (or Navigating Stations) aims to address some of these challenges. NavSta’s wayfinding is originally based on our understanding of UCAN GO—an indoor wayfinding app we developed for visually-impaired users. As inclusive design recommends, if you design for user groups with specific needs, you often also cater to the needs of a wider audience. Which is why, while conducting user research at the start of the project, we found that some neurodiverse audiences also had approaches to wayfinding that were common to the UCAN model.

Phone in a hand, showing a screen of text

Following a user-centred approach, and based on our user research, we found that step-by-step instructions and heads-up wayfinding aligned with our audience’s mental model of navigation.

While NavSta is one of several indoor wayfinding solutions, it stands out from most in a few ways:

  • Designed for neurodiverse audiences in mind
  • Offline-first design
  • No need for train stations to purchase new infrastructure up front (it’s designed to work within the tech infrastructure context of any station)

Our findings from user testing allowed us to improve usability, identify adjustments to the content and understand user behaviour in a working train station environment.

Inclusive Design for Mapping and Wayfinding

Wayfinding, when done right, can give people confidence in where they want to go. This can take on many forms and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, which makes augmenting physical wayfinding with more adaptive digital solutions a good option for end-users in a wide range of situations.

NavSta is funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK.

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