Wayfinding, Simplicity, and Design

Looking back on the last few years and the amount of travel I’ve done I’ve realized that the art and science of Wayfinding is an excellent tool for user experience testing and specifically for testing devices or apps.  According to Wikipedia: “Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place”.

I’ve begun testing this theory out after long haul flights.  I have found that this is a peculiar time in human consciousness when your normal abilities of reason and logic are deeply impaired.  When flying long haul everyone experiences a certain amount of discomfort even when travelling in style.  It could be the dry recycled air or the small and highly used lavatories, or the lack of space in the back of the plane, or even the abundance of libations in the front.  After an epic journey (especially transpacific) everyone is out of sorts.  Yet we all find our way through customs and to the train or taxi that we’re looking for.  I recently pulled a 28 hour 11 time zone journey that involved four airports, three flights, and two sets of immigration.  At the end I found my rental car shuttle (yes, I am an American, I rent cars), found my car, and then found my way to the hotel.  Believe me none of this is due to any special abilities I have in navigation or even common sense – it is completely due to the wayfinding design principles that have been used throughout the world to show us where to go.  This idea first came to me after reading one of Garr Reynolds books.  I thought his presentation of this was brilliant.  This is design that must work, for a large variety and number of people.

This is what has lead me to testing my new apps and devices in this state of mind.  Case in point I learned on this particular journey they my non-model specific mobile phone windshield mount has a terrible design flaw with my Nokia Lumia 1020 – or for that matter any Windows Phone: the camera button is in the area where the side clamps hold the phone in place.  Result: I’m looking at a live (and small) image of the nighttime road ahead of me instead of my Nokia Drive app.  Fortunately getting back to an app on Windows Phone is easy – even after a 28 hour trip (there’s some good design).

Now whenever I build an app – or my team does – I always try to get that same level of detachment when I review it.  I’ve even begun to extend this to mock ups, concepts, and presentations.  Sometimes I learn where a user flow is confusing or the next step in unclear.  Since I started writing this I traversed the Atlantic – twice – after the first flight I learned that my presentation on Real World Business Activity Monitoring for BizTalk Summit 2014 had a rather strange sequence in it that didn’t flow as well in this reduced functionality state.  I rearranged some content and dropped some that didn’t fit as well, then it seemed strong.  The crowd seems to have agreed thankfully!

I suppose this last part of Wayfinding is sort of the key to it all: remove that which is not completely necessary to convey the message / information.  Anything else is waste or distraction.  Next time you travel anywhere check out the signage and notice how relatively easy it is to navigate.  This is a good inspiration.  When searching for simplicity use that long day or that sleepless night to your advantage to review something you’ve been thinking about too much, this will give you a different perspective on the topic.


About danrosanova
I am a Principal Program Manager for Messaging at Microsoft and product owner for Azure Messaging: Service Bus, Relay, and Event Hubs. I have a long history in distributed computing on a variety of platforms and have focused on large scale messaging and middleware implementations from inception to implementation. I was a five time Microsoft MVP before joining Microsoft and author of the book Microsoft BizTalk Server 2010 Patterns.

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