You may have heard the term “wayfinding” before and nodded along, as you do whenever someone throws out niche jargon. Wayfinding is an interdisciplinary subject that involves graphic design, geography, and psychology. While wayfinding was initially geared towards navigating the spatial world, UX designers and web designers are connecting wayfinding principles to web design as well.
Wayfinding In Physical Spaces
Kevin Lynch first coined the term wayfinding in his book The Image of the City (1960), to describe the concept of environmental navigability—that is, the elements of our physical environment that allow us to successfully navigate through complex spaces like cities and towns.
Psychologists study wayfinding to learn more how people make navigational choices, create mental maps, and use spatial awareness to navigate their surroundings.
These psychologists have found that people typically map out space through five mental components:
- Paths: Familiar streets, walkways, subway routes, or bus lines, such as Broad Street or the Market-Frankford subway line.
- Edges: The physical barriers of walls, fences, rivers, or shorelines, such as the Schuylkill River or the state line of New Jersey.
- Districts: Places with a distinct identity, such as the Gayborhood, Chinatown, or Fishtown.
- Nodes: Major intersection or meeting places, such as City Hall or Rittenhouse Square.
- Landmarks: Tall, visible structures that allow you to orient yourself over long distances, like City Hall or the Comcast Center.
While there are parallels between the ways people navigate the real world and websites, there are, of course, differences.
Websites aren’t required to provide spatial or navigational clues, and they often don’t. Moving in the real world has visual clues, the kinetic experience of traveling, and other sensory changes that accompany moving through space. On the other hand, navigating on the internet is seemingly magical: sites pop into existence at the click of a button, and disappear in the same manner.
There are four things to keep in mind when it comes to building navigation on websites. Notice that these all correspond with the mental map components of space, with the exception of edges, which do not have a direct parallel.
- Paths: Create consistent and well-marked navigation paths such as breadcrumb trails.
- Regions: Create a distinctive but related identity for each site region, such as a unifying color scheme or layout.
- Nodes: While choices are good, don’t confuse the user with too many choices.
- Landmarks: Use consistent landmarks in site navigation and graphics to keep the user oriented.
Keep these principles in mind when designing your site’s navigation. Intuitive navigation that appeals to these mental components will optimize your site’s user experience.
Looking to learn more about navigation and user experience? Check out this guide on how to revamp your navigation.