Impact of digital mapping on wayfinding

An interesting article in the New Scientist
recently highlighted some of the emerging trends in digital mapping and how our
experience of navigating spaces and environments is changing. 
What does this mean for traditional methods
of providing navigational information?
The way in which we find our way is
changing.  The coverage of mapping
information from Google, Apple, Bing and others is getting increasingly
comprehensive.  The more recent move to
mapping internal spaces is also growing – Google now has the annotated floor
plans of over 10,000 buildings.
The real change with this mapping
technology is that the way is accessed, usually via GPS and a smartphone,
places you at the centre of the map and can often orientate the map to show you
which way you are facing.
The question for traditional designers of
wayfinding signage is whether this is a competing technology or a complementary
approach to help us find our way.
Digital mapping offers many opportunities.  Augmented reality technology can be used to
show the location of the destination (i.e. the entrance to a specific building)
or points of interest along the way. 
Other data can be drawn into show imminent weather or perhaps crime
spots that should be avoided (with its own potentially negative impact).
However it is clear that there are a number
of issues with an increasing reliance on digital mapping technology.  Research has shown that the limited view that
we get on a screen narrows our field of view so whilst we can follow the
directions we never effectively develop a mental model of where we are.  This increases our reliance on the technology
as we don’t really learn the route – a problem when you leave your phone at
This lack of understanding where we are
highlights one of the other main issues with the current technology…and that is
trust.  The recent debacle for Apple has undermined
the trust of many users.  When seen alongside
the various tales of woe of people following their satnavs and getting into
trouble.   It is clear that the
technology still has some way to go!
We are also recognizing that the mapping
technology is owned by large multinationals with their own agendas – for
example, perhaps they are more likely to identify points of interest with whom
they have a commercial interest than those of genuine interest to us.
Digital mapping will only increase and the
technology will improve rapidly including how that information is provided.  Research has shown that people referring to
their phones walk more slowly, actually walk longer distances and were worse at
orientation than those using a paper map. So for success maybe the future is
more integrated technology like Google Glass. 
At the moment, it feels like reliance on mapping technology makes us
less likely to absorb our surroundings, be less inquisitive and adventurous – a
less interesting way of getting around.
But the need for us to consider the built
environment independent of the technology will also not go away – the
technology will always have shortcomings and we have to cater for those who
can’t or don’t use the technology (inclusive design?). 
The challenge is how can we provide
wayfinding using a range of methods and how can we harness all of these to help
people get the mental model of how a space is laid out and how they can
navigate without reliance on any one method.


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