Information Wayfinding, Part 1: A Not-So-New Metaphor

April 1, 2013

Browsing the Web. Surfing the Net. Navigating a Web site. Traversing a hierarchy. Going back. Scrolling up and down. Returning home. We’ve seen such metaphors throughout our history of using computers to interact with information. Haphazard though they may seem be, these metaphors highlight a universal reality of human psychology: we perceive the world—both physical and digital—in spatial terms. As George A. Miller [1] observed in 1968:

“Mankind evolved in a world of space and time. Our memories evolved to record events that transpire in space and time. Modern attempts to externalise and enlarge that memory should not, and probably need not, neglect its spatiotemporal dimensions.”

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Out with the Old, in with the Older

Miller’s insight is as important today as when he wrote those words. However, despite mankind’s age-old proclivity for perceiving things in the context of space and time, the majority of today’s Web experiences resemble a relatively recent invention: the book. Books comprise the following:

  • pages of information that are organized into sections
  • a table of contents that lists those sections
  • an index of all the concepts an author has mentioned in the book

The architecture of most Web sites follows this same pattern:

  • pages of information that are organized into sections
  • a navigation bar that lists those sections
  • tag clouds or keywords for all the concepts the site mentions

This similarity is understandable. As content shifted from print to digital in the early days of the Web, we transferred our approaches from the old medium to the new one. However, while this may have been expedient at the time, the effectiveness of the book metaphor has diminished, and this metaphor is now holding us back.

The Medium Is the Message

At this point, the skeptic in you might be thinking, “What difference does it make whether we think of Web sites as being book-like or spatial—just let them be Web sites.” While it’s true that Web sites certainly have an identity of their own, it’s impossible to consider them apart from the cognitive model that we use to understand them. In their influential book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson convey the important role that conceptual metaphors play in our everyday lives: [2]

“Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

The time has come to adopt a more appropriate metaphor for interacting with information, one that acknowledges the spatial reality of human psychology. I believe that we have such a metaphor in information wayfinding—a concept that depicts interacting with digital information as analogous to navigating a physical environment.

Wayfinding as Spatial Problem Solving

Kevin Lynch coined the term wayfinding in his 1960 book, The Image of the City. [3] Lynch recognized that a person’s ability to navigate a city relates closely to how spatially oriented that person is within the city. He quantified a city’s navigability according to its imagability—that is, the likelihood of its evoking strong images in observers, and therefore, enhancing their sense of orientation.

Architect and environmental psychologist Romedi Passini further developed the concept of wayfinding in the 1970s and 1980s. [4] Defining the term simply as “spatial problem solving,” Passini identified three interrelated cognitive processes that wayfinding requires:

  1. Developing a decision plan. A person forms as precise a plan of action as possible based on his goal. For example, wanting to visit the British Museum would involve numerous intermediate decisions such as finding the nearest tube station, determining which tube line to take, finding the correct platform, and so on.
  2. Executing a decision from the plan. Once the person has made a decision, he must execute it at the right place and time.
  3. Processing environmental information. To execute a decision correctly, however, the person must notice and comprehend relevant information from the environment. In addition, changes in the environment—a closed tube station, for instance—frequently prompt changes to the decision plan.

Wayfinding has much in common with the way we know people interact with information. In particular, Marcia Bates’s berrypicking model of information seeking [5] portrays a process where—to paraphrase Peter Morville [6]—what you find along the way changes what you seek. Likewise, Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card’s information foraging theory [7] compares information seeking to rummaging for food in the forest, where users follow information scent as they sniff their way onward. Both models present information seeking in terms of spatial problem solving.

The Future of Information Architecture

“Information architecture is the architecture of information spaces.”—Andrea Resmini at World IA Day 2013

Today, we find ourselves in a world where print has gone electronic, we distribute our computing across numerous devices, and the digital and the physical have become intertwingled. If we are to build modern information environments that are coherent—that is, which are imageable and facilitate orientation—we must put the page metaphor to rest and embrace the spatial nature of information wayfinding that is so ingrained in the human psyche.

You may have noted that this is only “Information Wayfinding, Part 1.” Parts 2 and 3 will appear here on UXmatters in the coming months. In Part 2, I plan to outline four elements that make up every information environment and four strategies that people use to find their way through these environments. Then, in Part 3, I’ll look at specific design principles for crafting effective information wayfinding experiences. 

Further Reading

Resmini, Andrea, and Luca Rosati. Pervasive Information Architecture: Designing Cross-Channel User Experiences. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2011. Retrieved March 24, 2013.

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

Arthur, Paul, and Romedi Passini. Wayfinding: People, Signs and Architecture. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1992.

Morville, Peter. Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2005.

Russell-Rose, Tony, and Tyler Tate. Designing the Search Experience: The Information Architecture of Discovery. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2013. Retrieved March 24, 2013.

Bowles, Cennydd. “Wayfinding Through Technology.” Johnny Holland, September 15, 2009. Retrieved March 24, 2013.


[1] Miller, G. A. “Psychology and Information.” ACM SIGDOC, Volume 17, Issue 3, August 1993. Reprint.

[2] Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[3] Lynch, Kevin. The Image and the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960.

[4] Arthur, Paul, and Romedi Passini. Wayfinding: People, Signs, and Architecture. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1992.

[5] Bates, Marcia J. “The Design of Browsing and Berrypicking Techniques for the Online Search Interface.” Online Information Review, Volume 13, Issue 5, 1989.

[6] Morville, Peter, and Jeff Callender. Search Patterns: Design for Discovery. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2009.

[7] Pirolli, Peter L.T. Information Foraging Theory: Adaptive Interaction with Information. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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Tyler TateTyler leads user experience at TwigKit where he helps government, not-for-profit, and blue-chip organizations build superb search experiences. Tyler organizes the Enterprise Search London Meetup, is the creator of the Semantic Grid System, and has led the design of big Web applications, including Nutshell CRM.  Read More

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