Wayfinding and Navigation Behavior Research Paper

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Navigation is the purposeful movement through an environment, such as walking through a neighborhood or driving through a town. The task of navigating is achieved through the combination of locomotion and wayfinding. Locomotion refers to the physical movement through space, perceiving objects and where they are in the environment, and moving toward a visible place or object while avoiding various obstacles. Examples of locomotion include walking through a large shopping mall from store to store, or driving a car through a city center. Wayfinding involves the thought processes and thinking that enables movement to distant locations—locations that cannot be seen from the current position in the environment. Wayfinding activities include choosing routes for travel, planning trips, and making estimations of distance, estimations of travel time, and orientation estimates to distant, unseen locations.

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Social scientists are interested in navigation and wayfinding from various perspectives. Psychologists study navigation and wayfinding as a cognitive representation, exploring the various ways people may mentally represent the world around them (Tversky 2000). Landscape architects explore navigation and wayfinding to gain insight into the design of environments such as buildings, neighborhoods, and towns that are aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate (Lynch 1960). Economists study navigation and wayfinding to understand people’s shopping patterns and behaviors, and from this determine locations for distribution of goods and services that optimize profits (Fotheringham and Curtis 1992). Developmental psychologists test children’s navigation and wayfinding abilities to understand which skills are acquired at what age, and from this develop curriculum materials (Hart and Moore 1973). Anthropologists study navigation and wayfinding behavior in previous and present cultures to explain hunting and foraging behavior as well as settlement patterns. Geographers’ interest in navigation and wayfinding behavior interleaves with many other social scientists, studying all of the examples listed above. In addition, geographers explore methods for visualizing this spatial information in the form of paper and digital maps, written and spoken directions, onboard vehicle navigation aids, and virtual reality spaces (MacEachren 1995).

This research paper distinguishes between different wayfinding tasks, describes the strategies most frequently used to wayfind, and describes various systems of reference used to maintain orientation while wayfinding.

1. Wayfinding Tasks

Allen (1999) identified three categories of wayfinding tasks that he termed the commute, the explore, and the quest. The first, and most common type, is the commute. A commute involves traveling between two known places along a familiar route. This form of wayfinding is routine, where success in arriving at a destination is measured in terms of travel time (shortest time) and the amount of effort to negotiate the route (the fewest stops and turns). Little attention is required to accomplish this wayfinding task, which is most often associated with a person’s travel from home to work, home to school, or home to a store. This wayfinding behavior is studied, for example, to monitor and control automobile traffic, and plan for new or upgraded roads.

The second wayfinding task is the explore. An explore involves travel through an unfamiliar area with the intent of learning about the unknown environment. The start and destination of an explore are often known places, typically the same place, but routes traveled while on an explore are new. Explores are not routine, and require strategic planning of places to visit and routes to travel to avoid becoming lost. This wayfinding task would be typical of tourists visiting a city for the first time, and would be considered in the design of tour maps and tourist information to assist the visitor.

The third wayfinding task is the quest. The quest, like an explore, begins at a familiar place, but ends at an unfamiliar destination. In this case, the destination is known to exist, but has not previously been visited. Information about the spatial relationship between the beginning and ending points of a quest are provided in the form of directions, typically maps or verbal directions. Cartographers have placed a great deal of effort in the design of navigation aids for quests, from simple verbal directions, to the standard paper road map, to the design of sophisticated vehicle navigation aids for automobiles.

2. Wayfinding Strategies

Though there are only three classes of wayfinding tasks, there are various strategies used to carry out these tasks. These strategies include piloting, following marked trails, habitual locomotion, dead reckoning, path integration, and lastly the use of internal representations. These strategies, though presented here as separate individual strategies, can be used together to carry out a wayfinding task. In addition, a particular strategy can be used to carry out more than one wayfinding task.

Piloting relies on the use of landmarks for orientation. The immediate goal in piloting is to traverse from the present landmark to the next landmark. The present landmark serves as a basis for orientation by providing a link back to the familiar environment, and information on where to go next. The spatio-temporal sequence of landmarks provides information on wayfinding progress, indicating how much of the trip has been completed and how much remains. Piloting is a strategy typically used in explores by tourists, or a person recently locating to a new city.

Following marked trails entails wayfinding that relies on a system of trail markers to highlight a route. Marked trails can include a road network with road signs and mile markers, multiple walking paths through a wooded area, or color-coded lines along the floor of a corridor in an office complex. Marked trails are becoming critical in the design of large build environments, such as hospitals, to aid people in finding a particular unit, such as X-ray or pediatric cardiology, while under stressful situations (Carpman and Grant 1997).

Habitual locomotion, on the other hand, is a strategy that develops after repeated navigation through an environment, resulting in what has been referred to as route knowledge. Generally, habitual locomotion develops from piloting strategies, and after repeated exposure, the sequence of landmarks and the actions to be taken at each landmark are remembered. With increasing exposure to a route, habitual locomotion results in the development of commutes.

Path integration strategies, unlike habitual locomotion or piloting, are not based on the current landmark, or on the sequence of landmarks, but instead are based on orientation to the starting point of a route. Path integration enables travel directly back to the starting point along a novel route, after having traveled a complex route directed away from that point. This strategy necessitates constant knowledge of the direction or orientation back to the starting point. This wayfinding strategy is difficult, and is not common for humans in everyday wayfinding tasks, but instead is a common behavior in nonhuman species, such as honey bees and rats, studied extensively by behavioral psychologists (Gould 1986, Tolman 1948). It is also a strategy used in the sport of orienteering, where participants use a map and compass to navigate an unknown wilderness course.

Dead reckoning is a wayfinding strategy that entails first determining the direction to a destination, and then systematically searching until the destination is reached. Methods for orientation for dead reckoning generally include reliance on solar and lunar information, auditory information, and vestibular and proprioceptive information. Some cultures studied by anthropologists are able to use wind and water currents for orientation. Reliance on dead reckoning requires that the navigator perform periodic updates on position, making small corrections in distance and direction estimates while moving through the environment.

Wayfinding based on use of an internal representation requires reliance on a ‘cognitive map’ in which relative positions of landmarks, routes between landmarks, and the orientation and distances between landmarks are represented mentally. This spatial knowledge is referred to as survey or configurational knowledge. This is the most complex and sophisticated wayfinding strategy. Geographers and psychologists have long studied internal representations and the implication these representations have on navigation and wayfinding behavior; (for overviews see Downs and Stea 1973, Golledge 1999, Kitchin and Freundschuh 2000, Moore and Golledge 1976).

3. Systems Of Reference

People rely on systems of reference, or reference frames, to stay oriented during navigation and wayfinding. Without reference frames, one would be lost. A reference frame can be as simple as knowing the starting point of an exploration and the direction of travel, or tying pieces of cloth to trees in the woods to mark a traversed path. In contrast, reference frames can be as complex as measurement of latitude and longitude positions, or the use of other abstract coordinate systems such as the Universal Transverse Mercator Grid. An effective reference system has a known origin (starting point) and a system for representing position, and direction (e.g., left right, north /south, bearing of 90 ).

There are three types of reference frames: egocentric, allocentric, and geocentric. An egocentric frame of reference is one in which the body is used as the point of reference. In this case, wayfinding decisions are based on the body’s current location while moving through the environment. When a decision point is reached—a point in the environment where a choice is made to go straight, to turn left or right, or to turn around—the resulting choice is based on one’s current location rather than on some other object or place.

When orientation is based on objects or places, such as objects in a room, or a plaza in a city, orientation is based on an allocentric reference frame. These objects and places that are used for orientation are called landmarks. A landmark is an object or place that stands out from its surroundings, holding a special significance for the navigator. Examples of landmarks include a chair, a street intersection, a unique building, a road, a region, or a mountain. Not only do landmarks serve as organizing features for the navigator, they can also have certain actions associated with them. For example, a street intersection may prompt a driver to turn left to go home, or turn right to go to a store. Reliance on an allocentric reference frame enables the navigator to travel novel routes, to take a different route back to the starting point.

A geocentric reference frame relies on abstract reference systems for orientation. These systems are called abstract because they do not exist in the environment. They are products of human invention, superimposed on the environment and used to specify location with a coordinate. Unlike egocentric and allocentric reference frames, geocentric reference frames must be learned through education and training. Examples of geocentric reference frames commonly used for orientation include the Geographical Grid (latitude and longitude) and the Universal Transverse Mercator system. Like other reference systems, the basis for location in a geocentric reference system is an origin. For the Geographical Grid, the origin is the intersection of the equator (0 latitude) and the line of longitude that bisects the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK (0 longitude). All measurements for latitude and longitude with the USA (and other Western countries) are made in reference to that origin (for a full discussion of reference systems, see Muehrcke and Muehrcke 1992). The basis for measurement using the Geographical Grid is the calculation of angles, directions, distances, and the curvature of the earth. Technology has simplified the measurement of latitude and longitude with the development of global positioning systems (GPS). GPS can measure location on the earth’s surface quickly, and with reasonable accuracy. The low cost of GPS systems has enabled a proliferation of these measurement devices, enabling almost anyone to find their location on the earth.


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