Wayfinding and Framing Your Path

William O'Connor


Please, no more accidental website tourists. Show your visitors the way down the path and you will increase your website results.

Today most retail stores like Whole Foods Markets, Ikea and Victoria's Secret rely heavily on environmental psychology research studies. How you find your way through well-planned stores, airports and casinos is no accident. Nor should it be for visitors to your website.

How do visitors know how to navigate a store, a website or any other environment? They use the process of Wayfinding, or relying on cognitive maps, or mental images from past experiences, to assist in the navigation process.

Wayfinding is the process that visitors use to reach their intended destination. It is the way they orient themselves to "where they are" and "where they want to go." To assist in the wayfinding process, visitors draw upon their cognitive maps, or mental representations, based on past experiences.

If we provide our targeted visitors with specific Stimulus-Response Cues, we can assist in the wayfinding process and encourage them along the designated path to their objective. For websites, we call this process framing the path. You need to make it easy for visitors to find their way through your website. While it is not possible for you to mandate a given path, the goal is to create a website that gently suggests a path that visitors should take.

For those interested in learning more about the subject, the Journal of Retailing has published many studies. Here are just a few with their related implications for websites.

Peponis et al (1990) introduced the concept of a search structure in which properties of layouts combine with navigation rules to determine exploration patterns. In the Internet world, certain conventions have evolved that help visitors navigate websites. What are the big guns like Amazon, Home Depot and Target doing? Navigation menus across the top and down the left side are the norms. While it is acceptable to have minor deviations from these norms, major changes just for the sake of creativity should be avoided.

O'Neill (1991 and 1992) found lower complexity of layout correlated with improved wayfinding. In architecture, signage improved wayfinding, especially in less complex floor plans. Simple is best. So how is the signage on your website? Is it clear where to go next?

Cognitive mapping and wayfinding pose special problems for the elderly (Lipman 1991). Among elderly adults, studying maps improved wayfinding more than did either watching videotapes or receiving verbal directions with instructions to form a mental image of the setting. For seniors consider using site maps. On the other hand, for people under 30, you better have a search function on the website. This is the Google generation, and they don't want to waste time on your path. They want instant website gratification of finding it fast through search.

It is important that we understand our target audiences, as different website visitor demographics tend to develop different Cognitive Maps and use different wayfinding methods. By clearly defining our target audience we can appropriately frame the path, or if needed create additional paths to increase conversions.

Wayfinding Tips

Overall, here are some other wayfinding tips to help your visitors find their way down your website's path:

  • Supporting information or sub-navigation. Provide visitors with information about "where they are" and "where they can go."
  • Complete the page. Provide Stimulus-Response Cues to suggest potential next step, keeping or taking the visitor on a desired path.
  • Don't distract the visitor from his intended path. Allow the visitor to focus on his task without distraction. Eliminate any unwanted or unneeded tasks required to complete his objective. After his task is completed, you can then redirect him to a new path with the use of Stimulus-Response Cues.
  • Be careful of too many choices. Make the navigation and path intuitive; any informational or visual cues should complement the path and assist the visitor in her objective. Sub-paths should be connected to the main path, allowing the visitor the ability to take on complementary activities without losing site of the main objective.

Conform to standards. Adhere to the design standards precedence being set by other websites. Remember that the visitor has a cognitive map that was developed from his past experiences on other websites. The functionality, content position, and navigation of your website should mirror his expectations.