The Next Big Thing
Posts about next generation technologies and their effect on business.

Get Out of My Way

I'm continually amazed to find poorly designed websites and interactive media. You know, the ones that are either confusing or littered with annoying popup ads and blinking (distracting) banners that attempt to draw your attention. Then, there are the websites that begin with a full screen ad that you can easily dismiss, but are a nuisance nonetheless. And don't get me started about all the "free" news videos, which seemingly all begin with a 30-second commercial that you MUST watch before getting to the content you really want to view.

All of these techniques violate that common principles employed in Wayfinding. Wayfinding is the way people orient themselves within a physical space and find their way from place to place. It is a technique that is employed in the design mass transportation centers, airports, retail stores, shopping malls, entertainment venues, theme parks, and many other places. Wayfinding can be employed in the design of "virtual spaces" as well.

There is an interesting account of how Wayfinding is employed at the Walt Disney theme parks in this article on MousePlanet. This article recounts an old story of gardeners at Disneyland that were upset with guest trampling a flower bed. The gardeners put up signs and fences to prevent guests from cutting through. Walt saw it differently; he told the gardeners to lay a sidewalk through the garden to help his guests get where they wanted to go. Walt understood that his guests knew where they were going.

Designers of websites and complex interactive media would be well-served to employ a similar approach, by focusing of user-centric design at a much deeper level. We (the users) know what content we want; the design should help us find it, not make us go through content, or ads we did not ask for.

The technical design of the Internet is such that it generally "routes around problems". Similarly, the self-selecting nature of the Internet users will also route around "problems" (or annoyances). I'm not against advertising in interactive media; only that it should be employed in a non-obtrusive fashion. Consider the Google search page - simple, uncluttered and easy to use. The search results certainly have advertising, but it does not "get in the way".

As more and more information and entertainment becomes available in digital and interactive form, I believe that users will seek (and return to) those places that create an emotional bond of familiarity and comfort. The use of Wayfinding techniques in the design of interactive media should ultimately increase audience visit time and boost repeat visitors.

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About the Author(s)
  • Steve Simske is an HP Fellow and Director in the Printing and Content Delivery Lab in Hewlett-Packard Labs, and is the Director and Chief Technologist for the HP Labs Security Printing and Imaging program.
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