Annemarie Gugelmann
10. July 2019

WIAD 2019 - Mapmaking in Physical and Digital Space

Sarah Barrett and Rachel Price, two Senior Information Architects from Microsoft, held a workshop on Mapmaking in Physical and Digital Space at WIAD (World Information Architecture Day) this year in Zurich. The content was well-researched, easy to process, and relevant to both UX students and practitioners. In this post, I focus on the basics of maps and mapping in the digital world and also cover the eight wayfinding principles.

Note: Sarah and Rachel provided a useful summary of topics for attendees, and my content is pulled from this.

Maps and Mapping

Most people find it easier to navigate the real world than the digital world. It’s usually easier, for example, to tell a housesitter over the phone where the bathroom is in your apartment than to explain to them how to find a document on your computer.

“Intuitively, people can feel their brains being good at understanding things like rooms and tables, and they can feel them being bad at understanding software, apps, and websites.” - Sarah and Rachel

Digital experiences should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences. One of the main tools for understanding is the process of mapping. According to Sarah and Rachel, the average person is “very good at making sense of and remembering certain kinds of spaces.”

Landscapes vs. Tabletops

Everyone creates maps, but we don’t handle all spaces the same way. Research suggests that we understand spaces as either tabletops or landscapes:

Wayfinding Principles

Part of the workshop focused on eight wayfinding principles applied to landscapes. Since attending the workshop, I often use these principles to explain design concepts to people outside the discipline and to reinforce my own design decisions.

As designers, it’s important that we help people make sense of digital landscapes by making them as legible as possible. The best way to do this is to include UI and/or content elements that follow Mark Foltz’s Design Principles for Wayfinding. I’ve thought up some real world analogies from locations in Bern, home of Puzzle ITC’s main office to clarify the principles.

1. Identify Locations

Tell the user where they are, and give it a name so they can refer back to it. Examples:

2. Create Edges

Large spaces should be divided into regions with edges creating perceivable differences between them. This helps people understand where they are within a larger space. Examples:

3. Pave Your Paths

While people can move in many different directions, it’s easiest for them to find their way if the landscape clearly indicates recommended paths. These paths should be continuous, show which direction a person is traveling as they move, and indicate the distance back to the beginning or to the end at a quick glance. Examples:

4. Add Landmarks

Landmarks are elements that a person won’t necessarily interact with, but they provide an orientation cue and make locations more memorable. Landmarks are usually visible from many locations and change in some predictable way relative to a person’s movement through space. Examples:

5. Make maps

Maps help people to understand their position relative to the whole. 

6. Establish Sight lines

It is always more effective to let people see where they can go rather than telling them. A long but narrow view into what might be ahead lets people make informed decisions about where they might go. Examples:

7. Add Signs

People need signs at points where they must make a decision. Signs should be scaled so people aren’t overwhelmed with specific information before it’s useful to them.

8. Limit Choices

Users do not need all choices at once; scaffold information for users as appropriate. Most landscapes offer a huge variety of potential options but are constructed that only a few make sense at any given point. It is much easier to make a series of choices in which each choice opens up others logically related to it rather than being presented with the totality all at once. Examples: