Wayfinding is the ability to find, retain, and communicate routes through complex environments and is vital to everyday activity.

Human spatial navigation performance is remarkably variable. Some­times it seems effortless but is often highly error-prone. Errors have trivial or critical consequences, from retracing steps or missing a flight to the risk of death.

These arise because wayfinding is in fact an exceedingly intricate cognitive task, involving both fundamental mechanisms of learning and memory, and higher-order symbolic and verbal learning processes.

The Wayfinding Research Centre (WRC) at BU conducts laboratory-based research, strongly informed by theory, to conceptualise the processes underlying human navigation. This informs how basic and semiotic cognitive processes interact to guide behaviour, particularly in complex man-made environments.

The Centre combines symbolic processing research by Professor Sine McDougall  and Dr Jan Wiener’s neuro­science and computational perspective on spatial navigation. Collectively this provides a research-driven, evidence-based solution to improve signage and mapping on a number of sites.

This theory-driven solution is in marked contrast to a blind reliance on guesswork, intuition, or a piecemeal use of empirical methods seeking merely to find out “What works here?”

Frankfurt Airport, Germany (FRAPORT)

FRAPORT is the second busiest hub in Europe and one of the 10 busiest airports in the world. Having identified problems with the existing signage system at critical transfer locations, Wiener conducted empirical eye-tracking studies to evaluate alternative wayfinding signage designs. Improvements made in 2011 substantially reduced passenger direction enquiries.

Development of International Sign Standards

Professor McDougall’s work is referenced in the development of International Standards to assess comprehensibility of signs and symbols. These guidelines have also been adopted as British Standards. Professor McDougall is currently helping with pilot work to develop updated comprehensibility standards.

The WRC’s research-driven, evidence-based approach to wayfinding problems has provided a solution where previously only unreliable navigational supports, typically based on intuition and guesswork, existed. The successful delivery of the WRC’s approach proves this method is an effective, scalable, research-based solution, with significant potential for future application and development. Those using these facilities will continue to benefit from significantly improved wayfinding ability.