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The Present and Future of Wayfinding in 2019

January 31, 2019 by Sam Slater

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First, it was the seafarers in the South Pacific. Today, it's software engineers with an advanced background in converting real-time data. Somehow, we always seem to find the way to where we need to go. And yet, the average consumer (or traveler) might not know the genius it takes behind the concept of wayfinding.

How do you communicate your location as a business? More importantly, how do prospective customers find their way to you? It's a simple question that cannot be satisfied with a simple answer.

In 2019, consumer expectations are high. A physical map to your business, in an age where more than 75% of American consumers own a smartphone, is simply not enough. Fortunately, technology has risen alongside these expectations. And yet, to truly understand the concept of wayfinding, we have to go way back before we look ahead.

A Brief History of Wayfinding

Indoor Wayfinding

Wayfinding is as old as migration, which is to say that it's as old as humankind itself. In 3,000 B.C., Polynesia could rightly be considered the largest nation on earth. It was also the first country that made its name on finding the right way, no matter what.

To accomplish that feat, Polynesians on earth and sea would read basic, unchanging markers. Based on the sun, moon, and stars alone, these pioneers could find their way even in a vast ocean. Changing additions, like the waves and the flight of birth, added to the directional cues used to find their way.

On land, wayfinding has always been easier. We still use some of the most basic directions invented by our ancestors years ago. Turn at the big tree, and pass by the lake. In 300 B.C., Ancient Rome added a layer of complexity: a network of roads, with formal names designed to help anyone from soldiers to generals get where they needed to go.

The next two millennia saw the introduction of aids like road signs and cross-national signage convention. But it wasn't until the age of technology that everything began to change more rapidly:

  • 1990: Mazda develops the world's first car with an integrated GPS navigational system.
  • 1996: MapQuest develops an internet-supported mapping service that allows first businesses, then consumers to customize their maps online and print them out for easier, more personalized directions.
  • 1999: Mio Technologies develops the first portable GPS, to be used by consumers around the world.
  • 1999: Benefon launches the first smartphone with integrated GPS.
  • 2004: Google Develops Maps, a web-based app that allows for more customized directions and wayfinding based on navigational GPS around the globe.
  • 2007: The original iPhone becomes the first globally popular phone with integrated Google Maps for truly mobile digital wayfinding.
  • 2007: Though originally developed in 1995, location-based services become popular on smartphones like the iPhone, collecting and leveraging data based on the location they're in at a given point in time.

That leads us to where we are today: a connected world in which wayfinding is constantly with us. No matter where you are, your smartphone can get you where you need to go. Behind that is a complex digital and data-based process, and we're only scratching the surface of possibilities for businesses.

Beyond Directions: The 4 Parts of Wayfinding

Turn by Turn Directions

It makes sense to think of wayfinding as getting directions. After all, the two words are basically interchangeable. Yet, at its core, the concept is actually much more complex.

You can't find your way if you don't know where you are. Indoor mapping is impossible if it can't lead to finding the best route at a given time. Only a thorough understanding of these complexities can help you get the most out of a concept that might just define the future of how we use technology. These are the 4 parts of wayfinding.

1. Knowing One's Location

You don't know where to go if you don't know where you're starting from. Knowing your location is a crucial part of wayfinding, and that process can be complex. Pinpointing an exact location may not be that important in an open field, but becomes more essential in a crowded indoor space or a parking lot.

That location needs to be three-dimensional. The horizontal location matters little in a large hospital with ten or more floors. It also needs to be exact; a few feet can make a difference between standing inside or outside a locked room.

Fortunately, devices today are getting more precise. New GPS chips can pinpoint user's devices within a foot of their location. Some researchers have claimed that they can go even further, narrowing down accuracy to within an inch.

2. Knowing One's Destination

In addition to point A, you need to know point B. Modern wayfinding needs to find ways to both allow users to customize and adjust these destinations as needed.

Human users will want to select their own location, but they might appreciate suggestions. Non-human users, like automated forklifts in a warehouse, will need those destinations programmed for them. And of course, it pays to be able to make adjustments to that destination, should it no longer be available.

Technology is catching up. Artificial intelligence and machine learning now allows mapping companies to analyze patterns, learn user behavior, and make informed recommendations as a result. Whether users know their destinations or need it to be programmed, modern wayfinding solutions can help.

3. Finding the Best Possible Route

You have a location, and you have a destination. Now, all you need is to connect the two points. Wayfinding opportunities like MapQuest have done that for ages. What's changed is the real-time data that truly allows for best to become the operable term.

It's integrated into our everyday interactions with technology. Think real-time traffic data for Google maps, which may change your route based on a traffic jam or car accident. User-informed decision making, as presented by Waze, have added the data necessary to truly find the best possible route. And that's just the beginning.

What if a route takes you from the outside to the inside? How can a wayfinding solution seamlessly transition between the two environments, without misdirecting its users? How does accessibility play into the equation, especially in the age of the ADA and needing to be accountable for users with physical limitations?

4. Built-In Route Maintenance

The best possible route, of course, can change overtime. Renovations, construction projects, and new additions or pathways make previously preferable ways no longer advantageous. Modern wayfinding has to account for these possibilities with built-in and automated route maintenance.

What that looks like very much depends on the situation. It might be as simple as a software powerful enough to make adjustments automatically. It might require feeding in data periodically from a central, authoritative source. Or it might be user feedback, collected and analyzed digitally, to optimize and adjust routes over time.

None of that is simple. All of it requires powerful software and a willingness to move the goal posts of what companies have considered effective wayfinding for years. And yet, implemented correctly, it can change the way your customers interact with you within a physical environment. 

The Complexities of Wayfinding Today

These four parts of wayfinding have led us to where we are today: an integrated network that shares data from the physical and digital world to optimize wayfinding for both human and non-human users. The business opportunities of these complexities have the potential to be immense.

Think about Waze, the mobile mapping app that offers ads based not just on location, but past driver behaviors and expected patterns. Launched in 2018 with an emphasis on local businesses and retailers, some businesses have seen a significant increase in walk-in traffic as a result of these services.

A few years earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City had a similar breakthrough. Its introduction of a live, digital indoor map allowed visitors to find pieces of art they were looking for, along with specific directions to the exact room and space where they were. Automated tours, adjusted and improved over time based on user feedback, further enhanced visitor experience.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this success story is the fact that in just three years since that case study, similar opportunities have sprung up for businesses across industries. Today, the idea of what the Met termed 'Google Maps, but inside' has become commonplace - even for Google. Innovation has turned elsewhere.

Amazon's chaotic storage model for its warehouses has become a model of inventory management. Storage, sorting, and picking is no longer done according to models we would consider organized, but based on computer models that we would find quite chaotic. The only way that works is with automated picking systems that know exactly where to go, when to do it, and without running into each other.

At the same time, the eCommerce giant is looking for ways to automate that task with robots. That means destinations have to be constantly optimized, adjusted, and programmed for computers instead of just humans. With its reliance on both permanent and changing markers, it's wayfinding, the way our ancestors did it—just completely automated, randomized, and more precise.

What Does the Future Hold?

Wayfinding

Technology continues to advance, and as server power increases, it will only become more integrated. That, in turn, opens up exciting possibilities for businesses. Let's start with a healthcare scenario.

Imagine turn-by-turn directions that start at your customer's doorstep, and end in a specific doctor's office within your hospital:

  • The app predicts your data, based on search patterns, digital communication, and an appointment in your phone calendar.
  • Crowdsourced traffic data allows for the best possible route, adjusted on the fly.
  • Directions change based on the closest open door to the hospital you are going to. 
  • The app suggests precise location to an individual parking spot that just opened up.
  • Based on your needs for a wheelchair, the app calculates an indoor route that goes only through ramps and elevators.

Here's the kicker: the technology for all of these steps already exists. It just needs to be put together for one continual, seamless, automated operation. That requires server power, and a company innovative to put it all together. Given the fact that just a decade ago it seemed unimaginable, that's quite the small obstacle.

Way back in 2016, Advertising Age called this concept wayknowing, defined as integrating all available information in real-time to allow for human queries based on behavior, not just knowledge of a software:

Conversational interfaces are starting to evolve at an arms-race level. As Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon slug it out, Siri's original inventors are trying to resolve this problem once and for all with a new company called Viv... Their vision of a "global brain" would break the silos of apps and enable true open sharing of data. Add to that the rising potential of in-ear technologies, and the promise of a heads-up, conversational assistant to help navigate our world becomes more reality than fiction.

Maybe that's still in the future. But based on everything we know, that future is extremely close to becoming our new reality.

Wayfinding as a Tangible Business Advantage

The past, present, and future all present a simple truth: wayfinding is and has been crucial to our society, which is why we keep inventing new ways to maximize its possibilities. With rising technological possibilities, expectations rise as well. Still, it's an undoubtable opportunity to turn your possibilities into a tangible business advantage.

A warehouse that can deliver real-time wayfinding to its forklifts will be more effective, and increase its margins, over one that doesn't. An airport with smart wayfinding possibilities will increase its traffic. A hospital with opportunities to combine indoor and outdoor location mapping will probably receive more patients than one that hands out a paper map.

The opportunity to strike is now. Our wayfinding services help you tap into a previously built solution, or build your own from scratch. Integrate mobile users, digital signage, desktop searches, and even VR experiences. Create and communicate the best possible directions, based on ever-changing locations and destinations.

All that and more is possible through a partnership with Concept3D. Contact us today to learn more. Let's have a conversation about how you can leverage the age-old concept of wayfinding to long-term, sustainable business success.

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