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  • Writer's pictureKat Fenton

Analyzing Familiarity in Way Finding

How a user’s knowledge can affect their way finding decisions

Unique building architecture
Image By Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

If you’re doing a way finding project, most likely one of the first steps you did in conjunction with your research was to determine your audience. More specifically, user groups. In my case we have three; unfamiliar external (users entirely unfamiliar with the compound such as visitors and clients), familiar internal (users that are extremely familiar with the compound such as veteran employees and cross discipline positions), and then most of our population, unfamiliar internal (general employees and new hires).

Starting with our Familiar Internal users, they are the most confident. They have identified landmarks within the facility that they use to drive their navigation and are confident in their decision making process. They are more likely to bother other employees if they’ve lost their way as Familiar Internal users feel like they have the authority to do so. It is also highly likely that they already know the person they may be asking for directions. They have the highest level of familiarity with the complex and thus the highest level of confidence.

This confidence, while mostly good, can lead to lapses in judgement. This specific user group may not be using the fastest route to get to their destination and as previously stated, could be interrupting others’ workflow if they feel it's necessary.

Unfamiliar External users, on the other hand, have next to no confidence. They don’t know landmarks, even if they have been to the complex previously, and most likely don’t know very many people. Normally, these users are escorted through our facility, but left to their own devices, they will almost definitely get lost. Their lack of familiarity leads to an anxiety inducing, frustrating way finding experience.Their lack of familiarity with the complex leads to a lack of confidence when left alone.

Our final user group is the Unfamiliar Internal. Unsurprisingly, they fall directly in between the two other groups. They might have some understanding of the complex and know a few people, but asking them to find new things will likely lead to some lost time. Most of these users also have a central point of day to day activity. As they go further and further outside this point, they become less and less familiar with their surroundings. This is the reason they are the driving force in our current strategic approach to way finding.

A maze of rice patties
Photo by Ivan on Unsplash

You can see that a user’s familiarity with our complex directly affects their confidence levels in navigating it. It also affects their decision making process. While all groups are likely to ask a passerby or other employee for directions, the only group that has no shame in doing so is the Familiar Internal user group. Unfamiliar Internal employees will likely feel a bit ashamed that they don’t know the facility and need to ask for help. While Unfamiliar External users will likely feel the highest level of anxiety.

This means they are most likely to have a bad experience. If you know anything about branding and way finding, it’s that you never want a user to have a bad experience since that can negatively affect your brand and potentially your business. If most of our employees and new visitors to our facility are having a bad experience right off the bat, they probably won’t think very highly of the company overall.


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