'Wayknowing' Is the Smart Future of Wayfinding

Next Step for Spatial Problem Solving Is Integrating Real-Time Data with Directions

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The field of wayfinding design has experienced a resurgence of late. The topic, and more broadly the way a user is guided through an entire experience, has been of particular interest to me as a creative director, because I help create experience-led customer journeys for our clients.

Designers are exploring unique ways to transcend traditional signage by providing smarter ways to make sense of our environments. As cities modernize and populations grow more diverse, there is a call for more useful urban maps that can quickly and easily show anyone how to get from point A to point B.

At its simplest, wayfinding is defined as spatial problem solving -- knowing where you are, where you want to go, and the best route to get there. WalkNYC is one of the most recent examples of modern wayfinding at its best. The system, designed by PentaCityGroup, does a brilliant job of providing consistent guidance and visual context for pedestrians that can be easily understood by locals and visitors alike.

Some designers within the wayfinding community are even looking to change the name of the discipline to "wayshowing." The term was initially coined by Danish designer Per Mollerup, who says, "What the designer does is not to solve the problem of finding the way; what he/she does is to facilitate people's own problem-solving."

As successful as these solutions are, a fundamental drawback remains -- they are fixed, physical solutions in a dynamic, digital world. Even with the best environmental graphics, what's missing for the user is the fluid, real-time data required to know more completely how to get from A to B -- or for that matter, how to get from A to B to C to D.

Nor does wayfinding usually communicate the variables that may arise, like transit wait times or construction blocking a street. Maybe it's time for a new discipline to emerge between the worlds of physical signage and the ubiquity of data. Less about wayshowing and more about "wayknowing."

You could argue that we already experience wayknowing in the form of mobile apps like Google Maps or TripCase. But if you want more than just transit info or directions, you need to use a variety of apps in order to gain a complete picture of your journey. There are lots of ways to get reliable transit options to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, but when you finally get there, only to discover a two-hour wait, it's a real killjoy.

Google Maps suggests "popular times" for venues, but the timing isn't exact and can vary with special events. BART, in San Francisco, briefly toyed with showing "volume data" for passenger density in train cars, but this information isn't integrated into any consumer apps.

The next step for wayknowing needs to include another level of information that goes beyond the "how" and includes the real-time realities of your journey and the conditions at the place you're going.

The experience of flying is one that could most use an injection of wayknowing. This summer, the TSA is advising travelers to be prepared for waits up to 90 minutes, as crowds overwhelm understaffed security lines.

I can already use any number of map apps to calculate traffic time from my office to SFO airport. There are apps I can use to guide me through the parking process. I can also find out, via my TSA app, how long the security wait time currently is and I can discover from many traveler apps whether my flight is on time. And finally, there's the average walk time from security to my gate. But rather than asking, "How long will it take to get to SFO?" I really want just to ask, "When should I leave to catch Virgin America Flight 111?"

It's time for someone to create a love child between specialized apps like Citymapper, TripCase, ParkMe, FlySFO and smart terminal signage systems. What's needed, at a platform level, is for these solutions to get baked into AI platforms like Siri, Cortana and Alexa.

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, with a humbly stated goal of "radically simplifying the world by providing an intelligent interface to everything." 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.

The available technologies to achieve seamless journey-mapping have never been so close. My bet is on Viv, unless it gets bought by someone like Facebook or Google soon.

Regardless, perhaps it's time to form a "wayknowing" governing body similar to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). A group that could ensure standards for data sharing across dozens of transit and travel authorities which, in turn, could help make fixed-signage solutions smarter and more relevant. Finally, a mix of environmental designers lending their expertise to AI platforms could help connect our journeys and move us from simply "showing" to a world of better understanding and "knowing."

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