Information wayfinding – Tyler Tate

Tyler Tate - head & shouldersIt was great to have Tyler Tate come and speak on campus again. He was previously here, back in October 2010, speaking about maximising findability, and the “scent of search”.

This time round, Tyler was expanding on some of that thinking, and talked to us about information wayfinding – the concept of helping people locate themselves in an information space, and navigate around it efficiently.

Metaphor, wayfinding and information seeking

Tyler started off by describing the many spatial and temporal metaphors we use to describe where we are, and how these aspects of linguistics and semantics have been transferred into the digital information space that we interact with. In particular, we thought about how ingrained it is for us to think about websites like books, with pages, tables of contents, and search engines as an index. Given that vastness and interconnectedness of data and information now, this book metaphor is beginning to show its limitations.

We then had a brief overview of “wayfinding” – getting from where we are, to where we want to be – with reference to the work of Lynch and Arthur/Passini. In particular, Tyler pointed out that how we find the right route through a space will adapt as new information and waymarkers present themselves.

Finally, we looked an information seeking  and information foraging, and the kinds of paths that people make through information when they are looking for what they want. In terms of information retrieval, we once again looked at Marcia Bates’ classic berry-picking model, as well as a model for the “information journey”.

The berrypicking model of information retrieval (Marcia Bates)

The berrypicking model of information retrieval (Marcia Bates)

Elements of the environment

Tyler has taken the analogy of navigating a physical environment like a city, and expanded that for the purpose of discussing information wayfinding.

Given four particular “elements” of an environment – districts (e.g. categories); layers (e.g. facets); nodes (e.g. data points; web pages); bits of info – we can then consider four distinct wayfinding strategies:

  • aerial decent (top-down, zooming in)
  • teleport (something we can do easily in digital space)
  • bottom up (and then zooming out)
  • conversational (asking for information or directions)

I thought this was particularly interesting from a data visualisation perspective. I recently did a little bit of work with a colleague at the EBI, where we looked at better ways of navigating a complex “map” of inter-related data. We directly discussed something very similar to the elements that Tyler described, and some of the wayfinding strategies, too. It’s no surprise, I suppose – we are talking about helping users find their way in, and make sense of, large information spaces.

Heuristics and design patterns

Tyler briefly covered some heuristics (or “rules-of-thumb”) and design patterns that we could think about.

These included fluid survey views; unifying experiences; postional cues; clear paths (see sketchnotes, below).

These broadly echo many of the heuristics suggested by the likes of Ben Schneiderman and Molich/Nielsen.


I made sketchnotes of Tyler’s talk, illustrating the above!

Tyler’s slides from this talk


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