Visual Environmental Attributes Contributing to Wayfinding in Unfamiliar Environments

Presented by: Dr.Hessam Ghamari and Dr. Debajyoti Pati

This study focused on the eye-fixation during wayfinding in unfamiliar environments. While earlier studies have examined this question using subjective methodologies (Pati et al., 2014), triangulation using objective methods was absent in published literature. Moreover, not many studies focused on the interior environment (Anderson et al., 2012, and Livingstone-Lee et al. 2011), and fewer studies focused on specific elements which are targeted by professional interior designers (Otterbring et al., 2014). Research was needed to identify elements in the environment that attract the attention and gaze of the users while navigating to their destinations. There are currently few published research that have used objective methods to investigate the role of different wayfinding strategies (including signage) within unfamiliar environments.

This study identified elements of the designed environment that attract eye fixation during wayfinding, by objectively tracking eye movements and fixation as healthy subjects navigate through a complex unfamiliar setting. EyeGuide® - Mobile Tracking Technology was used to capture data on gaze-fixation. The research setting of this study was a college building in a large research university. Eighteen adult subjects in different age groups (young, middle age, and elderly) and different genders were asked to navigate five different routes. Since this study involves eye-tracking technology, testing of the instrument was one of the crucial steps of the research. The researcher conducted several pilot tests of the instrument and different aspects of the eye-tracking technology. 

The eye-fixations on different visual environmental attributes were recorded and measured by Eye-Guide Analyze software. The time durations of each navigation tasks were also measured. The recorded times of navigations for subject and for each route were inserted in Excel worksheets and prepared for quantitative analyses. Data analyses were conducted by using different descriptive and inferential statistical tools such as T-test, ANOVA, and Friedman test.

The results of this study suggested that identifying signs, architectural features, informational signs, maps, and directional signs constitute the main environmental attributes that attract the attention of users. In total, signs constitute the major environmental information source among all classes of environmental cues, covering 47% of the time subjects sought information from the ambient environment. The results of the study also showed that architectural features (14.2%) and maps (8.4%) were the two other major environmental attributes that attracted gaze fixation. Other design elements (7.9%), interior elements pairing (5.3%), functional clusters (3.4%), and furniture (2.6%) covered the rest of the total time of eye-fixations. Additionally, the results showed that there is a significant difference between males and females on the time of navigation. Males were faster than females in navigation. The results also showed that young age group had the fastest navigation performance among the age groups. The findings of this investigation would be beneficial for interior design practitioners and researchers to help design navigation-friendly environments. 


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  • Livingstone-Lee, S. A., Murchison, S., Zeman, P. M., Gandhi, M., van Gerven, D., Stewart, L. Skelton, R. W. (2011). Simple gaze analysis and special design of a virtual Morris water maze provides a new method for differentiating egocentric and allocentric navigational strategy choice. Beha
  • Otterbring, T., & Wästlund, E. G., Anders Shams, Poja. (2014). Vision (im)possible? The effects of in-store signage on customers’ visual attention. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 21(5), 676–684.
  • Pati, D., Harvey, T., Willis, D., & Pati, S. (2014). Identifying Elements of the Healhtcare Environments that Contribute to Wayfinding. A report prepared under a contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. Dallas, TX: HKS, Inc.
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