You Are Here: Interview with author Colin Ellard (part 2 of 3)

Posted in Behavioral Science, Points of Interest, White Paper on January 25th, 2011 by Mark VanderKlipp – Be the first to comment

This is the second in a series of interviews with Colin Ellard, author of “You Are Here – Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost at the Mall.” When the book came out in 2009, we first read it cover to cover, then sent an email to Colin to ask more specific questions about wayfinding in general. We hope you enjoy these excerpts from our interview.

In your book you mention that, as humans, there is a cognitive gap between what we think we can accomplish and what we actually can accomplish in an environment. Typically during that span of time, the things we do to solve the problem can further disorient us. Our rule of thumb is that people prefer reinforcement every 300 ft. walking, and every 600 ft. driving in an exterior environment. Can you comment?

Sometimes our efforts to orient ourselves can result in more confusion.

Sometimes our best efforts to orient ourselves can result in greater confusion.

What you’re describing is certainly a problem for human beings exploring natural environments. There are all kinds of examples: Polar explorers mistakenly thinking they could keep their bearings and walk in a straight line without instruments; people staggering off a trail in the woods and dying of exposure, etc. Of course things are very different in built settings where we can become convinced that we’re better at maintaining orientation than we actually are, at least in part because of the skills of Environmental Graphic Designers in producing supportive environments.

As to your rule of thumb, the first thing I notice is that it scales differently for speed. With an average walking speed of 3 miles/hr, your 300 ft rule translates into roughly one reinforcement per minute. But your driving rule (if my rough and ready math is right) amounts to one reinforcement every 10 seconds, assuming urban driving at around 40mph. Editors note: we base typical road speeds in urban environments on 25-35mph, though we compensate for the reality that people exceed posted speeds.

That’s a big difference, but you can account for it because when driving, much of your cognition is engaged in things like collision avoidance, so you have fewer resources to devote to tracking location. Also, walkers are much more nimble and flexible when it comes to things like scanning, backtracking, pausing, etc. all of which helps them successfully navigate.

In our projects we find that, regardless of age, people tend not to look up for information. Why is this?

The answers might lie in our evolutionary heritage. Unless you’re the kind of critter that is preyed upon from the overhead (think of mice and birds of prey) then the upper part of visual space tends not to be as closely scrutinized as the lower field. The other thing that occurs to me (and this is wild speculation on my part so meant to be taken with a grain of salt) is that some studies show that our lower visual fields are specialized for visuomotor control. Think of brain activities that need to control our interactions with things that we see: from stepping over obstacles to reaching out to grab things.

The upper visual field tends to be more involved in processing far distance information, but even there we’re talking mostly about information that might be at or near the horizon line which, for average posture during walking, is in the upper field.

A designer’s job is simplifying a complex environment. In the classic example of Harry Beck’s London Tube map, relative distances and physical accuracy were sacrificed to create a more helpful cognitive map. In your book, you say that people’s mental maps are generally very inaccurate, leading to confusion. Using the Tube example however, can’t you argue that even an incorrect mental map can be adequate to the task?

Harry Beck's London Tube Map

Harry Beck's London Tube Map

Yes, absolutely! It depends entirely on the task you’re trying to solve. In a tube map, you have a beautifully delineated set of nodes and connectors; provided you can only use the connectors that are shown to get from node to node, that map will not steer you wrong. In fact, it does a great job of giving you only the information you need to navigate.

But think of a situation where you’ve developed that kind of mental map but you need to do something different: imagine that you’re in a city that doesn’t have a consistent grid design. Your simplified mental “tube map” might be able to get you from place to place, but not efficiently. The reason? You’re cognitively limiting the connections you perceive between nodes. You don’t have a good sense of the geometry, and thus you make incorrect assumptions.

Colin Ellard is a professor in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He has been conducting research and writing about the psychology of spatial perception for the last 25 years. Check out Colin’s blog here.

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