If you’ve ever been to a mall, chances are you’ve gotten lost at least once. Once lost, you probably went to find either a mall directory or an information desk, which were difficult to find at all. On your way to find help, you were bumped into countless times and had to squeeze through crowds on your way to a map so complicated most geographers couldn’t find their favourite coffee shop. Simply trying to find your way around, you may have felt the consequences of a poorly designed public space, making your experience and the experience of the other shoppers significantly less enjoyable.
In designing a building, architects and planners often try to minimize these sorts of complications. In design terms, the flow of people through a space is called pedestrian circulation, whereas people navigating the space is simply called wayfinding. These variables can be vitally important to a space’s design, as difficulty getting around can be a deterrent to visitors to any public place.
Here in Paris, we decided to do an investigation into some of the factors affecting pedestrian circulation and wayfinding in Les Halles, the largest mall in the city. Not surprisingly, we were able to identify — fairly quickly — some major wayfinding and circulation issues with the design of the building. Our preliminary observations found that:
- Signs and arrows meant to assist in wayfinding were confusing and inconsistent;
- Maps and directories were complicated and often pointed in the wrong or conflicting directions;
- Doors opened both ways, limiting flow through entrances and exits;
- Stairs were seldom used despite being directly adjacent to crowded elevators.
Though Les Halles was not particularly busy at the time, these issues could become problematic should more people visit the space (which appears likely given the popularity of the mall).
From this, we decided to do a quantitative analysis of the two types of mall directories around the area that we saw: interactive maps and static directories.
Maps are often the last line of defense before getting completely lost, and are the most obvious place for new visitors to go when first visiting the mall. Thus, we figure they are critically important to wayfinding and wanted to investigate their effectiveness, especially compared to each other. Comparing the types of maps, as well as their overall effectiveness, could give us insights as to whether or not they are indeed good wayfinding tools.
To do this, we measured the amount of time shoppers spend looking at each type of map as well as the the frequency that each type of map is used over a given period of time. We went to the mall on a weekday afternoon and noted the number of people who used the each type of map and for how long each user spent looking at the map.
We found that the non-interactive map was used for an average of 37.44 seconds (standard deviation 26.21 seconds) whereas the interactive map was used for an average of 45.84 seconds (standard deviation 23.17 seconds). This was not particularly surprising, as the interactive map requires input whereas the non-interactive map does not. We also found that the interactive map was used less frequency at 52 users per hour compared to the 78 users per hour the non-interactive map received; the non-interactive maps are used more frequently.
These findings seem to imply that the non-interactive maps are more efficient in helping people find their way: people need to spend less time at the maps in order to find their destination, and they are used more frequently, indicating a preference for the non-interactive design. Thus, we conclude that the non-interactive maps are a more efficient form of directory than the interactive maps.
To some, this may seem surprising: interactive maps are intended to make easier the task of finding a destination and are a newer technology than a simple map. But this highlights something incredibly important for designers today: new technology isn’t always better. In fact, not only did people use the new technology less often and less efficiently, but the new technology is far less accessible: we observed no (obviously) senior citizens using the interactive map, and it is not accessible to those in a wheelchair. The new, digitized technology appears to have failed.
It should be noted that our methods do not take into account the position of the maps, and the sample size is not large enough to be statistically significant. Further, there are many biases at play: people looking at the maps have different goals (some may be trying to find a specific store though others may simply be trying to find where they are), some people are more familiar with the mall, and not all of the non-interactive maps are the same. But, even given these limitations, it still seems that the older, less flashy technology is more efficient than the newer and “more modern” directories.
This leads us to our simple yet seemingly obvious proposal: remove the interactive maps entirely. Not only are the maps less efficient than their non-interactive counterparts, but they are less accessible and cost more than their older counterparts. Though this idea may not seem appealing as it does not incorporate new or “smart” technologies, our findings indicate that replacing the new maps with simple directories should their effectiveness and, more generally, wayfinding in Les Halles. Perhaps there are other forms of wayfinding guides that could be explored, but unfortunately, this experiment has failed, and the mall shouldn’t get caught up in trying to be more modern if it is indeed less effective.
We shouldn’t be distracted by shiny things.