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Why do people get lost on your website (or in the jungle)?

Did you know there’s a whole field dedicated to how humans walk through journeys?

Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s navigating a website, software, or your way out of the damn bus station in a foreign city. The same principles apply when it comes to getting lost and finding your way. Alastair Somerville teaches about them.

Alastair Sommerville is a Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator based in Stroud, UK. He works with big tech, governments, and historic buildings to ensure their users get to their desired destinations as seamlessly as possible.

There’s actual science behind getting lost!

According to Sommerville, before building any experience we need to understand how people think about the journeys they’re on. He calls it the ABCD framework.

A is for Alignment

When you get out of a metro station, you want to know which way you’re facing relative to the environment.

At the beginning of any journey, our bodies pay attention to which way we’re pointed and where we are moving toward. This process is called alignment. Without alignment, we get misorientated – we can’t lock down our sense of where we are relative to our environment.

Lack of alignment at the beginning of the journey leads to bad choices and cascades of failure as we move through the experience.

“In physical spaces such as metro stations, showing people which way they are facing with big arrows makes a lot of difference,” Sommervile experienced.

With a digital context in mind, a user knowing they are at the start of a 5-step process can help inform them of how much effort is in front of them. A survey form with no end in sight, on the other hand, can be rather off-putting.

B stands for Boundaries

In products you design, offer a chance to stop and go back; that sense of control is fundamental to people who are lost.

Boundaries are fundamental to our journeys. We have brain cells that are dedicated to scanning everything around us, taking in any edges, certain objects within the space, and other boundaries. They allow us to think about how the journey goes ahead.

Without these placements, we get disoriented – we can’t tell where we are relative to anything. “Doomscrolling is a great example of disorientation,” Sommerville reminds us: “Social media timelines are never-ending. We keep flicking through them, looking to find an end… and suddenly it’s 2 AM.”

Recognisable landmarks such as headers and footers on your website thus really matter, and their content is important because it actually provides meaningful edges for your users.

Boundaries provide shelter when people get lost

“Lost people look a lot like people who are sure of where they’re headed. It’s because we tend to always move forward.”
Now, where do people go when they get disoriented? “When people don’t know where they are, they seek edges. They swim toward cliffs,” Alastair Somerville illustrates with his recent story of a sudden respiratory issue during a casual swim: “In that state of panic, I experienced all signs of being lost – my cognition literally came down to seeing only two things, the pier or the beach. I had two choices.”

What did he do? At first, neither of those. He simply stopped.

When humans panic, we tend to keep going forward. “Rushing headlong to find anything recognisable does get us to a destination. But it’s rarely the destination we wanted.”

If moving forward is the problem, not the solution, then what is? “Simply stopping,” with Sommerville offering a body of research throughout his WebExpo presentation. For example, during WW2, large numbers of soldiers were shipped from the UK to the far east, which means they had a massive contextual shift; they went from being in cities to being in the jungle. Working with these people who were always going to get lost, early theorists of wayfinding taught them to:

  • Stop
  • Sit down
  • Gather their thoughts
  • (Go back)
  • Figure out the next step

And that’s precisely what saved Somerville from drowning. He turned on his back, floated, and paused. He realised he could just about swim back to the beach on his back.

“Stopping is really what you want to offer to users. In products and processes you design, let them be able to stop and go back – that sense of control is fundamental to everyone who is lost,” he emphasizes.

C is for Centred

People make their own maps when moving. And they make a lot of them at incredible speed. The human body is extraordinary.

When we are moving, our brain is mapping a grid around us in which we place objects, people, and all the things that are important to our journey. These grid maps move with us as we move through the journey. Because they are overlapping each other they help guide ourselves in relatively good detail through both known and unknown spaces. “When creating a user experience, don’t look at how you mapped it out. Look at how people are actually moving through the journey,” with Sommerville laying out another important piece.

“Pave paths with in-page links,” website designer Dennis Kardys shares Somerville’s principles in digital context: “Picture your main navigation as a highway, with each main menu item acting as an exit sign.” Each one takes the user to a different section of the site. Now think of each section of content as a town. The menus help users get into the vicinity of what they’re looking for. Once in the vicinity, the in-page content and links help them hone in.

D as the Direction

The last letter of the framework pretty much challenges our society’s belief that the journey is all about getting to the destination. According to Somervile, the destination is relatively unimportant to the whole experience.

What matters more in terms of direction are wayfinding assets – perceivable, comprehensible signs: “You need to work with your users and customers to provide them with signs that work for all their senses and all of their cognition. For example, I like to stay away from symbols. They mean different things in different cultures and contexts.”

Landmarks stating “you are here” are particularly important on websites because users often arrive at a page without having followed a deliberate and repeatable path. Using consistent landmarks in site navigation and graphics to keep the user oriented matters.

Obviously we cannot help everyone succeed in every journey. What we can do is recognise when people are having issues and mitigate them.

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