Wayfinding & Pokémon Go

Category : Musings
Date : July 23, 2016

Since its launch this month, Pokemon Go has become a global phenomenon. Playing on nostalgia and modern technology, the smartphone app from Niantic and Nintendo has driven all sorts of people – mostly people under 40s – to seek adventure outdoors in a bid to catch all original 151 Pokemon.

As many know by now, Pokemon Go overlays a digitally-augmented reality on top of the physical world, and encourages players to search for Pokemon in real life places. There are PokeStops, which helps the player gain items such as Pokeballs for catching Pokemon, and there are Pokemon Gyms, which allow the player to train and battle Pokemon to make them stronger. No matter the play style or mode of transport, the rewards keep players moving.

As a wayfindng enthusiast, this is very compelling. Wayfinding is defined as the orientation and navigation of physical spaces, typically built environments. Its most recognizable outputs are maps and signage, but it also encompasses architecture, interior design, and human psychology. At its best, wayfinding is invisible to the humans using it (i.e. you don’t have to think about it), but when a system fails, it leads to frustration and confusion for the user.

So, what does Pokemon Go have in common with wayfinding principles? What can the app teach us about how wayfinding works and how can it be improved?

PokeStops and the importance of markers

PokeStops offer players free items in the game. They are generally places in the real world with cultural significance, such as public buildings, statues, and murals. Many unexpected things, such as memorial benches, also show up as PokeStops.

This introduces surprises to the regular player, who may have been unaware about the existence of these places in their daily walk or commute. In wayfinding, these places are known as markers, and assist people in forming mental maps of the environment. Markers can be recalled to help orient oneself in the environment, and to generate travel routes toward a destination.

In the broader sense, these markers help build a community lexicon of places that hold significance to others, and create a fuller sense of belonging.

Marrying digital experience to physical space

Pokemon Go isn’t the first app to integrate digital mapping to a real world environment, but one can argue that this app has made the biggest impact thus far. We’ve all become accustomed to using GPS technology and Google Maps to navigate. Pokemon Go expands on this knowledge by incorporating engaging digital/human interaction.

As mentioned in the last point, the app uses specific, highly recognizable cues as markers to draw players towards a space. It then responds by allowing players to progress with further in-game interaction. This is similar to beacon wayfinding that uses NFC (near field communication) to send wireless notifications to passersby, informing them about their navigation progress. The integration with physical systems provides an additional layer of support that contributes to a more complex, holistic experience.

It also assists the user in constructing a mental model that can be recalled for navigational insight in the future. Repeated experiences in a physical space can make specific places memorable.

Orientation in the built environment

In Pokemon Go, PokeStops can be in two states: visited (purple) or non-visited (blue). All PokeStops appear blue when the app is launched, and only turn purple after players visit the site and collect their items. Once they’re purple, they cannot be activated again until 5 minutes have passed, which encourages players to make a choice in navigation. They can wait until the PokeStop refreshes (you’ve probably heard increased reports of loitering in the past few weeks) or can keep moving on to the next non-visited location. Many choose the latter option.

Thus, the PokeStops also serve to orient players in the physical environment. By seeing distinct cues between what’s been passed and what’s yet to be discovered, a player can orient him or herself and travel from one location to another. Along the way, a player can discover new insights about their environment – catch a Pokemon or two – making the journey just as important as reaching the next destination.

From a wayfinding standpoint, this is comparable to monolithic pillar signs that move people from one sign to another. By spotting the next sign in the sequence, perhaps off in the distance, a user can orient themselves with the environment and start travelling towards the destination. This also allows the user to enjoy the journey because they’re assured by the signage that they’ll reach their destination. Maybe they’ll even pick up more memorable cues along the way.

Being open-minded to new experiences and making spaces inclusive to all people

Since PokeStops are set up to be in places of cultural significance, they draw attention to places that hold physical, mental, and spiritual power to segments of the greater community.

Unfortunately, this is where Pokemon Go falters.

Spaces which happen to be PokeStops are being treated equally without sensitivity in-game. There are no notices or considerations of what is or what is not an appropriate PokeStop. We’ve already seen examples of institutions asking players to not engage with the game when visiting – most notably the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. – and to respect the significance and context of the place. Similar cases are being made for hospitals and women’s shelters, for the fear of interference with people’s safety.

Good wayfinding should promote respect and inclusivity of all people, in all contexts in the built environment. This can be accomplished by designing the overall experience to emphasize or de-emphasize places based on context, or to speak directly about the significance of a place to a community. It’s about recognizing what is right for the people whom the place serves the most.

Recognizing people as essential support in a wayfinding system

Finally, Pokemon Go encourages players to interact and engage with other players to achieve goals. Solo play is possible, but cooperating with others lead to an enriched experience. Players meet up in real world locations, exchange tips, hunt for Pokemon, and battle to claim Pokemon Gyms for their team. The amount of goodwill generated from the game is endless, and players are more than eager to help each other succeed if it means being able to share their positive experiences together.

Wayfinding balances signage systems, built environment cues, and informative people. A fine balance exists between the three elements.

  • Too many signs, not enough signs, or an incomprehensible building system leads to frustration and confusion for the user, and forces them to rely too heavily on informed people to sort out their navigational challenges.
  • Relying solely on informed people to resolve issues is a failure of the wayfinding system and a failure of one’s ability to successfully navigate an environment.
  • Having zero people to rely on puts the onus on the user and their familiarity of the space. Overworking the user leads to increased frustration, lower engagement and lower positive outcomes.

Pokemon Go gives you enough to go out and play by yourself, but recognizes you’ll need social interaction to sustain engagement levels and to turn it into a positive experience. Wayfinding can learn to do the same.

Overall, Pokemon Go is a majorly successful foray into augmented reality and its potential for the gaming and technology industry. I believe it has started to bridge the gap between digital and physical spaces, and how to integrate them for results that one side cannot achieve alone.

Digital mapping will never fully replace the complexity of cues one can glean from the real world environment, but it can certainly help train us to become masters in navigation.

Like no one ever was.


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