Posted by Yvonne on 01.10.2009

The following contribution is from Jonathan Rez. He is a Senior Wayfinding Strategist at FW Design in London. With cross-disciplinary design background, he has been working across physical and online environments. He is also a casual lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia where he wrote the course Visual Identity in the Built Environment.

Thingfinding is a new way to think about how we navigate and experience contemporary urban life.

Traditional physical information systems in the built environment provide an effective way to wayfind, however in their current format, they do not satisfy our need to find something specific that exists within a place.

Typically, people are not looking for a destination solely for the purpose of arriving there. In most occasions, we are interested in something that exists in that destination, be it a product, a service, an experience, a person or a particular state of mind. Unfortunately, traditional wayshowing systems are not able to provide us with that level of personalised information and we have to rely on a two stage process of thingfinding. That is, first, identify where the thing can be found, and then find the way to it. Up until recently, this would most likely have occurred using the Yellow Pages or a search engine, followed by a physical on-street wayshowing system. More recently, newly available technology is providing a streamlined thingfinding process via location aware smart phones.

At the most basic level, I can use my smart phone for wayfinding, with the help of the in-built GPS and Map application. The phone locates where I am and charts a path to my desired destination, indicating to me where I am up to along my journey to assist in orientation and navigation.
At a more advanced level, I can use my smart phone for thingfinding. For example if I’m feeling like Sushi for lunch, I can search for it using the map application which shows me where I might find Sushi nearby, and subsequently show me the way there.

The rate at which new thingfinding technologies are advancing is swift and consequently 2009 marks a dramatic shift in the way many of us experience and interact with the world around us. The proliferation of location aware smart phones with uninterrupted mobile web connection and more affordable data plans has created a fertile ground for the growth in location based services, particularly location based social networking platforms. Together these enable us to consume and create rich locative media; information, images and other location specific content as well as new social forms of interaction, essentially ascribing new meaning to a place.

More interesting interactions begin to occur using location based social networks, such as Dopplr, Plazes and Brightkite to name just a few. For example, as a tourist or traveller arriving at a new place, I no longer have to look for a tourist information centre to find out what interesting sites, amenities and other things exist around me, as long as I have a Dopplr account. Recently redefining itself as ‘The Social Atlas’ Dopplr lets me map my own journeys and add geo-tagged information about my experiences along the way. I am also able to access information about other people’s experiences, both strangers and friends. By scheduling a trip to Greenwich, I am automatically presented with local information contributed by other travellers, about their experiences of the place. I can read what other people think about a set of questions presented by Dopplr:
Where’s good to eat in Greenwich
Where can I get free internet connection
What’s good to explore in Greenwich
What’s the best local market or shopping
What’s nearby that’s worth a visit
Where’s a good place to stay
Tell us something good about London.

Plazes, which was established in 2004 and was last year purchased by Nokia, offers a number of different ways to find information about places. The ‘Radar’ lets me drag a pin and place it in a desired location on a map to explore people and ‘plazes’ in the area.

Alternatively, I can filter the type of information in which I am interested using a category drop-down menu.

In the list of destinations presented to me I recognise the café I visited yesterday. I enjoyed my experience there, and since my experience of Cafés in London is generally poor, I made sure to ‘plaze’ myself at the place and share it with my contacts. The café was ‘plazed’ by another person and since it is quite a quirky café, perhaps this person and me share a common taste. I click their profile to see what other ‘plazes’ they visited, hoping to find insights about other local places.
New connections are created within location based social networks when strangers share similar interests as well as when they share an interest in similar places.

Tens of location based applications or contextual location services that collect human contributed information about things in places contribute towards a huge repository of location specific information. Even older more established online services now incorporate location-based information. Flickr, for example, now enables users to geotag photos.

Having at our fingertips locative media in the form of text, images, and in the near future moving image and sonic segments that convey people’s in-place experiences helps us better understand places. At the same time, the way we experience places is being redefined. More than ever before we can experience places without physically being in them. Furthermore, having the ability to share our in-place experiences means that as individuals we play an active role in shaping the way others experience places.