When I look at different wayfinding and navigation systems for people with vision impairment, one thing that stands out to me is the number of systems that require their users to “look around” and find a thing that holds the directions. That is, in order to use the system, the first thing you need to do is find something. And surprisingly often, the things you need to find are primarily visual.
At BindiMaps, we think this is very strange, because one of the first things we found from our very first user research when we started our company was that people with vision impairment who are in an unfamiliar space have difficulty finding things. (This actually applies to anyone, vision impaired or not.)
That’s why we made a system where the app and our algorithms do all the work. Using BindiMaps, you don’t need to find anything; we find you. Then we find your destination and guide you there.
It seems obvious, right? But maybe it’s not so obvious to everyone.
Take a look at these things that some wayfinding systems need you to “look around” and find:
Yes, that’s right. Some wayfinding systems ask people with vision impairment to find and scan QR codes. The codes are often printed on visual signage. When you scan the code, you get a message associated with that particular code. So you have to find the code and scan it before you get any navigation information. Once you’ve scanned that code, if you want the next bit of information, you need to find another code and scan that.
Totem poles with audio
Totem signs with wayfinding information on them are quite fashionable at the moment, and for people with sight they look lovely and stand out nicely. Many manufacturers of these poles make them “accessible” by adding a speaker and some audio information, and perhaps some Braille.
To use this system you have to know that there is a totem pole nearby, then you have to find the pole, then you have to listen to the audio. Once you’ve listened to it, you then have to find another pole to get the next piece of info. But the poles aren’t cheap, and they take up a bit of space, so you are not likely to find enough poles to effectively navigate anyway.
Information kiosks are similar to totem poles in that they are primarily built for visual users, and occasionally have some added-on audio as an “accessibility feature”.
Once again, you have to first find the kiosk. Then you have to interpret and remember the audio instructions. There’s no ongoing navigation.
Point-to-point beacon systems
Some navigation systems use Bluetooth beacons in a point-to-point arrangement. These are actually similar to the QR code system in that you have to get close to a particular beacon so your smartphone can “hear” it. When you get close to beacon A, you get a wayfinding message associated with beacon A. It might send you along a path that takes you close to the next beacon, beacon B. So then you have to find beacon B to get the next message, and so on. You’re constantly “looking” for beacons!
If you miss a beacon, or the beacon isn’t working, the system fails. If you take a wrong turn and go away from the chain of beacons, the system stops working for you.
Braille and Tactiles
Even Braille signage and tactiles, good as they are, don’t give you any information until you find them. Want to know where the women’s bathroom is? Braille will tell you only when you’re right outside the door running your hand along the wall searching for the Braille.
Want to know where the edge of the train station platform is? Sure, the tactiles will tell you, once you’re already there.
Wow. That’s a lot of searching for things before you even start your wayfinding journey.
To be fair to these other systems, building a navigation and wayfinding system that really works for people with vision impairment isn’t easy. And the technology that powers a system like that is relatively new — certainly newer than Braille or tactiles.
If you’re a sighted app developer, it can also sometimes be difficult to think outside your normal paradigm for wayfinding, which is to look around for signage.
But certainly, a better system is possible, because at BindiMaps, we operate one every day, and in an increasing number of public and well-trafficked locations.
Navigating a shopping centre or a university campus or a hospital shouldn’t be a video game, where you have to look for this jewel so you can advance to find the next one.
It should be easier than that, and with BindiMaps, it is.