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Design for How People Think by John Whalen

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Chapter 3 Wayfinding: Where Am I

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Wayfinding: Where Am I?

A logical extension to thinking about what we are looking at is understanding where we are in space. A large portion of the human brain is devoted to the representation of spatial information, so we ought to discuss it and consider how this cognitive process might be harnessed in our designs from two perspectives: knowing where we are, and knowing how we can move around in space.

The Ant in the Desert: Computing Euclidean Space

To help you think about the concept of wayfinding, I’m going to tell you about large Tunisian ants in the desert—who interestingly share an important ability that we have. I first read about this and other amazing animal abilities in Randy Gallistel’s The Organization of Learning, which suggests that living creatures great and small share more cognitive processes than you might have anticipated. Representations of time, space, distance, light and sound intensity, and proportion of food over a geographic area are just a few examples of computations many creatures are capable of.

Imagine yourself as a Tunisian ant. Determining your location in a desert is a particularly thorny problem. There are no landmarks like trees, and the landscape can frequently change as sand moves in the wind. Therefore, ants that leave their nest must use something other than landmarks to find their way home. Their footprints, landmarks, and scent trails in the sand are all unreliable as they can change with a strong ...

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