Stop and Go Back: wayfinding when you are lost

Alastair Somerville
3 min readAug 1, 2020
Diagram of Stop and Go Back that if you feel lost the stop and go back to a point where yiu felt certain

Getting lost is stressful. It becomes harder and harder to make good decisions. Many people who get lost and die in physical spaces, like forests, are often found near to systems of paths but, from a personal perspective, nowhere near safety. Providing advice on how to not get lost is not just about providing better signage and maps, it is about providing ways for individuals to survive when faced by both personal and systemic behavioural biases.


Both physical and digital architectures and experience design are currently biased towards a systemic ideal of frictionless journeys.

Ensuring that people move quickly thru spaces and get to the ending that satisfies the provider, but not necessarily the consumer, is important to both UX and Service Design. Rapid movement thru the system is a key metric for success. Many people, moving quickly thru many touch points to a delimited number of successful transactions. Both buildings and websites are designed on this frictionless theory.

It is a system level bias.

It is not human-centered.

Humans need friction to have a sense of control and an understanding of where they are.

Unless you are designing a water slide, frictionless is bad. It is disorienting.

Stopping matters as it enables people to pay attention to where they are. Attention to where you are in a place or process is fundamental to not getting lost. Building up a journey of memorable pauses is important to people. They know where they are from their embodied perspective on the experience.

Systems must support the human-centered perspective. Not the top-down view of maps and touchpoints but the looking around sense of place.

Put up Stop signs. Create threshold moments that demarcate the journey. These moments of friction build the most important cognitive map for wayfinding: not the one looking forward but the one for going back.

Go back

When people get lost, they keep moving. They keep moving forward. Forward movement is a terrible individual bias in human wayfinding behaviour. People think moving will find the solution. They think going forward will find the solution. What happens is they get more lost and more disoriented.

This is why, alongside putting up Stop signs (to mitigate the system bias to frictionless journeys), we need to continually remind people that going back is better than going forward when feeling lost or confused.

Moving forward seems like taking positive action. It feels both decisive and in-control. It is not.

Going backwards to where you knew you where you were is better.

Not getting lost is about attention to the moments of the journey (again why putting up memorable thresholds and signs matters) and then taking personal control of the journey backwards.

Backwards seems like the direction of foolish and indecisive people but it is really the direction of strong and deceive people. It is about reacquiring your own sense of control by finding the personal perspective where you felt certainty.

Both physical and digital architectures and wayfinding systems need to support this reverse-sense of wayfinding. Backwards is a direction that is human centered.

Stop and Go Back

How does your design support all this? Both systems and individuals are biased to the idea that movement is good (and so moving more is a good solution) and forward is decisive (so more forward will lead to better solutions).

  • Do you create enough friction to create memorable Stop points?
  • Do you enable journeys that easily go backwards?

People get lost more often now because so much design is about attention. In that kind of environment, people get lost in a forest of cues, buttons, signs and alarms.

Design at system-level to eliminate the bias to frictionless journeys.

Design at a personal level to enable confidence to stop and go back.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX