Wayfinding: The Shopping Mall experience (Part 1)

From the personal experience of being an integrated member of the city, as Willam Shintani rightfully states in Gulf News’s article Mall culture puts UAE consumers above Americans for brand intimacy, it is evident that there is a “growing mall culture” in the UAE especially in the city of Abu Dhabi. As Shintani explains “malls here offer a complete retail, leisure and entertainment experience, and ever-increasing numbers of people spend a great deal of time visiting them”. Yet according to The National’s article Time for Retail changes in the UAE there is a current need in UAE shopping malls for “improving sales and improving experience”. One way to yield such improvements is through providing effective wayfinding systems to “drive traffic to a store”. As such it of crucial importance for these malls to embody a navigable experience, one which allows the user in this case the public to maximize an awareness of the space around them, taking into the account the complexity of these built environments and the amount of people visiting these premises which might inhabit this.

As part of this series, I have analysed the shopping mall experience in terms of wayfinding from the user’s prospective in several Abu Dhabi malls; World Trade Centre Mall, Al Wahda Mall, Abu Dhabi Mall and Al Zahiyah Shopping Center; in order to assess the wayfinding strategies which, accompany the user’s shopping experience. In this part I will be highlighting the wayfinding at the World Trade Center Mall.

In today’s era, wayfinding often starts before the user’s physical experience through the availability of resources found on the internet, especially with each mall having a distinct web agenda and website to inform potential customers. Accessing the World Trade Center Mall website online (www.wtcad.ae), it was apparent that despite the website having an extensive database of the listed shops present, the location of each shop was only informed by the floor level. As such despite the user gaining knowledge about the shops available, the user must rely on the physical wayfinding implementations installed and established in the mall during the visit in order to find the shop unit. Wayfinding online in this case is extremely limited due to the absence of an adequate map to help the user gain an awareness of the shop’s location in the building. This hinders the shopping experiences especially for a user new or unfamiliar with the layout of the shopping mall. This is because more time has to be spent during the visit to gain a geospatial awareness and orientation of the space to reach the desired place in this case the intended shop. Such time and confusion could be saved with a more effective online wayfinding strategy before the visit such as sufficient floor plans to map the general layout in order to pinpoint the precise locations of specific shops.

Upon visiting the actual mall, it is noticeable the mall defers from the usual layout, in the sense that the mall fosters several entrances to the mall form all sides at very small internals. Initially this is not a problem as each entrance is visibly labelled as the entrance to the mall (as seen in the image below) and as such the external user is aware of the access points to gain entry inside. However, such system creates confusion for the internal user once instead the mall. This is because understanding of these entrances/exits relies on the awareness and knowledge of the streets surrounding the mall. As such due to number of entrance/exit points at each side of the mall, the mall uses signage directing users to the street which aligns with those exits/entrances. This is problematic as the entrances/exit points are not specifically named and as such it is lively for the user to exit at a different the entrance point than they have entered. This might be an inconvenience for the user as it can create confusion and additional walking taking into account circumstances such as accessing external street parking and bus stops; especially for users who do not poses the knowledge of the adjacent street names. A solution to this would be a design which incorporates a main mall entrance which the World Trade Center Mall lacks. This acts as a memorable and visible point of entrance and exit for the user to use a point of geospatial orientation.


The mall also extensively uses signage and pictograms to inform the user of general direction and actions. It is clear that signage is often focused on the main and most popular department stores located in the mall (image seen below with the case of H&M). This is arguably effective as these are the most common desired places in the mall, and as such signage is orientated towards the user’s needs in order to accesses these desired shops. However, signage of emergency exits points is problematic. Many signs for emergency exits point straight ahead despite this direction being intercepted by a shop or a wall ahead (image below). It is also interesting to note that the emergency pictograms on signs to indicate to push the door open is misleading (image blow). This is because the pictogram clearly shows a hand grabbing the handle, an action associated with a pulling motion. This can inhabit the evacuation process. Instead the pictogram should illustrate a hand touching the panel. This problem with emergency signage also extends to some of the general mall signs. For example, there is a sign for restaurant lifts which points straight ahead despite there being a wall (image below). As also in the case with the emergency exits, this signs should instead be corrected and modified showing a change of direction at the wall following the L-shaped corridors, which the signs currently don’t take into account this aspect of the mall’s layout and design.

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The most successful and useful wayfinding strategy implemented in the World Trade Center Mall is the use of digital interfaces. This is can be conceptualised as a digital wayfinding strategy. The use of interactive touch screens throughout the mall especially at key user path interchanges such as at escalator and lift points provides effective means for the user in gaining a route to a desired shop or point at the mall quickly if lost or confused. Testing these digital screens, the user can manually observe the layout of the mall and find a desired point or shop, as well as have the option to look up for shops and other services. The interface provides several categories of different types of shop outlets, which is an effective and quick way to find a shop. Once a shop is selected, the interface will provide a moving route in which the user is directed from the current highlighted position to the desired position. As such this uses route following as wayfinding strategies based on a 2D map illustrating the light and divisions of the mall. This also expands to find services and facilities such as exit points and toilets. Images of the interface functions are found below. Despite this system being sufficing, other shopping malls in Abu Dhabi, as evident in further along this series, provide a more effective digital wayfinding strategies with similar interface points.

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Final Verdict: It seems even the wayfinding strategies are confused by the complex layout of World Trade Mall. It is only by the means of digital interfaces that make the mall barely navigable.


Duncan, Gillian. Time for retail changes in the UAE. The National, April 19 2016. http://www.thenational.ae/business/the-life/time-for-retail-changes-in-the-uae

Shintani, William. Mall culture puts UAE consumers above Americans for brand intimacy. Gulf News, October 23 2015. http://gulfnews.com/business/sectors/retail/mall-culture-puts-uae-consumers-above-americans-for-brand-intimacy-1.1605687


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