When I hike a mountain with many paths, I need a map, signposts, or, even better, a guide. Surrounded by too many choices, many leading in the wrong direction, I easily get lost. I need what my talented friend Cricket Redman of Cricket Design Works calls “wayfinding.” Wayfinding solutions like signposts not only help me get to my destination quickly but also avoid all the distractions of paths I don’t want to take. Companies that can help with wayfinding in different areas of our lives are becoming increasingly valuable.
All of us, for example, have wasted uncountable time going down digital paths and the opportunities for getting lost grow each second as digital data explodes. It’s no surprise that wayfinding companies like Amazon, Expedia, Netflix and Google have thrived in the digital world. They pull together options and serve as the curator for our search or, with Google maps, our step-by-step directional guide. The innovative platforms creating new markets, like Uber (independent car service) and Airbnb (rooms for rent), also act as wayfinders. Spotify and Pandora provide better wayfinding than iTunes by guiding us to new music based on examples of musical tracks we appreciate and enjoy.
These companies exemplify wayfinding solutions for the mass market. Companies with a ubiquitous technology often focus on the needs of the “average” customer who comprise the mass of a market. But one look at any mature market and you discover that mass markets typically splinter into niches. New companies target customers whose needs are not well served by mass-market approaches, and then established players try to catch up. Wayfinding companies had best understand this process.
For example, early in my career I watched a start-up Acuson (an ultrasound medical imaging company now owned by Siemens) take significant market share from industry leaders. It accomplished this by specializing sales and marketing and designing user features and interfaces for the cardiology, obstetrics and radiology markets, the specialties fighting to own hospital ultrasound imaging. Wayfinding companies can learn from what Acuson did—pay attention to the social influences and needs of different segments of the market.
Google’s platform shows some understanding of the niche process. It created a niche of its services, Google Scholar, by recognizing a set of unique needs. A scientist searching for scholarly articles on diabetes should never use standard Google for searching. I made the mistake of doing this for a project for Medtronics. Two years later I still get emails and Facebook posts about diabetes solutions for which I have no need.
A fresh example of a niche wayfinding platform is a home exchange website called Behomm, profiled recently in a NYT piece. The exchange serves the travel needs of a niche audiene – designers and creative artists. To become a member, you must work in one of the 90 careers, such as a graphic designer, interior designer, architect, creative director, landscape artist, hat maker, or fashion stylist. For all these types, visual sensibility often counts more than the location of a vacation property. Behomm members trust that a home of an artistic-type will be a more memorable spot for a holiday than options on a mass market site populated by suburbanite accountants, lawyers and professors.
With today’s proliferating options, it’s easy to feel the wayfinding markets are locked up. But entrepreneurs, who sniff out unique needs, could have a field day disrupting platform leaders. For example, the pages and pages of choices on Amazon exhaust me. I find I go to Amazon when I know the brand I want, and my Prime free-shipping program will lower my shipping costs. Other online retailers should offer a better wayfinding experience and free shipping (or perhaps a credit equal in value to shipping costs on my next order) to keep me, and others, from clicking on Amazon.
Even Google could be disrupted. Marissa Mayer’s biggest mistake in trying to “fix” Yahoo rests I think in not recognizing the importance of niche markets. She could better serve search customers (and beat Google) by segmenting the market on search situation and taste. And advertisers, who meet the unique needs of each searching group, would have higher click-through rates, raising Yahoo’s ad margins. Without this kind of strategy, Yahoo will remain a less attractive and complete tool than Google.
What wayfinding do your customers need? How can you help? Or, where do you get lost of frustrated? What could you do about it as an entrepreneur?
© 2014 Plantes Company, LLC