My clever public ambient findability solution.

Ambient findability can be valuable even in human relationships.


Jan 4, 2022


Steve Berry

Ambient findability in a crowd

Ambient findability is a critical concept in Information Architecture that defines the difficulty of finding an artifact. It is a fundamental attribute of a digital product design. Valuable content won't be helpful if your user can't find it.

The term also applies to the physical world. If you are in an airport, a carefully designed wayfinding system will hint at the directions for terminals, gates, or bathrooms, so you can quickly find your way. Appropriate sign placement is the difference between a smooth check-in and a missed flight.

Ambient findability can be valuable even in human relationships. Imagine a crowded public space in New York City. How do you locate your significant other without using your phone or yelling loudly? It's challenging if you were in a store, restaurant, or park and wanted to find another person.

So when my wife and I lived there, we set up this code. Whenever we were apart and trying to reach each other in the crowd, I would whistle like a bird. This audio tactic worked remarkably well.

The bird-whistle proved to be an efficient way to improve ambient findability in that context. I could also yell out loud and solve my problem, but it would disturb other people in the group and embarrass her. I could also make a regular whistle, but then it could be anyone whistling, so besides making every person turn the head in my direction, she wouldn't know for sure it was me.

I was sending the hint precisely to the intended person because my wife already knew how my signal sounds, so it was meaningful to her, while other people would pass by just hearing a guy imitating a bird.

That's how ambient findability operates. Like the bird chirping solution, it creates elevated information scent to the target audience and does not frustrate others with misleading signals.