Information Wayfinding & Chess — Figuring out the board and the online world

What playing chess can teach us about understanding information.

Information Wayfinding & Chess — Figuring out the board and the online world

This is the second post in the chess & IA blog series, where we look at two abstract concepts and use them to reinforce each other. The first post can be found here. Today we are hopping right into information wayfinding and the game of chess. To me, information wayfinding seems intrinsically linked to the navigation systems of our online world. Playing a game of chess is working through the navigation of the board to get the chess piece where it needs to go. Both are looking at information at different points to help the player or user make decisions. That really comes down to information wayfinding.

What is Wayfinding?

For our purposes, wayfinding is how we move through the environment to find what we need. That can be a digital space, a website or an app, or out in the real world, like at a store or an airport. Humans like to take in the bigger picture as we look for positional signals and use the context to figure out what we need. To me, thinking about wayfinding is thinking about human psychology, anticipating what direction a user needs to go. As information architects, we are using our insight and research to make the online user experience be more intuitive.

In this classic example of wayfinding, the berry picking model by Marcia Bates at UCLA, the user starts at Q0, and moves to Q1, reviews information, and has a thought. They follow Q2 based on the new information gleaned in Q1. A new thought or question is formulated from the new information, and they move onto Q3, so on and so forth, until they take all of this information, questions, and research, and the user has what they need and exit this setup.

If you’ve ever googled a question, or looked something up on Wikipedia, and fell down the rabbit hole of information you might need for a project, you understand how this goes.

In the nuts and bolts of this model, we are looking for context clues to give us some idea of what we need to do. It helps us understand what information we’re processing and how to navigate from there, based on the user’s needs on a website (finding a service, or buying a product, for example).

Something similar can happen on the chessboard, a player is looking at the pieces themselves, piece placement on the board, their proximity to their goals, the ticking clock, to make a decision. Sure, chess might seem confusing when you watch professionals play, but there is an unwritten language happening between them. It’s just like the unwritten language of information architecture.

Chess as Interaction Design

Chess is a game of short term tactics and long term strategy. It’s tricky because a player can’t spend too many moves trying to achieve a short term goal. The berry picking model applies to chess because each time an opponent makes a move, it’s going to alter the path a player must take to get to their end result.

There are moments when a player would find it worthwhile to momentarily sacrifice a piece, thus less pieces to work with; for the longer term goals, this is called a “gambit”. In order to do this, a player is using context clues to understand their surroundings. Basic chess theory has three components — the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame. These classifications are determined by the position on the board. Each category of chess theory has its own moves. For example, our favorite Netflix chess show “The Queen’s Gambit” is also the name of an opening play. It’s something the player comes with right at the outset of the game.

  • If white plays the queen’s gambit, then black has the choice to take the play that’s offered. To accept the play is “queen’s gambit accepted”.
  • If black decides to do something completely different, that is “queen’s gambit declined.” If it’s “queen’s gambit declined”, then that changes the direction that white was planning to move.

In our example, we are looking at the user experience of an opening play — black understood that the play was the queen’s gambit (a label) and used the information to make a choice (foil the opponent by not giving into what white wanted). The whole game is played like this: players have to think about both their goals, how their opponent might respond and juggle it. That’s what makes the game ruthless — exposing an opponent’s weaknesses and using your own wit and the long term strategy to take them down. A player is looking at the context of the whole board for clues, using information at different points to build an understanding.

Without the strategic aggression, it sounds a little like structuring websites to be effective for users. An information architect must weigh the goals of the stakeholders and anticipate what a user needs to navigate the online landscape. It is both the short term goals (build an effective website) and the long term strategy (keep users coming back). Interaction design is more than just figuring out where the best place to put a button, for example.

Mental Models

This might sound like a lot — how do you do all of that? Building a website is not exactly as limitless as a game of chess. There are certain patterns we expect when using a website. A website has some bones: every site page has a header, a navigation menu, some content, and a footer. The header, menu, and footer stay the same across every page on the site to make things easy to find. When it comes to the user experience of being online, this mental model can vary based on site trends and frameworks, but it otherwise stays mostly the same whether you’re on a desktop site or mobile.

The above mental model is very similar to the opening, middlegame, and endgame of chess theory. A chess player’s mental model is utilizing those plays like the queen’s gambit, or other methods of winning the game (checkmate the king, so it’s trapped). The mental models are built around the context of how the information is relevant to the user or the player (or not!). Chess is played against the clock; when you’re out of time, that’s it, the game is over. In today’s world, a user’s attention span is even shorter. There is a ticking clock on whether a user is going to find what they need or if they’re going to move on.

If a website doesn’t have some of these conventions of online life, it’s going to drive people away because humans like routines, so why not use it to our advantage. There’s a reason why chess giant Bobby Fischer had reliable opening moves in his career because it worked. He almost always played the same opening move when he was playing as white. His opponents anticipated it and attempted to wield the predictability to their advantage (with mixed results). Those online context clues are the things that users look for to do what they need to do on your website. The mental models are a good thing. Making sites or apps look fancy with the newest design trends aren’t a bad thing, but if a site is too focused on how nice it looks, it will impede a user’s ability to find what they need.


I hope you learned a little more about why information wayfinding can be so important. In chess, wayfinding has to be straight to the point because every move matters. With users, every time the mental model is broken, the more likely a user is going to move off of your website. The next IA and chess post will be about taxonomy and basic chess theory.

Jessi is a UX Designer and information architect apprentice at LA DIA Design. She lives in Los Angeles and can be found on twitter @jessishakarian.

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