We should make our digital navigation systems more human. Here's how

This is not how people give directions. Image: Getty.

Imagine you’re in a city you don’t know, and need to find the way to the train station. You ask a stranger in the street, and she answers: “Walk east for 144ft, turn right towards the main road for 26ft, continue straight onto main road for 377ft. Your destination will be on the left.”

You would probably think she sounded robotic – more like a digital route-finding system than a human being. And you’d be right.

Most digital navigation systems, whether online (such as Google Maps) or location-based (such as a GPS), give directions based on precise quantitative information, such as measurements in feet or metres. By contrast, humans are much more vague – they might just say to head in a particular direction “for a minute or so”. And instead of being given a compass direction, you’d expect a human to point you in the right direction with a simple gesture.

The upshot is that while a friendly stranger will tell you to “turn right at the castle”, digital systems seem to have trouble using landmark information.

Lost without landmarks

This can be a problem. As wayfinders, we orient towards landmarks: highly visible buildings, or other salient objects, which we can easily remember in a description and recognise in the environment. We don’t like to rely on numbers and abstract spatial directions, and we find instructions such as “go east for 144ft, then straight for 377ft” to be utterly counterintuitive. This isn’t how human beings think or talk about space.

This isn’t such a big issue if your purpose-built GPS is giving you a constant visual prompt, and a countdown until your turn, as many in-car devices do. But if you’re using a set of instructions that you’ve saved or printed out from an online source, it is very difficult to say where 377ft ends – unless you happen to be carrying a distance meter.

In fact, we don’t need precise turn-by-turn information at all. In the case of many little streets in a city centre, for instance, we can simply head in the direction that we know the goal to be. Alternatively, we can rely on the main street network to guide us, even if that means taking a slightly longer route. In short, we use wayfinding strategies to avoid having to remember all the details, or having to calculate the optimal path. These strategies make wayfinding easier, and we often incorporate them when giving directions. This way, we don’t overload others with information, but usually provide just the right amount of detail.

Digital systems are far less considerate, and far less flexible. Whenever humans recognise a particular part of a route to be tricky, they will add further handy information for guidance. A system, however, will simply continue giving information in the same format: “east for 144ft, straight for 377ft”.

Trust issues

Imagine that the route you’ve been given instructs you to “turn left at the castle”. But when you get to the castle, you find that there’s only a road to the right, or an option to turn left later. Now you’ve got a choice: either turn right at the castle, or turn left – but not at the castle. The route giver was obviously mistaken – hardly a big surprise.

When a stranger asks for directions, most people find that the perfect route description doesn’t naturally come straight to mind. Even with excellent local knowledge, humans never really have a complete “cognitive map”. Instead, our minds operate economically: we remember what we need to, and provide the relevant information when asked for it, as far as possible.

Castles are highly visible, long-lasting landmarks. Image: Thora Tenbrink.

As a result, route directions might not always be entirely correct, and they are certainly not complete. There’s a lot more information in any spatial environment than we can possibly include in a route instruction. All this might easily lead to the ambiguous situation you’re now confronted with: when you have to decide whether to go with the spatial direction (left), or rely on the landmark (castle). What will you do?

Research shows that the surprising answer is that your decision depends on where the instructions came from. If your source was a human being, you’re most likely to rely on the landmark. Your friend said “at the castle” – so that’s where you’ll turn. After all, she might have imagined coming from a different direction, or just confused left and right, as so many people do.

But if your source was a digital system, the situation is different. Such technology is highly unlikely to imagine coming from a different direction, or confuse left and right. But when it comes to landmarks, you might be a bit sceptical. Most current systems don’t have landmark information – or if they do, there’s always the possibility that their database is inaccurate or out of date. For whatever reason, you’re less likely to trust navigation systems to incorporate landmarks correctly into their routes.

If developers hope to create intuitive and reliable route generation systems, they should reflect what’s important to the people who are using them. This means adopting the natural concepts and strategies we use for wayfinding, as much as possible. Adding long-standing landmarks into the mix is a great place to start – indeed, it looks like key developers are already on their way.The Conversation

Thora Tenbrink, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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