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.


The best way to make housing more affordable? Raise interest rates

Lol, no. Image: Getty.

Speaking to the Conservative Party conference in September 2017, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, gave a stark assessment of the UK housing market which made for depressing listening for many young people: “For many the chance of getting onto the housing ladder has become a distant dream”, she said.

Now a new report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) provides further, clear evidence of this. The study finds that home ownership among 25 to 34-year-olds has declined sharply over the past 20 years. Home ownership rates have declined from 43 per cent at age 27 for someone born in the late 1970s, to just 25 per cent for someone aged 27 who was born in the late 1980s.

The most significant decline has been for middle-income young people, whose rate of home ownership has fallen from 65 per cent in 1995-6 to 27 per cent now – most significantly hitting aspirant buyers in London and the South-East.

Causes and consequences

The IFS study lays the blame for all this on the growing gap between house prices and incomes. Adjusting for inflation, house prices have risen 150 per cent in the 20 years to 2015-16, while real incomes for 25 to 34-year-olds have grown by 22 per cent (and almost all of that growth happened before the 2008 crash).

A bleak picture. Image: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But, as the report acknowledges, the problem goes much deeper than this. Home ownership rates differ by region. Although there has been a decline in home ownership rates for young people across all areas of Great Britain, the decline is less significant in the North East and Cumbria as well as in Scotland and the South West. The biggest decline in ownership has been in the South-East, the North-West (excluding Cumbria) and London.

So a person aged 25 to 34 is more than twice as likely to own their own home in Cumbria, as their counterpart in London. Worse, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to own their own homes – even after controlling for differences in education and earnings. Home ownership continues to reflect a deeper inequality of opportunity in our society.

More houses needed

Part of the problem is that both Labour and Conservative governments have seen housing as a single, stand-alone market and have focused their attention on what is happening to prices in London. But housing is a number of different markets, which have regional variations and different interactions between the owner-occupier, private rented and social rented sectors.

Regional variations in house prices for similar sized properties reflect the imbalances of the economy: it is heavily reliant on financial services, which are concentrated in London, while the public sector makes up a significant share of many local economies – particularly in the North. Migration from across the UK to overcrowded and expensive areas – such as London and the South-East – have put property prices in those areas even further out of reach for would-be buyers.

To make matters worse, both Labour and Conservative governments have routinely failed to build enough houses. While the current government’s aim to build 300,000 new properties a year by 2020 is welcome, it is simply not enough to meet the backlog in demand – let alone address the fundamental affordability problem.

Where homes are being built, they’re often the wrong types of homes, in the wrong places. Family homes are being built, despite there being some 4m under-occupied such properties across the country.

Not that long ago, government was reducing the housing stock in many parts of the North, through the disastrous Housing Market Renewal programme. Houses are currently being sold in smaller cities such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent for just £1. And none of the government’s actions suggest that ministers understand these issues, or are prepared to address them.

House price inflation – and the awful affect it is having on home ownership rates for young people – is part of a wider problem of the global asset bubble. This bubble has seen huge increases in the price of assets – stocks, housing, bonds – in high income countries such as the UK. Successive governments have helped to fuel this through quantitative easing, ultra-cheap money and successive raids on pension funds.

The ConversationWhat’s needed to address this asset bubble is a substantive increase in interest rates. But while this may slow the growth in house prices, the sad truth is it will do nothing to make housing more affordable for most young people.

Chris O'Leary, Deputy Director, Policy Evaluation and Research Unit and Senior Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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