The Lost Art of Giving Directions

Written by Jesse Nover, Experience Lead, New York City

Queensboro bridge in new york
Queensboro Bridge, New York City

The other day while walking down the sidewalk in Queens, NY, a driver pulled to a halt across the street from me, rolled down his window, and asked for directions. This in itself has never been an unusual occurrence living in a city, and I was happy to oblige, but this time it struck me as odd. With a smartphone seemingly in every pocket, and Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps on every smartphone, there is seldom a need to ask for directions anymore. Was this fellow the last person without a smartphone? Perhaps he didn’t know the complete address of his destination or how to search for it? Or maybe he was just being a responsible driver and leaving his phone untouched while driving?

Like many, I’ve come to rely on these apps to find my way to new and even routine destinations. Knowing how to get where you are going — by car, foot, bike, or transit — has surely been one of the “killer apps” that have made smartphones essential devices. Added features like warnings about police speed traps, red light cameras, and helpful notifications about time in traffic have only made these apps stickier. But as a Gen Xer who remembers a time before smartphones and ubiquitously available turn-by-turn directions, I started to wonder whether all of the gains we’ve made in reliable navigation, convenience, and clear information haven’t come at some price. How have they changed the way we think? How does it change the kind of interactions that we have with others? How has it changed the way we experience the communities we travel through? And did designers consider these questions?

There was a time when drivers carried a road atlas or a state, county, or regional map. Yes, paper maps. Directions were given by memory — over the phone or in person — and they weren’t always quite right, but often contained some colorful imagery or unnecessary but confidence-boosting details. “You’ll pass three lights, go passed the 7-Eleven, and keep right at the fork,” or “you want to make a left turn, but you need to keep right and turn into the jug-handle,” or “295 is technically a north-south route, but in our county it runs east-west.” Sometimes the helpful direction-giver would draw you a map on the spot, and it would be unlikely to bear much resemblance to reality. Other times, dramatic hand gestures would accompany the instructions: a chop for straight, or a little wave for right or left. The recipient would be wise to write it all down and read it back to confirm. If the directions were issued at a gas station — a traditional place to stop and ask in the pre-smartphone era — the instructions were sometimes constructed by dialog among employees. Debates could occasionally ensue: “Why are you sending him that way?”

It feels like we’ve all been there: we follow the app, but the traffic turns out to be terrible and the ETA keeps increasing. What if we had followed our instinct and taken the other road?

It is an often-repeated stereotype (and pop cultural trope) that men are proud of their sense of direction, and fiercely protective of their “navigation-independence.” Clark Griswold drives the family station wagon down a closed road into the desert in National Lampoon’s Vacation after failing to notice detour signs that are apparent to the passengers. A recent parody of the song Old Town Road by The Holderness Family features a father driving his family down “the other road,” overriding the navigation directions as he sings “I’m gonna always question, the computer’s suggestion.” It feels like we’ve all been there: we follow the app, but the traffic turns out to be terrible and the ETA keeps increasing. What if we had followed our instinct and taken the other road?

In London, taxi-drivers have traditionally had to pass what has been called the hardest test in the world or “The Knowledge” to be allowed to work as a driver; navigation apps are not allowed. A scientific study suggests that the rigorous study required to learn London’s streets actually stimulates brain development. Incursions by Uber and other modern ride-sharing services that do rely on navigation apps have sparked controversy and threaten to up-end London traditions. It seems fair to think of a sense-of-direction as a simple but profound skill, partly intuitive and partly learned. Being able to reach a destination without help can feel like an achievement, and a mark of maturity for a young person. But like Chess and Go, human skill and creativity is no match for progressively more sophisticated algorithms, rich data sets, and up-to-the-minute crowd-sourced information. Is the London Cabbie like a John Henry of the digital age?

The United States is well-covered by GPS and mapping data, but it is still possible to find areas where the apps lead us astray. After booking a rural vacation rental, a traveler may receive directions from an owner who insists that you not trust GPS to find the house. Even if the app can locate the destination, route information is sometimes incomplete or misleading. The app won’t tell you that the more direct-looking route requires driving on unpaved roads or what condition the unpaved road is in. It also may be deceptive about mountainous routes with frequent elevation changes or switchbacks.

A sandy path with telephone poles on either side
A sandy path with telephone poles on either side
40th Pole Beach, Nantucket

I’ve had my share of mishaps in vacation areas, both in the United States and abroad. The road to 40th Pole Beach in Nantucket goes from paved to sand, and one route suggested by an app confused a driveway with a road. The most direct route between Antigua Guatemala and Parque Nacional Volcan De Pacaya (a volcano popular with tourists) includes a rutted, stone-strewn dirt road more often used by livestock than motor vehicles. In the latter example, I went to the effort of printing the directions generated by Google Maps, in case the GPS coverage was spotty. It seemed so cruel to have prepared so well, but for the wrong problem!

On another trip, to several countries in Europe, the mishaps seemed to multiply. The rental vehicle that I got in Germany included an in-dashboard navigation app with turn-by-turn directions. Unfortunately, the interface was entirely in German as were the directions. My high school German language skills (or UI skills?) proved far too limited to figure out how to change the destination after managing to set it once. Fortunately, the smartphone worked as a back-up. While driving to a hotel in Verona, Italy, alas, the directions could not account for the many weekend street closures in the district where the hotel was located.

Driving to Guanajuato, Mexico, a picturesque colonial city, is notoriously confusing. There is little need for a car once you arrive, but the approach to the center includes a network of squirrely tunnels that work to move cars out of the city before you can figure out that you have arrived. Local youngsters stand on the approach roads outside of the city, offering to hop in and guide confused tourists for a small fee. But as our technology gets more sophisticated, these human interactions will become less common. To compensate, some of the apps have looked for ways to add a touch of humor and personality to the experience. Waze, for example, offers a wide range of voice options, in different languages, genders, and accents. Celebrity voices like Morgan Freeman and Arnold Schwarzenegger are sometimes offered, usually timed to coincide with a movie project. Batman and Riddler voices (and vehicle icons) were another recent option. You can also opt to record your own voice, following a series of cues. These options inject an element of fun to a utilitarian navigation app.

A forest hike surrounded by trees
A forest hike surrounded by trees

Get outdoors for a hike, a boat ride, or for skiing, and the maps are not quite at the same level as the apps that cover the roads. Yes, Alltrails and its competitors do have an impressive collection of maps and tools for navigation, but spottier cell coverage and perhaps the recreational nature of these experiences has left us less reliant on our devices for these uses. Perhaps getting lost in the woods is part of the appeal of a hike in the first place.

“Hey kid, get lost!”

“I can’t. I know the neighborhood too well!”

This was a smart-alecky exchange popular in my family years ago. These days it seems especially true. We can easily find our way to the most obscure address, but without much thought at all. Arguing about the best or fastest route from point A to point B was once a common topic of conversation at family gatherings (well at my family’s gatherings anyway). The argument can now easily be settled with a little typing into an app. Of course we can still debate the real-world traffic conditions at different times of day, but even that information is likely to be provided, and if you live in a major metropolitan area, it’s accuracy is increasingly assured.

Many drivers, flaneurs, and cyclists alike are finding new shortcuts and paths that were there all along but were not part of our traditional mental models.

Are we losing some mode of thinking that we evolved to have, though? Is there a part of the brain that will atrophy? In the Image of the City, a 1960 book by Kevin Lynch, a theory of how people construct mental models of a city — its imageability — is proposed. Concepts like nodes, paths, edges, landmarks, and districts are used to describe key elements in those models. How is our image of the city altered by our reliance on navigation devices? Many drivers, flaneurs, and cyclists alike are finding new shortcuts and paths that were there all along but were not part of our traditional mental models. Some have complained about incursions of traffic into residential neighborhoods that algorithms discovered were faster routes. City planners and neighborhood groups have fought back. Streets have been narrowed, lanes reduced, and bike lanes added.

The driver who stopped me in Queens was asking how to find the 59th Street Bridge, also known as the Queensboro Bridge, and now officially the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. I performed some of the magic waves and chops with my hands, mentioned the T intersection he would soon reach, and hopefully guided him to his destination. He wasn’t too far from the bridge when he asked but was off the main roads in a residential neighborhood. As lovely a bridge that it is, it seems unlikely that the bridge was his final destination. Perhaps, to compete with the apps, I should have asked if he preferred the Queens Boulevard, Northern Boulevard, or Skillman Avenue approach, or whether he would like the upper or lower roadway. Next time.

As designers, we think in terms of making an experience useful, usable, and even delightful as we imagine digital experiences that transcended their (soon-to-be quaint) analog prototypes. The human-centered methodologies we employ have long championed qualitative research in addition to quantitative, data-driven inputs. Talking to people and observing how they use technology remains one of our most insightful ways to design a successful product. But we don’t often study the bigger picture: how the new tool changes society, and how it changes us. Techniques like Science Fiction Prototyping have the potential to help us foresee the unintended consequences of our innovations. The digital experiences that we are bringing to life have great potential. It’s our responsibility to anticipate the side effects.

We bridge business strategy and scaled engineering with dataful experiences. https://publicissapient.com/experience

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