UnderCover: Design Research: Strategies for Learning About Navigation

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Design Research: Strategies for Learning About Navigation

I’ve been interested in navigation since I was a child. As a kid, I lived in an apartment building and had an indoor cat (who, poor thing, just wanted to be left alone!). One day, I got off the elevator at the wrong floor and was temporarily confused when I couldn’t open “my” apartment door with my key. Being the budding design researcher, I wondered if my cat was as clueless as I was within a carbon-copy floor plan. So I grabbed the cat and brought him at the end of the corridor to a different floor to see what he would do. The poor animal was scared out of his mind and, to my great satisfaction, ran directly to the door that corresponded to our apartment downstairs.

Fast-forward to today. I am still directionally challenged and often get off on the wrong floor. As such I have come to rely on my iPhone’s map and compass for way too much of my navigation. But, despite the fact that my abilities are no better, I’m still fascinated with the subject.

In reading for my Design Research class project, I’ve discovered that there are two predominant navigational strategies that humans use. The first is a cognitive map that holds the relationship between landmarks in our mind. The other is a route approach, where the individual memorizes a series of cues. According to scientists, most people use one dominant strategy and we’re pretty much evenly split between them. Researchers also found that while the route approach is more efficient, it lacks the flexibility of the cognitive map approach. Also, there are gender preferences—women prefer the route strategy, while men prefer the cognitive map strategy.

How have others investigated human navigation? Others have employed function MRI scanning, used virtual reality maps, and tested recall of landmarks. Some have looked at people we might call “extreme users”  which are people with very poor natural ability, London cab drivers that build a detailed mental map of the complex city over 4 years, frequent players of video games with extensive navigation, and inhabitants of very landmark-poor environments such as the Arctic.

As the London taxi driver video showed, navigation skills can improve with practice, which also means that they can degrade with lack of use. Some are concerned that as we learn to rely more and more on GPS-enabled cars and phones, we will lose the habit of forming cognitive maps and may find ourselves becoming unable to find our way around without them. Relying on GPS also makes us less attentive to our surroundings and may impoverish our sense of place.

Also, I discovered that one measure of a “good navigator” is a person who can give good directions in whatever navigational language they happen to speak, whether by referring to landmarks, compass directions, distances, or street names. A good navigator can also retrace and/or reverse a route easily. Based on this information, I think we may be able to investigate navigation using a pre-existing video game as a task to shadow our participants through. Or we may ask the participants who use wayfinding as their preferred method to navigate to a familiar place but via a new route to see how they switch from one mode to another and what that transition is like—easy, strange, unpleasant, seamless?

In one study, “three groups of participants on foot were asked to find their way to various urban locations. A third of the participants used a mobile phone with GPS capability, another third a paper map and the remainder were shown the route by a researcher before being required to navigate on their own.” This might be an good idea for us to do as well.

Interesting articles:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lisa! Enjoyed this post. There's an interesting RadioLab episode that discussed this too. http://www.radiolab.org/2011/jan/25/ The whole episode is interesting, but in particular the section around 31:30.