About getting lost

Random thoughts about navigation apps

Image that birds have eaten all of your bread crumbs, and you’re alone in the woods, having to ask advice from a cannibalistic witch.


While current navigation applications have gone a long way to become more reliable and easy to use, they still require an unreasonable amount of attention to comprehend. As a result, you get distracted from whatever you want to be doing instead.


There are couple reasons for this, main one having to do with the complexity of the maps themselves. A digital map aggregates multiple layers of data (streets, parks, landmarks, bus stops, etc), not all of which are relevant at all times. Thinking of this, I am reminded of simplistic hand-drawn maps that my parents would draw to me as a child in a pre-smartphone era. They would contain only the essential information, ommiting anything unnecessary.

As little as possible, but not less

This simplified approach distills the map to the essence, reducing the visual noise. For example, if I am commuting, I don’t necessarily need to know if there are parks or sights along the way. More over, I only need to be aware of the streets that are directly related to my journey. Anything else is unneccessary, and can be easily ommited to enhance my focus.

Everything vs. only what’s neccessary

There are multiple ways to deduct the most likely usecase of the user and adapt the map accordingly. For example:

  1. It is 1pm on Monday. I am probably commuting to a meeting. Increase the focus on the streets. And maybe show lunch places along the way.
  2. It is 12pm on Saturday. I am likely to be in an exploratory mode, talking a walk. Show me parks and similar, I am likely going to wander from my route to explore the city.

Another part that severely decreases the ease of use of Google Maps, Citymapper and similar is the mechanics of input. Current mapping applications mostly rely on language based UI, which isn’t optimal to use while on the go.

A lot to digest

As we’re slowly drifting away from smartphones to other forms of devices (smartwatches, AR/VR), language based UI will have to give its way. Take for instance Citymapper’s Apple Watch app:

Amazing

While incredibly efficient in displaying the directions, its input UX could be simplified using a gestural UI. For example, if I want to get directions Home instead of using the menu, I could simply draw a house. Other saved destinations could be accessed via custom shapes and patterns: e.g. rectangle for “get me to work” or a heart for “get me to a friend’s place.”

Get me home
Nearest tube
Get me to the airport

Finally, to get where I want, I need to know how to identify the place. While it is straightforward in cities with rigid and efficient address systems; it can be a tricky in the developing world, where the address can be a fluid concept. One example is Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in Central America which is a city of 1 million+ people, completely destroyed by an earthquake in the 8Os and then organically rebuilt.


Nicaraguan taxi drivers simply count blocks from the nearest landmark. For instance, you tell the driver to pull up 4 block south and 2 blocks east from a shopping mall or a university. While unconventional, Managuan approach is completely rational and has worked for decades.