even with gps, we still need north

North arrowFrom a NYT article by Julia Frankenstein arguing that relying on narrative GPS for navigation ("turn left 1/4 mile") can atrophy your ability to remember maps of your city:

In one experiment, I had 26 residents of Tübingen, Germany, navigate a three-dimensional model of their hometown by wearing head-mounted displays. My team and I asked them to point to well-known locations around town not visible from their current perceived position.

Varying their viewing direction — facing north, facing east — we then assessed their pointing error. All participants performed best when facing one particular direction, north, and the pointing error increased with increasing deviation from north. In other words, by using knowledge gained from navigation to link their perceived position to the corresponding position on a city map, participants could easily retrieve the locations from their memory of city maps — which, after all, are typically oriented north.

To a spatial navigator like me, this is obvious.  But the sample must have included at least a few narrative navigators, people who prefer to navigate with directions rather than maps, and even these people have a sense of north that organizes their understanding of the city.

A great deal of navigational technology is designed and focus-grouped with people who don't like to think with maps.  Hertz's Neverlost GPS, for example, no longer allows me to pin north to the top of a map, as earlier versions did.  Instead the map rotates crazily every time I turn, which helps orient to my line of sight but undermines my ability to relate the map to any larger understanding of the city.  I understand that many people prefer the map to be oriented to their point of view, but in fact, we still seem to need the map with north at the top, because as Ms.Frankenstein showed, people have a better sense of what's where when facing that way.

All this comes back, as it often does, to transit maps.  Often it seems like transit maps are designed by people who don't like maps as information, though they may appreciate them as design. But maps are still important.  Spatial navigators like me can't navigate without them, and even narrative navigators have them in their brains, with a north-arrow.

15 Responses to even with gps, we still need north

  1. Rob February 4, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    My only quibble about this is the relation to North, just based on my personal experience in two different cities. In Seattle, my adult home, I’m innately aware of where north is wherever I am and rely on that awareness to use maps.
    But in Boston, where I grew up and returned for grad school I have no clue where North is even today because the streets aren’t laid out in any relation to it. Instead my understanding of geography is primarily related to where I am relative to the subway map, and by learning where one “square” (which is never square) is with respect to the others it’s connected to by the street network.
    As a pedestrian in Boston I observed that the primary approach to navigation is (or used to be, at least) heading to somewhere near where you’re going, stopping and rolling down the window to ask where to go next. So I think the way streets are laid out has a huge impact on how people conceptualize a city spatially, and north isn’t always the guide, at least for me.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org February 4, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Rob. Yes, although the German city used in this experiment looks more
    like Boston than Seattle.

  3. Rob February 4, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I may just be missing the north-awareness gene then!

  4. ken February 4, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Growing up on the west coast of the US, my north awareness is severely impacted by my ability to see mountains in the distance. If I don’t have mountains to go by while learning the geography of the place, I have to substitute something else as a north anchor. Where the streets don’t do it, I have to use a landmark – in Amsetrdam, it’s Centraal Station. Where the streets do it I’m usually fine, like in New York. Totally agree about looking at a map north-up. The ideal rental car GPS system for me would be oriented north-up and it would draw lines as I drive, like the LOGO turtle. I would know how much of the city’s geography I had already covered based on that. But then, not everyone tries to absorb a new place’s geography right off the bat, whereas some people are hardwired to try just that.

  5. Alan Robinson February 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Water is also a common direction anchor, and it’s not uncommon to see transit maps oriented with the main body of water at the bottom. Having a commonly understood anchor is important, and most times, it will be north.

  6. Brent February 4, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    I would tend to agree, but one place where I would kill for variable mapping is the “you are here” map in a major department store (the one that comes to mind is The Bay at Yonge and Queen in Toronto). If men’s accessories are in front of me to the left, that’s where I want to see them when I’m looking at the store map.

  7. Andrew February 5, 2012 at 2:29 am #

    Adding to the confusion is that in some cities, what people call “north” and what is actually north are different. For example, in Montreal, east and west mean parallel to the river and north and south mean perpendicular to the river. Thus “east end Montreal” is really more north than east. One can get crazy situations where an “east west” street really goes north in some places. Mississauga, ON (and Oakville/Burlington/Brampton) is like this as well because Lake Ontario bends near the Mississauga-Toronto boundary and the street grid is rotated counterclockwise by about 45 degrees, although the road network is more straightforward there. However confusingly all the buses in Mississauga have signs like “1E” which means 1 Dundas Eastbound (really northeastbound) or “19N” which means “19 Hurontario Northbound (really northwestbound).

  8. Tom West February 6, 2012 at 9:21 am #

    @Andrew: I once worked on a contruction project in that area where all the plans had a compass rose showing true north, and a much larger arrow labelled “project north” (aligned with the street grid).
    North is relative 🙂

  9. Nate Wessel February 6, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    I think a strong transit map can shift north in people’s minds to little ill effect. NYC for example has both their bus and subway maps with the avenues running north south when in fact the city is about 35 degrees away from that. I almost always travel with a compass, but it’s useless for me in New York, at least on Manhattan. Those avenues just make sense(!) running north south because I’ve conceptualised the city by it’s transit maps. I doubt my compass will ever dissuade me.
    Oddly, Chicago’s L map doesn’t seem to have had the same effect…I suppose that may be because there are other correct versions and the skewed one is so schematic as to be removed from any landmarks.

  10. Eric O February 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    I can see how spatial navigation can atrophy with increased reliance on GPS narrative frame navigation, but I’ve found the increased reliance on the Google Maps north-view map will actually lead to the opposite effect and reinforce one’s internal map. I saw a variation of this article that made that point from Frankenstein and Meilinger’s study, which I think is actually the more profound finding of the study (can’t seem to find that version now, sorry).
    I think most visual/spatial thinkers immediately toggle to the map view when they have a choice, and so we are actually reinforcing our skills with Google Maps on our phone. Is that not so, fellow spatial navigators?
    A primary reason we do this is to see the trip in relation to its context, where we are in relation to other things and to see the entire trip (or as much of it as one can) at once. I can’t help but notice how dexterous fellow spatial navigators are when navigating maps on their iphones. They pan, zoom in and out constantly with ease on them. They don’t care just about the street navigation decisions, they are literally just affixing the route to a global internal map.
    In my case, I tend to be also uncomfortable following someone’s directions. Whereas those with poor spatial skills have to be more “trusting” of narrative directions because that’s usually the only way they can navigate. These nose-pointed GPS view frames are confining to me in a really claustrophobic kind of way. Not only do they remove the power of decision, you can’t even consider the immediate directive in relation to future decisions.

  11. Killface February 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    “So if I’m here… this way… oh, here’s an idea, indicate north. Otherwise it’s not a map. It’s just a drawing.”

  12. John Mansfield February 7, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    In a couple cities with mountains near to the east, my mental map has those mountains behind me and the city laid out before me with west at the top of the map. All the printed maps, with north at the top, feel a little wrong. On the other hand, when I lived in a small town with mountains on its north edge, those mountains were on the top of my mental map, a map that looks like a ski hill diagram.

  13. Morgan Wick February 7, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Heh. Is her name pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”?

  14. Max Power February 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    Usually the “you are here” maps with an illogical orientation (e.g. in shopping malls) aren’t a problem, but they could be serious problems.
    I stayed at a motel where the fire exit diagram was oriented from the point of view of someone viewing the motel from the street, not from the room. All of the left/right turns were reversed, which could cost lives in an emergency.

  15. Scott February 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    Semi-apropos, but I am a great fan of the neighbourhood signs that were put up around Vancouver in relation to the 2010 Olympics. Their fixed orientation is not always the same as that of what they represent (the case in this picture) which I imagine could be especially important for visitors. However, North is definitely “up” on them, and the 15-minute-walk radius is interesting, along with the transition from a few big “Go This Way” arrows at the top to very detailed information at the bottom.