10 Aprile 2008


Is the widespread use of GPS changing how we perceive the world? A research group at Cornell University has studied GPS users to answer this question (and more). They presented today their results at CHI 2008, and I’ve discussed about it with one of the authors (Gilly Leshed):

A growing number of people is relying on GPS to move around. Based on your research, is this changing people's perception of the world?
“Yes, Definitely. GPS technology, with its coordinate system, navigation directions, map displays, and array of settings, provides an abstract representation of the physical environment. This representation is very different from mundane experiences that people undergo when navigating and driving without GPS. For example, we found many cases in which people did not attend to landmarks in spaces they traversed through: instead of looking at street signs and attempting to orient themselves, they relied on the GPS to give them accurate directions to reach their destination. But on the other hand, we found cases in which using GPS enriched people's interactions with the world, for example, by marking places they have been to on the GPS map or having social interactions with other passengers in the car around the GPS device.”

Are there any "undesired side effects" in using a GPS. For example, are we losing important abilities?

“Yes. When driving with GPS people no longer need to orient themselves in the area in which they are traveling, they don't need to learn how to navigate, and even social skills of asking people outside the car how to get to a certain place might be lost.”

How did you study users to understand the effects of GPS on them? Did you find any surprising behaviors?
“Many of the participant reminisce on how they used to navigate before they had GPS. For example, one participant said that before they had the GPS whoever was the navigator was responsible of providing directions to the driver. If a mistake was made there would be drama in the car. But when driving with GPS, if a mistake is made the unit quietly recalculates a new route and provides new directions to the destination.
As another example, we observed that experiences that people undergo in their driving, such as toll roads, secondary roads, and kosher foods shops are represented by GPS technology as simple and abstract settings.  This disconnect between the way that people experience aspects in their environment and the way that GPS codes these aspects lead sometimes to the participants wanting the GPS be able to understand their experiences better. For instance, one participants hoped that her GPS unit would "know" that she prefers driving through secondary roads.
One of the surprising behaviors we found was that many participants referred to their GPS units as social agents, for instance, by naming them, talking to them, and talking about them with other people as if they were animate.”

How do you imagine the "GPS of the future"? What should it do or not do
compared to current models?

“GPS devices are not simply navigation tools that need to take into consideration usability, safety, and driving performance.  They change the ways that we experience the environment. Designers have the power of promoting more engaged experiences. For example, the GPS unit can offer navigation by landmarks instead of by distances: instead of "turn left in 100 meters", it can say "turn left after the bridge". This kind of design will make people more aware of physical objects in their environment, leading to more connection with the community. Also, the GPS can sense that it is located in an unfamiliar area or a familiar area to the driver, and provide different features given these different contexts. Finally, current GPS units are designed for one-on-one interaction between the driver and the unit. Instead of secluding the passenger seated near the driver, who has traditionally been the navigator, we can engage them in the interaction with the GPS unit.”

© 2008, Il Sole 24 Ore. Web report from CHI 2008.