I recently upgraded my 5 year old flip phone for a Droid 2. Aside from being overwhelmed anew with all the email I wade through daily, I’ve been having fun discovering all the nifty things my “phone” can do. One of the reasons I wanted a smart phone was for it’s GPS capabilities. Let’s be kind, simply say I get lost easily, and leave the paper bags out of it. So of course I had to try out the navigation app on my way home for Thanksgiving. It’s a good thing I knew where I was going; this is not how I navigate!

First, some research to prove I am not alone in my dissatisfaction. According to [1], women are less satisfied with their navigation systems than men. Also, [2] reaffirms my hypothesis that there are gender differences in how people navigate: “Some research has suggested that females tend to use landmarks to navigate, while males tend to use bearings or vectors, such as the direction in which they are headed (Czerwinski et al. 2002; Sandstrom et al. 1998).”

I prefer to navigate by landmarks. When the robotic female voice from my phone tells me to “turn right on west first street,” it tells me nothing beyond what the street sign should say when it’s close enough for me to see it, assuming that it’s even there where I expect it. When riding with a person who is navigating, the driver will hear instructions like “turn right under the street lamp” or “second driveway on the left after the stop sign.” Even when providing directions in advance, “turn after the Walgreens” often prefaces the street name. When talking about a familiar route, “take the Caesar Creek Flea Market exit” is more likely a part of the conversation than the exit number. So why doesn’t my phone do that?

The most obvious answer is that’s not the kind of data that is available. But, why? I’m not going to go in depth into the history of maps, but I think it fair to say that maps were created in order to show those who have never been to a place how to go about getting there. They are typically an aerial view, and they abstract out all but what is important for navigation, aka roads. The vast majority of modern maps assume navigation by automobile. For those of you who regularly take the bus or have taken other forms of public transit, like trains, you get a really different sense for how a city is laid out. Likewise, if you walk or bike a lot, you may be confused when you have to navigate the town by car. It’s a different place!

Another answer is that landmark data is more likely to change than highways and street names. This is probably true, but is a stumbling point for printed, static maps, not GPS enabled smart phones that are equipped to deal with ever-changing data.

I propose a landmark-based navigation system would be a feminist answer to the currently automobile-driven, male-centered design of today’s navigation systems.

[1] http://www.thecarconnection.com/image/100227196_male-vs-female-attitudes-toward-navigation-systems-from-navteq-studies – women are less satisfied with their navigation systems than men.

[2] http://www.springerlink.com/content/872rrw082748x832/ – gender differences in spatial navigation.