Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Notes on Navigation 1

One of the problems that fascinates me is the problem of navigation. Not web navigation, although that is interesting in its own right, but navigation in the physical world: how we get from one place to another, whether its on a route we already know, or a new route, how we make use of instructions and artifacts like maps. (Edwin Hutchins has, in Cognition in the Wild, looked at how groups of people collectively navigate at sea.)

Like Lucy Suchman, I don't think that to go from one place to another, human beings simply make plans in their heads and execute them. I think navigation is a complex activity, where many things come together: the plan that a person makes, the artifacts he uses like maps, written instructions as well as other artifacts like road signs all of them shape the experience in complex ways.

I had an interesting experience on a recent trip to Spain that is related tangentially to navigation. Now previously, when I went on trips abroad, I read a page or two of Wikipedia to find out what the noteworthy sites were. A best, I would write down their names, at worst, I would just try and remember the names in my head. The trips didn't turn out badly and I've always enjoyed just walking randomly on the streets of a new city without any particular destination in mind. But I don't remember much of these trips either. One of the reasons for this could be that I did not annotate the photographs I took immediately after the trip while the memories were still fresh. Another reason could be that I did not keep a journal of the trip. But I think there may be a third reason as well.

When I visited Amsterdam with a friend of mine, I noticed that he did things differently. He used a guidebook, a good one and usually planned to visit a couple of spots a day. No explicit planning was done, at least not in much detail but we always had the guidebook in hand as we walked around. We were always trying to map what we saw to what the guidebook said (well, he did the hard work but he explained it to me once he'd gotten it anyway). Just having the guidebook in hand, consulting it, somehow made the excursions much more informative. And more importantly, I remember much more of the trip! Even though, like the previous ones, I did not take photographs or keep a journal.

My hypothesis is that it was carrying the guidebook around that made a difference. Because we were always cross-referencing the guidebook, because our daily outings consisted of visiting a couple of locations in the guidebook, because even when we were just randomly walking the streets, our activity was directed: all of it had the effect of etching the details of the trip more firmly in my mind.

I got a chance to test this hypothesis when I recently went to Madrid for the WWW 09 conference. This time, I made sure that I did things the way my friend did in Amsterdam. I bought a guidebook for Spain: the National Geographic. I didn't plan on visiting too many spots on the same day, just one or two.

And you know what -- it worked! My trip seemed more substantial and I seem to be able to recall it better! Here are some observations on why and how having a guidebook made a difference:
  • Reading the guidebook before the trip in detail proved to be unnecessary. I had time to just skim it on the flight to Spain and that was sufficient.
  • It was much more important to have the guidebook with me as I was sightseeing: having it in hand, where I could refer to it easily, rather than keeping it, say, in my knapsack.
  • I used the maps in the guidebook, especially on the day I took the Plaza Mayor Walk that was recommended. But the guidebook also helped me navigate the museums! The following point talks about how it did this:
  • For the museum each exhibit is equally important. So one tends to get lost in a museum, getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff on display. The guidebook, on the other hand, will tell you what the important pieces in the museum are and more importantly, how to get to them (mine did, and I think a good one should!).
    • This meant that my activity as I went around the museum was directed: I was no longer just walking around but walking around with a purpose. I would continually refer to my guidebook to see where I was, both physically, and in terms of paintings/exhibits that I had already seen and the ones I still had to see. It was the same when I was walking on the road: my activity was directed towards the next landmark I wanted to see. Even if I was walking around randomly, it was still around a certain landmark.
    • At some point (this was in the Prado) my guidebook proved insufficient for the spatial navigation i.e. the instructions it gave me for moving from one room to another were outdated since the paintings had been moved around (obviously). So I picked up a floor plan, which had a map of the rooms with the painter(s) each room was dedicated to. I used the guidebook to find the next painting I wanted to see, the plan to figure out where I was and where I wanted to go, all the while looking at the paintings I was surrounded by to figure out which room I was in. -- it seems complicated to explain it but moving back-and-forth between these things proved surprisingly easy. I think a similar process takes place when we are trying to find our way in an unfamiliar place in our day-to-day life.

So where is this leading? Nowhere, really. And are there any takeaway points?

  • One comes to mind: guidebooks should be designed keeping in mind that the best way for a person to use them is in-situ, in the process of sightseeing. And since my guidebook served the purpose so well, I am guessing they already are designed that way.
  • For me at least, sightseeing became much more productive when it was directed than when it was random. I remember much more from this trip than I do from all of my others combined. It was because I had the guidebook with me so I had a name to go for every street I walked on and perhaps names help you remember better? Or to turn the argument slightly around, when I look at the guidebook today, after the trip, the images in my mind combine with the words on the page and the memory gets solidified. Or something. Sorry for the mixed metaphors but I haven't found a technical way of saying what I want to say.
That's all! More points about navigation to come later.