19 January 2010

“Turn right after the petrol pump” – User research improves navigation on Google Maps India

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Interesting Google Blog article on how user research dramatically improved driving directions on Google Maps India.

The research was based on the fact that street names are not commonly known in India and the typical wayfinding strategy is to ask someone on the street. Now Google Maps India describes routes in terms of easy-to-follow landmarks and businesses that are visible along the way.

“We knew from previous studies in several countries that most people rely on landmarks — visual cues along the way — for successful navigation. But we needed to understand how people use those visual cues, and what makes a good landmark, in order to make our instructions more human and improve route descriptions. To get answers to these questions, we ran a user research study that focused specifically on how people give and get directions. We called businesses and asked how to get to their store; we recruited people to keep track of directions they gave or received and later interviewed them about their experiences; we asked people to draw us diagrams of routes to places unfamiliar to us; we even followed people around as they tried to find their way.

We found that using landmarks in directions helps for two simple reasons: they are easier to see than street signs and they are easier to remember than street names. […]

We also discovered that there are three situations in which people resort to landmarks.

The first is when people need to orient themselves — for instance, they just exited a subway station and are not sure which way to go. Google Maps would say: “Head southeast for 0.2 miles.” A person would say: “Start walking away from the McDonald’s.”

The second situation is when people use a landmark to describe a turn: “Turn right after the Starbucks.”

The third use, however, is the most interesting. We discovered that often people simply want to confirm that they are still on the right track and haven’t missed their turn.”

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