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August 7th, 2007
Errors and Usability

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This spring I became part of the new booming map-society: the society of the personal navigation systems owners. I bought a brand new navigation-system-device for me and my car. The navigation-system-device was used for the first time when my wife and I had to navigate from a London airport to some friends’ address in a suburb of London. In the evening and not being familiar with the road-network in London! For the first time ever, we arrived at the target without any bloodstains in the car. The navigation system saved us. What a marvellous device. What a marvellous service.

I have become so fascinated by the navigation-system-device that I’m using it whenever I’m driving outside my home town. Not that navigation in Denmark is that difficult, but it is most interesting to study the device, its services, its behaviour, as well as my behaviour. My behaviour has changed compared to the time before possession of a navigation-system-device. I have noticed that I’m quite often more focused on the device than on the traffic. One day I might cause a traffic accident. I have heard from other users of navigation systems that this device-focused behaviour is not unusual. It seems that people tend to focus on the small display instead of using the big display (the front screen).

A friend told me that he had a funny experience trying to navigate through Dresden in Germany with the help of his navigation system. He ended up on the harbour front without any connection to anything. Around him, on that Sunday afternoon, there were other civilian cars, all with this little navigation device under the front screen, trying to find their way through Dresden. Personal navigation systems support one-dimensional navigation; turn right, turn left, continue 300 meters, don’t think, etc. Those kinds of systems do not teach people how to navigate and how to use the big display.

People who are weak in navigation will never learn how to navigate once they have bought such a system. People who are strong in navigation, will possibly not loose their ability. Whether this is good or bad, I’m not the person to judge. But I’m quite sure that the society’s average navigation abilities will depend more and more on one-dimensional navigation provided by navigation-devices. Another aspect that is interesting to discuss is the device’s services. When I go visiting some friends, who live some 100 km away, the shortest-fastest way is to use a secondary route. The road passes through a small town positioned at a fjord. The road crosses the fjord on a bridge. The bridge was build approximately 70 years ago and has been used ever since. The bridge is not contained in the map-database in my brand new navigation system. A bit strange, I think.

However, errors occur in every system in every organization. Not a big problem, I use the bridge despite the navigation system’s driving-advices. In fact the same problem as the above mentioned incident in Dresden. This experience of missing roads in the device’s map-database has inspired me to consider the aspects of usability, with regards to the combination of information design, it-technology and interaction design. For many years the concept of interactivity (and similar) has been discussed in conjunction with the development of new it-systems. I don’t really think that there has been much progress seen from the average-user’s point of view.

I agree that it-systems have become easier ‘buttons’ to push. But, it-systems still provide information in a one-way transmission manner, including the interface-dialogue. For the user it is not really possible to have a real two-way dialogue. A real two-way dialogue would be if the user could change the behaviour of the system or was allowed to change the content of the information database. Minor changes can be adopted, but it’s not really possible to get beyond the one-way transmission culture. It is a pity, because it could actually improve the usability of modern it-systems if real interactivity was possible. What a marvellous advantage wouldn’t it be if my brand new navigation system could adopt changes to the information content, e.g. a missing bridge? Changes registered and provided by me! It cannot be that difficult to implement such facilities into the system. The most difficult part, the correct registration of the position of new features, is actually already carried out by the navigation device itself. It is already registering all movements of the car every five seconds with an accuracy that is more than satisfactory. The software should basically check whether the actual position is more than a few meters away from any ‘road’ already contained in the system’s database. If the speed also indicates a normal driving behaviour, the navigation system could very simply ask me if I’m driving on a road. If my answer to the system is yes, the next question should simply be if I want to add this obvious road to the map-database. Yes, please. That would be real high-quality high-end usability!   Lars Brodersen is a professor at Aalborg Universitet, Aalborg , Denmark Information:lars@land.aau.dk www.land.aau.dk/~lars

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