Don't ditch your paper maps just yet

You might think that hand-held global positioning systems (GPS), which can provide a live update of your location and surroundings, would make the benefit of a paper map redundant. But in a new study, Toru Ishikawa and colleagues have shown that people using a GPS device make more errors and take longer reaching their destination than people using an old-fashioned map.

Sixty-six participants on foot attempted to find their way to six locations in an urban environment. The routes were relatively short (between 157 and 325 yards) and each involved three turns. Twenty-two participants used a mobile phone with a GPS capability, 23 used an A4-sized map, and the remainder were taken along the routes by a researcher, before having to find their way on their own.

Not only did the GPS participants make more stops, walk further and more slowly than the map users, they also demonstrated less knowledge of the routes when asked to sketch a map of them afterwards. The most proficient participants were those who'd been shown the routes by the researchers - they arrived at their destinations faster and stopped fewer times than both the GPS and map users.

So why was the use of GPS inferior to using a paper map? The researchers said part of the explanation might be a lack of familiarity with the technology. Also, unlike the paper map, the size of the GPS screen meant it wasn't always possible to see one's own location and the destination at the same time. Finally, using GPS, which constantly updates itself, encourages people to stare down at the screen, rather than looking around at their environment. "We believe that for the development of effective navigational aids, continued empirical research on these issues is needed," the researchers said.

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchISHIKAWA, T. (2008). Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(1), 74-82. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002
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