Essays & Articles


Navigation Systems


Originally published in InteriorMotives.

I recently drove across the United States from Chicago to San Francisco. It was a long trip, with detours to visit friends, give talks, and visit scenic sights. I used two different navigation systems. One was factory-installed, the other portable, loaned to me by its manufacturer. In the past, I’ve used the Magellan system provided in Hertz rental cars and, as I travel, my friends and hosts take great delight in demonstrating their systems to me (always while driving, always at great risk to all of us), giving me exposure to a variety of brands in several countries.

Navigation systems can quickly become essential components of driving, especially in unfamiliar locations. They invoke strong feelings among those who use them, but alas, much in the same way we relate to our computers: love and hate seem to alternate. Now that I have experienced them in my own cars, I never want to be without them, except for when I want to throw them out the window.

Why does each new technology ignore the design lessons of previous technologies? Human-centered design is a well-developed methodology, where social scientists, engineers, and designers all work in concert. I see no sign of this kind of design in these systems. They are far more complex than they ought to be, and when they go wrong or misbehave, which is far more frequent than one would hope, they divert attention from the road.

It should be easy to take a quick diversion from the planned route –or for that matter, to change one’s mind partially through the trip. When I know the route, I want to be able to see the map, check on how much distance and time remains, but without that persistent voice giving me instructions. And when I divert from a trip in order to stop at a restaurant or a gasoline pump, I want to keep the map and display, but not nagging voice that keeps trying to get me back on the road. “When possible, please make a legal U-turn,” the voice keeps saying, never tiring. “Shut up,” I want to — and sometimes do — say in response.

There you have it: a valuable aid to driving that is also confusing, unnecessarily complex, and a safety hazard — all for the lack of proper, human-centered design.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. He lives in northern California at