Do Navigation Apps Make People Worse at Navigating?

Navigation apps have opened up a whole new world for most of us. When was the last time you retrieved a paper map from your glove box to navigate to your destination? While there are most assuredly some stalwarts out there, most have probably been using GPS for several years at this point.

But a recent article states that navigation apps are making us worse at navigating. Has the convenience of these apps made us forget the lifelong lessons we’ve attained and the natural abilities we were born with? Do navigation apps make people worse at navigating?

Phil is “of the opinion that not ALL human experience needs to be mediated through technology all the time.” He thinks people should use old-fashioned pen and paper as often as Adobe Illustrator. He still finds joy writing with a fountain pen in a notebook. In fact, he’s suspicious of people who would rather use digital tools than manual, when the latter would be easier and quicker. He believes that “blunts your brain/creativity/learning” and that we still “need physical engagement with tools to activate our subconscious.”

He’s actually done research on this and says the problem with following satellite navigation is that you rely on the commands rather than finding your way, and it can lead to not being able to find your way without digital help. He compares it to people using spellcheck/autocorrect and how it can remove your ability to spell, using spellcheck as a crutch. Yet, he thinks if you need to get somewhere quickly, “you’d be a luddite fool” to not use GPS.

Sayak says the first time he learned to operate Google GPS navigation was in Munich, Germany, while backpacking through Europe. He was always somewhat poor at reading maps and using a compass, “but any invention that allows you to ‘zoom in’ at a place and give point-to-point directions is simply the best thing ever since sliced bread.” He can’t imagine moving an inch without GPS.

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However, he doesn’t think people should surrender their “independent locomotion ability to a piece of software.” He also finds GPS navigation has taken the fun out of traveling somewhat, as it’s more mechanical now. You already know everything there is to see before you arrive at a new destination. The first time he traveled through Thailand was before smartphones, and he lost his book with maps, but getting lost was part of the journey.

Damien says “It is not the navigation apps that make people bad at navigating but that people are just bad at navigating from the start, with and without the apps.” The apps are only there to help. He learned map-reading and navigation skills when he was a young scout and now uses Google Maps when he needs to go to a new location faster. But without navigation apps, he’d still be able to get there. It would just take much longer.

Andrew thinks navigation apps make him better at knowing what’s around him. He spent a few more years navigating without GPS when he was young, as his parents weren’t going to pay for a smartphone data plan. But he thinks he knows the “lay of the land” better now with electronic maps. He just sees it as a tool to help him get around faster.

However, “science basically says that it does make you worse if you use turn-by-turn directions.” He thinks that impedes our ability to make mental maps and affects our navigational skills in a general sense. He tries to use navigation apps as an orientation tool when he’s walking, but when he’s driving, “all bets are off,” as he admits, he has “no idea where I am half the time.”

Miguel is inclined to use GPS only in a new location. Sometimes to “counteract the possibility of GPS dependency,” he’ll “aimlessly explore a city on a weekend” while he’s on his bike and find his way back using his “sense of direction and familiar landmarks.”

Simon isn’t a fan of using navigation when walking around the city. He likes to listen to podcasts while he walks, and “nothing ruins the mood more than the lady stopping everything tell me to turn a corner!” He uses Google Maps to plan out routes and more as a tool, otherwise he goes by road names and landmarks to help guide him.

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He thinks by simply following turn-by-turn navigation it “does turn off the brain and doesn’t exercise those mental muscles associated with finding your way.” He thinks it’s more fun to do it on his own.

Alex recently moved to a new city, so is still finding his way around. He couldn’t get anywhere without his GPS, as he’s still not sure where he’s going. But he’s found the GPS helps him “get a handle on how different roads connect as well as the best ways to travel.” He’s not sure he’d be confident trying to following written directions at this point.

He adds that when planning your route via a map, you can’t tell what the road conditions will be like, while GPS provides that, which is a huge improvement for route-planning.

I thought the same thing as Phil, comparing it to using spellcheck. I’ll also add there are two different ways to navigate with an app. My sister likes the voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation. I much prefer mapping it out before I go with an app, and getting an idea of the route, then following that route in my head, and checking back in with the app when I need to visually.

It makes it difficult for her and I to communicate while driving someplace together. She wants me to navigate but do it the way she’s comfortable with, while I can’t do it that way. I have to follow a map, not directions. It led to a crazy time for us that we still refer back to trying to get to the Atlanta airport to catch a flight back home through road construction. We thought we were going to miss our plane home.

Which type of navigation follower are you? Do you listen to the voice or do you just use a navigation app as a tool to still plot your own route? Do navigation apps make people worse at navigating? Join our conversation in the comments below.

2 comments

  1. I think that GPS/navigation is just one of the tools that can be used. I believe that a good knowledge of map reading is essential and because GPS sometimes is wrong, knoing the general route mapwise is an asset. This also is the same as doing mental math, instead of a calculator all the time, it helps make the brain sharper. So the bottom line is use the old ways and the new ways, and let them complement each other. I know in more familiar areas I know a better route than the navigation device, so I use my route vice the device.

  2. From my experience, GPS is good for local, in-town directions. For long distance travel, I prefer MapQuest, RouteXL or RandMcNally Maps.

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