Designing Presence: Motorcycling and the GPS

My partner and I vacation by traversing the West on two wheels. Two years ago I bought a Garmin 76C handheld to improve my skills as the Navigator. The first time I used it while motorcycling, I was blown away. That little moving dot on the map screen was US on the ROAD. Wow! And hey, I can look up where the next gas station is. Cool! This device represents a particularly powerful form of technological presence that is mostly fabulous.

Say we’re riding over a curvacious mountain pass and we get caught behind a pack of slow moving Harley’s. (Sadly this happens all too often.) Well I can zoom into our location and discover that after two more curves is a long straight-away. Reporting this to the Captain allows her to relax her passing vigilance a bit, knowing the opportunity will come soon enough. (We passed 7 in one fell swoop last Friday. If only the Harley boys knew that two ladies were zooming by… )

Another great use is tracking mileage and distances for our rather weeny fuel tank capacity. Since the bike has no fuel gauge it’s up to us to keep track of when to fuel up again. It’s fabulous to be able to see that the next town is precisely 35.67 miles away.

But as anyone who has used a GPS long will tell you, don’t rely too heavily on the Garmin mapSource in data. This is true for both directions (turn left on Miller St. Ooops – it’s a one way!) and for looking up services like gas stations and Starbucks. (Ooops – that Starbucks was actually on Columbia DRIVE not Columbian WAY.) The weirdest part of the GPS’s inaccuracies is how it challenges you to override your human senses and believe the technology, putting faith into a machine over human intelligence and intuition. It took me about a year of using one to stop trusting the device when my perceptions were telling me otherwise.

What I do now is look up a lot of information on the web and program it into the GPS before leaving on a trip. Thus I discovered an incredible little coffee house in the tiny town of Harlowton, Montana and was able to guide us to it — as the GPS had no data what so ever about this part of the state. But since you can’t know in advance what all your needs will be in all locations at all times — one can text message Google (46645) and request a search. For example: “Missoula, MT Starbucks.” A few moments later a text message from Google provides the locations of two Starbucks and I had time to program one into the GPS in transit, guiding us to the correct spot. This technique, although cumbersome for using two devices, is much more trustworthy and accurate then Garmin’s MapSource. (Which didn’t show either Starbucks.)

That is — as long as your in cell range. 😉

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Designing Presence: The many problems with Garmin’s GPS ecosystem

I’ve been using a Garmin 76CS handheld GPS for two years for motorcycle touring. For the kind of riding we do, which is a on lot smaller highways and roads, the interstate only mapping software pre-installed on the GPS is not sufficient. Garmin currently has a sweet business model in charging another $150 for a CD of comprehensive mapping data. They release a new CD every two years or so and — as far as I know — offer no upgrade discount to owners of the previous version. The moment the CD is released it’s out of date. Change is happening every day, but data on a disc is fixed in time the moment the CD is burned, packaged and distributed.

To plan a route using the City Select data, Garmin provides “MapSource” software. It is some of the most frustrating software I have ever used. My initial trip planning process is done online using Google or Yahoo maps and various web sites to determine travel distances, motels, highway construction, fuel stops, etc. These online mapping tools are easy and intuitive (and google maps just got easier because it now allows you to drag and relocate a travel path). They require no user instructions. They just work.

Contrast this to building a trip with MapSource. The software is an unintuitive frustrating mess. Something as simple as routing a day’s journey turns into a 20 minute time suck because I can’t figure out how to “end” the route. One would think clicking on “new route” and then clicking the motel’s address from the previous nights route would initiate a new route from that location. But several times I got to the end of the the “new route” only to see that somehow these miles were added to the previous days route. So instead of having two routes of 300 miles, I had one route of 600. Why? It just shouldn’t be hard for the user to define one route from another. This is one example of at least 10 simple flaws in the user interface of this software. Garmin, did you perform any usability testing before releasing this product? Or do you just expect me to use the owners manual each time? I read it last year and the year before, but I shouldn’t have to read it a third time. I don’t have to with Google. It just works. It’s easy.

I can’t wait for GPS technology to become standard on cell phone. I can’t wait for the day that I can save the route I just built on Google maps on my desktop or laptop, then access the route through my cell phone using mobile Google maps and GPS. Want to know if there’s a Starbucks nearby? Yes, I can do that using my current Garmin 76CS and the $150 City Map data, but it’s out of date. Starbucks may have built 3 new stores since the CD was released. With my GPS enabled cell phone, I’ll be able to do a web search for Starbucks, click a map link and have the GPS lock in to the data point and guide me there — relevent information in an easy format for me to use literally on the fly. Ready for a motorcycle break and want to know if there’s a park nearby? Garmin breaks that kind of data into a category that seems to be mostly populated with churchs and schools. The day will come when I’ll be able to do a Google seach (or use some other cool mobile software) for a local park, get the location via Google maps and again, have my cell phone GPS guide me there. When that day comes — and my guess is we’re a couple of years away — Garmin’s business model is going to undergo a serious hit on several fronts. They won’t be able to hide behind badly designed software any longer, they won’t be able to charge ridiculous sums for aggregating data onto a CD, and come to think of it, they probably won’t be able to charge $400 for a hand held device that only accesses proprietary data either. Did I say I can’t wait?