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?

Designing Presence: Mobile Weather and the N75

Yesterday I discovered just how useful having a solid connect to the “real web” can be. My partner and I were riding back to Seattle from the Methow Valley in north central Washington. We were about to head up the gorgeous North Cascades Highway (which summits at 5477 feet) and were wondering about rain gear. I went to Accuweather.com and shrieked with glee to see that I could access doppler radar images with my Nokia N75. With a couple of clicks, I could see visuals of the cloud activity in western and central Washington — and make an informed choice about the rain gear (unneeded until the other side of the pass.) Later I was able to discern quite accurately that the rain in Darrington, WA would end before we hit Lynnwood. This kind of real-time specificity is amazing when one is moving through the landscape, exposed to the elements.

The REAL mobile web is here.

Designing mobile presence: Customizing my Nokia N75

Since I last posted I’ve learned more about my Nokia N75. Like any new technology system, there’s a learning curve. I tend to take mine slowly, answering questions as they arise rather then, say, reading the owner’s manual from front to back. Today I was cursing that I had no control over access to my most favorite apps – that I had to do the same repetitive drilling every time I wanted to open gmail. Then I thought to check the owners manual and voila – turns out that there’s “an idle screen” mode, turned off by default (so you wouldn’t know it existed) and accessible only by drilling deep into the settings and configurations menu. This mode allows you to place 6 items in a little bar at the top of your idle (home) screen for one-click access. Cool! Later I also discovered I could change the default soft key shortcuts from “messagaging” and “MEdia Net” to my choice. OK – that’s cool too, but many users will never figure this stuff out because the settings are buried so deep.

Speaking of owner’s manuals, I discovered that the S60 web browser feature — the one that took me days to find — was also mentioned in the owner’s manual. Unfortunately, you had to stumble upon it, just as you have to on the actual device. There are two entries for “web” in the index and neither discusses the S60 browser. Likewise, the on screen help was useless. The key factor in both places was (somehow) understanding that the browser was located in a folder called “tools.” This is a seminal problem with hierarchical menu systems; functional pieces of technology are divided into applications, actions, settings, features, etc. and then lumped together into categories that are often not intuitive or even clearly descriptive. The current mobile UI is wedded to hierarchical menus due partly to screen limitations, but more to deeply rooted interaction paradigms. I think the iPhone will blow the paradigm to pieces. Bring it on.

Now that I’m understanding my phone multimedia computer better, it’s starting to become a pleasure to own. I love that I have one click access to my RSS feeds via google reader. Waiting in line for a latte becomes an opportunity to do a little reading. Checking the weather while motorcycling is now one click away as well, instead of a clumsy drilling process. (That would’ve been helpful two weeks ago when we were heading into severe wind in Central Washington.) I’ve yet to use the camera or video recorder much, nor listen to music, but I’ll probably venture into that territory soon. And I’m eager to try out nuTsie the new service that lets you “access your entire iTunes music library from your cell phone.” Glad I didn’t bother to download any of my own files into the device.

Designing mobile presence: The Nokia N75 and the web

I don’t use my cell phone for voice nearly as much as I use it for internet access. About a year ago I was ready to update my then two year old Samsung cell phone for many reasons; one was because it couldn’t run java applications. After working at Vulcan on the FlipStart for a year, I’d knew it was possible to access real time traffic and bus information, view rss feeds, gmail and and google maps, or run an app called Widsets (basically widgets for a mobile device), but you needed a phone capable of java. I also wanted a robust browser and was not impressed with what I’d demo’d on the Blackberry, the Trio and other cellular devices.

Sometime last year Nokia’s Symbian 60 (mobile OS) came out with a cool new browser that received rave reviews for it’s ability to display full size websites that could be selectively zoomed. I had fond memories of the Nokia UI from my first cell phone many moons ago and had read enough to believe they had the best UI currently available. I really hated the Samsung UI and hadn’t seen anything better on other brands of phones. Unfortunately, none of the US providers were offering S60 devices at that time and didn’t feel comfortable buying an unlocked phone that wasn’t supported through a carrier. So I waited. I’m good at that.

In January the iPhone buzz began. Apple was redefining the user interface for a mobile device. The product was stunning. So although I was still waiting for a US carrier to offer a S60 device, I briefly considered buying an iPhone six monthes hence. The thing is, I never buy the first generation of anything – especially something as revolutionary as the iPhone. I’d much rather let the early adaptors blow the big bucks on the first gen device while I wait for the bugs to get fixed and the price to come down.

Finally word came down in April that Cingular the new AT&T was offering the Nokia N75. This was precisely the phone I wanted. And since Cingular had a five year lock on the iPhone, I could rationalize the two year contract, as I can switch to the iPhone next year. So I bought the N75 for a sweet $150 from Wirefly.com

I’m now three weeks into my experience with the phone. And although I do think the UI is far superior to my three year old Samsung, I’m sadly not blown away. I’ll provide one example for this post with more observations to follow.

It took me DAYS to locate the S60 browser.

Cingular places MEdia Net, their internet portal, on the top level screen via a softkey. The UI for their service is – well – uninspired and clunky, with a design that looks straight out of 2002 (and that’s generous.) Their goal, one assumes, is to keep you in a walled garden of content — not really let you explore the wild world of the web where their chances of monetization are greatly reduced.

So where was the GOOD browser – the one that would burst me free of mobile web constraints? Nokia has about 12 categories in their top level menu. One is called “Games and Apps”, and that’s where Gmail landed when I downloaded it so you might think it would live in there. Nope. I finally stumbled across a link called “Web” in a folder called “Tools” There’s nothing to suggest this web link is any different from the Cingular MEdia Net link as the icon is exactly the same, so imagine my surprise when it indeed launched a new browser with the S60 zoom capabilities. Days after desiring and searching for this well touted feature, I’d finally FOUND it.

What’s wrong with this picture? The primary driver for my purchase took my hours to find. And I WANTED to find it. The user guide didn’t tell me where to find it. An hour’s worth of research online didn’t tell me where to find it. Cingular’s website didn’t tell me where to find it. I had to stumble across it and take a stab after having already taken many other stumbling stabs that hadn’t found a target. This experience did nothing to enamour me to either the new AT&T (there, I said it) or Nokia. While I would love to build some brand loyalty to a manufactor and/or a carrier, it hasn’t happened yet.

More observations to come.