Micro-interventions to augment spatial awareness in urban navigation




This project is a by-product of finding fascination in the details of the seemingly ordinary things in day to day life that often go unnoticed or simply taken for granted. To me, maps and navigation systems are one of those.

In the recent years, navigation apps have risen to such a degree of omnipresence, that we rarely go about a day without consulting them. Embodying some of the simplest user experiences, these apps have made finding our way around in cities easier than it was ever before. However, our constant dependence on them evokes a rather uncertain future for our own abilities to navigate urban environments.

Through this project, I attempted to probe the relationship between this technology and the people who use it. Instead of proposing a singular final solution to a particular problem, my approach has been exploratory. I investigated a range of methods and exercises that help in harnessing our spatial knowledge and eventually translated them into a few simple interventions for the existing tech so that they can be just a little more human-centric.








Designing a navigation experience that integrates the users existing knowledge of the city, and concurrently support learning of the environment.


Part 1



There are two key strategies that we employ when navigating spaces:

Direction based strategy : Also known as sequence based strategy, this involves the ability to remember and repeat a sequence of steps, like  'take a left at the gas station.. take a right after the bridge' and so on.

Spatial mapping strategy: This involves the understanding of how the various parts of the city are distributed and organised with respect to each other.

When we chose to follow the turn by turn navigation instructions, it reinforces mostly the direction based strategy. As a result, keeping us from learning about the configuration of the space around us. 

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Taking a closer look at the design of navigation applications, a few interaction elements are to be noticed:


ℹ️  Google Maps has been used as a point of reference for this study, but a lot of the characteristics are common across major navigation apps.


The Keyhole Effect
While recent smartphones have larger screens, there is still a limitation to the amount of information that can be displayed, without the risk of losing readability.  Most navigation apps use zoomed-in, detail views that show only a small portion of the user’s immediate environment, in city terms, we can call it approximates to two blocks ahead of the user and two blocks behind. This affordance is detrimental towards building an overall survey map of the city.  


" …with Google Maps you cannot see the whole space - you are like a blinkered horse. "

Mahesh Bharpilania, 52, visiting Denmark with family





Blue dot dependency
The integration of the blue dot indicating the users real time location has been by far one of the most important elements of a digital map. But it is also a double edged sword. 

The resulting behaviour out of this is that the blue dot for the users location and the blue line indicating the users route becomes the only parameter that the user needs to be aware of. “As long as my arrow on the blue line, I am fine”. This dependence — for determining one’s location and for ensuring they are on the route, removes any need for the user to observe and map their environment.  


"We did try using a paper map, but the challenge is to find where on the map are you…the blue dot is the most important thing in Google Maps"

Jake 27, exchange student at CBS




Navigation is a very subjective experience and I was curious to learn how people perceive urban geographies around them. So, I invited 16 of my classmates for a short workshop to see how each of them expressed their experience of a space. Our class had recently spent two weeks in Porto for an industry project, and using that experience as our common ground I conducted the workshop. My participants were asked to draw their mental map from our hostel to a snack bar that was a favourite amongst practically every one.


Workshop: Draw your mental maps of Porto

 The Prompt : “If you had to give someone the directions from our hostel to the St Antonio bar, how would you draw them?”



🔎 Key finding 1 : 
Attributing Landmarks

Across everyone’s mental maps, one common attribute was the indication of landmarks throughout the route. Either the square, the empanada shop, or the stairs to the inner town. This made it apparent that the landmarks were key in expressing how people perceived space and interpreted the relationship between different places.



🔎 Key finding 2 :
Allocentric vs Egocentric


Another observation in the sketches was the orientation that one of the participants had drawn the map in. While most of the sketches were rendered with the river at the bottom (accurate to the map's north oriented rendering), a few sketches used a different orientation. While perplexing at first, I realised that these were drawn from an ego centric perspective; where the geography was oriented about the hostel and the originating from the direction in which they got out the entrance.




The relative locations of landmarks and the person’s frame of reference play a key role in shaping one’s understanding of the geography. 

Landmarks is to do with topographic relationships (distance and direction) Frame of reference is to do with direction/orientation. 


Part 2




Fuzzy Map : Encouraging a consistent frame of reference

How often have we noticed others or ourselves rotating the map to make it align with the direction of travel? While doing so make’s it easier on our cognition to think of directions aligned with our perspective (egocentric), doing so does not contribute towards our mental map of the space around us.

What if the map was visible only when it is aligned towards one direction?

This prototype reads the compass direction of the phone, and hides or reveals the map depending on which way it's facing. In order to view the map, the user has to align the phone towards north to view the map. On turning away, the map progressively fades out. The interaction ensures that a constant frame of reference is used every time the user refers a map. This concept looks to embed a subtle nudge within the map application to encourage appropriate usage. 




I-spy : Building configurational relationships through a game

“I spy a yellow train, above the table!”. The children’s game i-spy is  a great activity to help kid’s recognise and express the space and spatial relationships around them.

Can the principles from a kids spatial awareness game be adopted to enable learning of one’s larger geography? 

The prototype i-spy map a minimal map of the city with a set of prompts that take into account spatial relationships. An example prompt could be, “ I-spy the church to the west of the central station” or “I-spy the harbour close to the mermaid”. The participant would have then spot the location using this cues, and place a marker on the map. 




Landmark compass: using landmarks as references for directions

When we navigate in an urban environment, we rarely refer to cardinal directions (North South East West) but rather refer to areas, districts or landmarks. 

Landmark compass is a prototype that indicates landmarks instead of cardinal directions. The goal of this prototype was to understand if a users can use references to landmarks as a means to navigate between places in a city. Tests were designed to study if landmark based navigation can be successful. Read more about the details of the tests here ↗︎




Point to the landmark : Establishing directional relationships between places

Point to the landmark is a concept where the user is asked to guess the direction of certain landmarks around them. This prototype uses the metaphor of a bow and arrow. The user long taps on the screen to receive a new target destination, and then releases the finger after pointing the phone in the direction of that destination. On release, the exact direction of the destination is indicated.  



Try the prototype on iOS ↗︎ (Copenhagen Landmarks)



Throughout the process of this project, users were brought in for testing different aspects of the exploration. Some of the tests were aimed at verifying higher level concepts such as 'how do landmarks play a role in navigation and can they be used as a reference to get around in a city', while some others were focussed on the smaller micro details such as visuals feedback and interactions.

The methods for every test varied based on the nature of the goal. Tests that were aimed at understanding how landmarks are used as reference points, a few elaborate navigation workshops lasting 70-80 minutes were carried out in 3 sq. km area of Copenhagen Centrum. 

Another test was carried out remotely with a respondent who was visiting Moscow. Since the respondent was relatively new to the city, this context was especially beneficial to verify the efficacy of one landmark awareness.



Part 3


To illustrate how some of these concepts could come to life, we can split the learning opportunities into two classes:

1. Active navigation: When a person is attempting to find his/her route from A to B. For example, the person driving a car.

2. Passive learning: When a person has no active intention of navigating to a place. For example, a person riding a bus or sitting on the back seat of a car.


A video sketch was created to illustrate the how some of the exercises and prototypes created thus far can be integrated into everyday interactions with existing navigation apps. Three different scenarios were chosen, each of which either fall under active navigation or passive learning, and appropriate interactions were illustrated. The scenarios and respective interactions are showcased via the video sketch below:




A big credit for the work that I have come up with goes to an amazing bunch people who helped me over the course of 10 weeks. 



Andrew Nip
Aram Armstrong
Blair Johnsrude
Dayna Conway
Engin Ayaz
Harsha Vardhan
Henrik Thomsen
Jesper Vestergaard
Joshua Walton

Manu Dixit
Neil Churcher
Pierluigi Dalla Rossa
Rasagy Sharma
Shruti Ramiah
Simon Herzog
Tobias Toft
Troels Andersen

& the entire IDP' 17 crew <3

Sharing 'Maps in the Mind' with visitors at the CIID '17 Exhibition   📷 Pierluigi Dalla Rossa

Sharing 'Maps in the Mind' with visitors at the CIID '17 Exhibition
📷 Pierluigi Dalla Rossa