Way-finding is one of my pets. Actually, way-finding and the concepts of space and place in information space are, but that sounds a bit pompous, so let's stick to way-finding.
Now, way-finding tries to understand how we are able to walk around and make sense of the surrounding environment, remember paths, places, and generally know where we can fetch that tasty sandwich or how to avoid a gangsta neighborhood. It has its roots in urban studies, cognitive psychology, the environmental sciences, and psychology: first applied by Kevin Lynch in the Sixties to understand the way we experience urban landscapes, way-finding is an important piece of the theories which try to unravel the complex relationship we entertain with digital interfaces, navigation in virtual environments, and the Web.
I had a chance to do some research-related traveling during the Summer, and I happened to be in Cambridge, UK, for a whole week-end, so I played tourist big time. I took a lot of pictures, visited all the right places (and if you are there with kids, do not miss the Sedgwick Museum), ate in a half a dozen bad restaurants. The city is beautiful, albeit so stuffed up with Italians that at times it looks and sounds like the Riviera.
Anyway, I walked a lot. Being always the resourceful kind of guy, I had a foldable paper map with me all of the time: Cambridge is a medieval city, has plenty of monumental buildings at its center, and although the river Cam makes it even more interesting with bridges and all it did not help the laying down of a regular grid: Cambridge is your classic web of turning, winding streets. While cruising St. John's Street I walked into this map:
Map of Cambridge, details
I looked at it, and ladies and gentlemen I got completely lost. I didn't recognize the city it depicted. I knew it had to be Cambridge (of course it had to, who would place a map of Exeter there. That is, except me and Søren, possibly), but couldn't make any sense of it. I wasn't drunk, I wasn't low on sugars, and I'm pretty good at maps: I just couldn't read it. I was puzzled for the good part of five minutes, then I got it.
Now, before we solve the mystery for you as well, a description and a few pedantic notes are necessary. Indulge me. The map per se is your pretty normal, standard street map. It's in a visible, accessible place, and large enough to be readable even from a few steps away. Typefaces, colors, wording, icons, everything is neither particularly visionary nor plain wrong. It lists major monumental buildings and places, facilities, parkings, and throws in a few directional arrows for top-of-the-list locations from there (top of the picture).
And that's interesting, since this is actually the kind of 'You are here' map everyone loves, but it adds a little signage. For the technically inclined among you, this is a so-called YAH map, category 4, tools which demonstrate the surrounding environment, with some category 5 addition thrown in.
Let's see. For the not-yet-bored-to-death, the full list of way-finding tools goes like this: 1. tools that display the user's current position, say LORAN, a radio-navigation system; 2. tools that display the user's orientation, such as compasses; 3. tools that log the user's movement, for example the traditional captain's log aboard a ship; 4. tools which show the user's surrounding environment, like maps; 5. guided navigation systems, like GPS and signage.
Now, one of the principles good YAH maps rely on is called structure matching. It can be defined as the need to pair known points in the environment with those on the map, and it can be even more easily described as what you do when you turn around your map to align it with what you currently see from your point of view. Unfortunately, this really works when you either have a kind of false perspective map, like an isometric projection, or when you align the map to some emergent visible feature, easily recognizable on the spot. That makes sense, as I love my maps close to important landmarks, and I love to be able to look at the map and project it easily and directly over what I see.
Map of Cambridge
Not the case here: the map is a standard aerial view, very map-like, and it's placed in a totally non-meaningful place. No emergent landmarks I can align to. But it applies local structure matching: if you take a closer look at the picture, you will see that in the lower right-end corner you have a neat arrow pointing North. East. Sorry, North, it says, but that is actually East is the normal cognitive map of geographic space.
Once I noticed that, and after subduing a sudden urgency to kick the panel hard, I was able to turn the map ninety degrees left in my mind and I started to go like “Now, here you are. Well, of course. Queen's College, indeed, and there's...” and then everything fell into place. What I experienced is well known in way-finding literature, and is commonly described as being turned around, a rather unpleasant feeling for sure. When relying on maps and not on direct observation it gets even worse, as spatial knowledge derived from them is normally orientation-specific and its even more easier to get lost.
All in all, this made for a very bad user experience. Since there was no emergent feature, a landmark to which I could immediately align the map and no graphical aid except for that small, unnatural East-pointing North pointer to tell me I needed to rotate, I read the map as we do with all maps, figuring North was up. This immediately threw me off, and I got lost.
Now, before you say that, the real issue I have with this is to see how someone obviously cared for this map but then blew it royally by not using simple common-sense: why not simply locate the map somewhere else, pointing North, leave defaults to be defaults, and have happier users? There, fixed it for you.