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How to give directions the scientific way

Somebody just stopped you on the street, asking for directions. Most likely you’d give them without thinking twice, but there are compelling reasons to do just that. Recent scientific studies have revealed that some ways of giving wayfinding instructions are not only preferred by people but also help them reach their destination faster.

Alycia Hund, a Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University, has studied the relative merits of two different strategies for wayfinding. One is known as the route perspective, in which the listener is given landmarks and left/right turns to follow in the instructions.

A second strategy is the survey perspective. Unlike route instructions, in which you attempt to describe how the listener will move through an environment, survey instructions are akin to looking at a map. They employ the cardinal directions of north, south, east and west, plus distances measured in miles or city blocks.

To test which strategy was more effective, Hund enlisted participants to navigate a complex university basement. They used seven different wayfinding descriptions, which varied in the amount of route and survey directions they contained.

Overall, there was a clear preference. “The route directions received higher ratings when we asked people to rate which of these directions were more or less effective,” she explains.

Participants following route descriptions also got there quicker, because they made fewer errors. “People don't so much get completely lost or make a bunch of wrong turns but they just hesitate, slow down and look around,” says Hund.

Descriptions containing more detail also tended to be rated more highly by the study participants. However, long descriptions could tax the part of our memory that deals with spatial relationships between objects – the so-called ‘visuospatial’ working memory.


The cardinal points of a compass are generally less favoured than instructions peppered with left/right turns and landmarks The cardinal points of a compass are generally less favoured than instructions peppered with left/right turns and landmarks


“If you don't have written directions, or they're not being spoken out of your device, the directions can’t be too long because then you’ll forget the whole thing. It’s because, as you're trying to figure out how to find your way, you're also trying to plan ahead and think what the environment is going to look like,” explains Hund.

And it seems that giving long descriptions is what we automatically do if we’re trying to find something that’s hard to find. This was the finding of research by the University of Edinburgh’s Alasdair Clarke and his colleagues into the influence of ‘visual salience’ – a measure of how much an object stands out from its surroundings.

They took pictures from the famously cluttered ‘Where's Wally?’ books and asked volunteers to describe how to find a particular character – not Wally himself - in two different scenes. In one of the pictures the target was much easier to spot. This character represented a ‘simple stimulus’, says Clarke.

“On simple stimuli, people use fewer words to describe the target person, and for more complicated images they use more. We also found that as people give longer descriptions, they include more things that aren't the target. If I want to give you a long description of how to find my house, which is quite difficult to find, I won't actually spend very long talking about my house. I'll spend most time telling you how to find a nearby landmark, which is easier for you to find.”


A follow-up study looked at the order in which people placed words in a description. “If I assume that you know what the object is, or who a person is, I might start my sentence with that. For example, ‘President Obama has a dog named Bo’ would be more normal than saying ‘Bo is a dog owned by President Obama’, because when I start the sentence you've got no idea what Bo is until I mention the famous person,” says Clarke.

“In the follow-up paper, we showed that visual saliency has the same effect. If the target itself is quite easy to find they will start with the target and only mention the landmark afterwards, whereas if the landmark is more salient they're more likely to mention that first,” he says.

Following these descriptive rules speeded up attempts to find the target by around 10 per cent, says Clarke. “All the expressions used were quite simple - you didn't actually need the landmark to be mentioned at all to find the target quite quickly. But even then, you still find the target faster when you mention the landmark first, provided that the landmark is visually salient and you mention both things.”

So what else might have an impact on the directions you give? It seems that where you live might have something to do with it too. Alycia Hund teamed up with colleagues in the Netherlands for a study that revealed cultural differences between the ways Americans and the Dutch prefer to navigate.

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“That work used a model town and we asked them to give directions to someone looking at a map, and give directions to someone driving through. In the Midwest US sample, the cardinal descriptors [N, S, E, W] were higher overall. In the Dutch study they give more left-rights and landmarks when asked to give driving directions but they very rarely used cardinal directions at all - even though there was a compass rose in the corner of the map.”

The reason may be that we’re used to different kinds of cities, says Hund. “Of course we’re making broad comparisons, but the layout and naming conventions of streets are very different. In the midwestern US, property boundaries were laid out straight along north, south, east and west. Lots of cities did that as well, with straight streets on grids that go on for a long way. In the Netherlands you have much more complex property boundaries and streets meander and curve. The same road may have different street names along different segments,” she says.

So given all the science, how can you give perfect directions? Communication is the key, believes Hund. “You need to know how familiar they are with the environment, the strategy they prefer, and what kind of spatial skills they have. Some of our work showed that people who report a better sense of direction slightly tend towards survey cues - cardinal directions, distances and so on - because they have an integrated sense of where they are and can keep track of their location relative to that.”

For people with a lower a sense of direction, the compass points are best avoided. “They don't necessarily know which way to turn when they come out of a parking garage or a mall. They just look at you cross-eyed if you give them directions like ‘Go south on Main Street’ - they just sort of panic!”

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