The case for ad-hoc usability of GPS units?

Have been using my Garmin Nuvi 370 for more than a year now. Of course within a few months after I bought it the price dropped by almost half. One of things that made me choose it over the widescreen models that were available at that time is the fact that it has both North American and European maps. But I am yet to use it in Europe and probably never will! It is a decent GPS unit with a set of reallly useful features. But I keep having some serious usability issues.

My gripes are not probably specific to 370. It probably applies to most units that are out there. If some other GPS units can deal with the following issues better, I would love to know about them.

I often find myself in situations, often in areas I am generally familiar with, where I need to do some ad-hoc search. The reason this problem arise in familiar areas because in such areas I usually don’t plan a trip before leaving home and it is in those situaions that the need for ad-hoc mode seems to arise more often.

Let us say we are driving to the mall on a Saturday and along the way we decided we would like to go some recommended restaurant, that we have never been to, for lunch. So I whip out the Nuvi from the glove compartment and hook it up and put it on the dashboard without having to take my eyes off the road.

Now choosing to look for a restaurant is fairly straight forward from the built in menu if that is what does the job for you. But the challenges I often run into is by default the unit looks for places around my current location. So I would typically need to do two things.

  • Change the search location.
  • Seach by name

Search by name would mean I would have to type in the letters and to change the “Near..” setting I would have to type the name of town, state etc. If I just type the name of the restaurant and ignore changing the “Near..” setting because it involves more steps, the unit goes into this never ending search mode which can take really really long before coming back with a location not found message.

One part of the solution would obviously be to use Automatic speech recognition, assuming it will work over the noise of my 14 year old Civic. That would eliminate the typing part. I guess I need to shell out some big bucks for a Nuvi 880 for that.

The other part of the solution would be to have a search algorithm that expands out from my current location. Either it is done automatically or by asking me for some easy cues instead of me having to navigate through a complex menu selection and typing process. It could ask me for the approximate radius to use for the search, for example.

I do not know if some of the newer GPS units like Dash allows me to do that. I know fiddling with a GPS unit while driving is not a good thing. But often in real world situation it is hard to plan everything before you leave and it is not always easy to pull off the highway to plot your path to nirvana.

Usability of GPS units, particularly in ad-hoc situations, in my opinion should be one of the more important criteria for designing and buying a unit; specially as these things become more and more common. This has also been the source of my gripe about the GPS on my mobile phone. I have not used an iPhone and so I can’t comment on its GPS usability. But on  an otherwise excellent device like my E71, the buttons, menus, screens are so small for a GPS application that unless you map your plan of attack before your leave home or you are strolling through a city, it is virtually impossible to use it for real world usecases.

Do not know if it is just me who has these problem or everybody else just gets used to the limitations.

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