Why Maps are Better than Directions

Full Disclosure: I hate getting directions. I have a hard time processing them especially if they include irrelevant information “Pass the McDonald’s on the right and keep going.” I prefer maps so that I can understand where I’m going. I always chalked it up to personal preference but as I’ve been learning about the learning process, I see that there is a fundamental difference between maps and directions that has broad implications in instructional design.

When I taught technology, people would always ask for step by step directions and resist my efforts to explain to them the big picture. Then they would get frustrated by not being able to transfer their knowledge to the next technical challenge they faced.

When you get directions, you are receiving information without context or a framework to process or adapt it. When you look at a map, you learn where you are going. If there is a change in the topography like a detour or if there was a mistake in the directions, there is no way to adapt. The directions become useless immediately. By using a map, however, you gain an understanding about the relationship between the elements of the landscape and it is much easier to adapt to changing conditions or to explore new areas.

The language of maps is easily readable by people from all cultures. The symbols efficiently hold a tremendous amount of data in an economical space without any loss of clarity. It is possible that our brains evolved over the millennia to have a spatial understanding of information in order to help our ancestors find food and shelter. Reading maps comes naturally to most people…but not all.

Because directions do not require effort to process, I think they are more attractive than maps for people who are not invested in deciphering a map. I imagine that linear thinkers are not comfortable with maps. I would like to hear from others on this, since I am a visual thinker and non-linear.

A lot of eLearning looks more like directions and less like maps. “Page-turners” are eLearning modules where the learner clicks through pages of bulleted text one after another with no visual map to show how the concepts relate to each other. Interactivity is produced by the “slow reveal” where the user clicks the mouse to expose each text element on a page as if they could not be counted on to read the text in an orderly fashion. Maps are the ultimate in interactivity. Since they are not linear, the user must navigate the elements of the map themselves to achieve their goals. eLearning that used a map motif would be much more engaging. I would be interested in seeing examples of this.


One thought on “Why Maps are Better than Directions

  1. Pingback: Google Maps: The Ideal Performance Support | Adam Weisblatt: Creating Understanding

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