Dear Google. You have been a trustworthy companion throughout a big part of our lives. Even when it rains you guide us home safe. You stood with us even in desperate times. Just the lack of GPS signal, battery life, or data could divide us.

You are the most used navigation application on the planet. We appreciate the effort of your creators and would like to contribute to help you understand the human being better since you have been mingling with cars lately. We would like to remind you not to forget your most valued fellows, the pedestrians.

Sometimes a short detour can make all the difference. On my way to work during an internship in New York City I used Google Maps to assist me in daily navigation situations. The new urban environment combined with tight schedules kept me walking the same routes over and over again for at least six weeks.

I realised that navigation tools nowadays don’t pay much attention to the needs of pedestrians in terms of explorative behaviour and finding alternative routes for long term walking satisfaction.

This awareness built the foundation for the project idea of Dear Google - A love letter for pedestrians.

Before we start - a huge callout to all the amazing projects which take part in the endeavour of making navigation a more human-centered process. We hope that our case study can contribute to this development with a possible approach to combine and implement those innovative ideas with the current stable built of Google Maps. (03.15.2017)

An additional special thanks to the companies providing public data and helpful tools to make this project possible.

In the following, we will address the user as "he" for readability purposes. We conceived the user as neutral in gender.

Good City Life - Happy Maps / Smelly Maps / Chatty Maps – Feinstaub selber messen
Open Street Maps
Justin O’Beirne - Google Maps and Apple Maps
MIT Senseable City Laboratory
Open Knowledge Foundation

The project theory

Through the global progression of urbanisation and populational growth more and more people live in cities. Next to this trend the amount of autonomous cars will rise in the future. There will be a shift from a heteronomous vehicle navigation use case towards a navigation concept addressing pedestrian needs. Rather than taking place inside the car this process will transform to urban navigation by foot. Common navigation applications do barely make the grade to the special pedestrian user needs.

With our concept, we want to address and improve everyday life situations in urban spaces and show a possible solution how to integrate this inside Google Maps.

Changing the focus

Current navigation patterns of Google Maps mainly focus on efficiency and there is nothing wrong with it. Going from destination A to destination B as fast as possible is probably the most common use case. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between car and pedestrian navigation. Travel speed, measurement and exposure to your environment differ a lot.

Autonomous cars knowing where to drive without the need of any interface seem to be the future of automotive mobility and could lead to a disruptive gap in the navigation sector. This is why we think that the future of navigation will shift from an automotive centred mindset to a human-centered one.

Vehicle navigation

This type is based on street navigation principles which used to be the standard type of navigation in the past. The only purpose of this type is to reach a specific destination and nothing more.
Focus on destination
Static map behaviour (no context sensitive interaction)
Locations are abstract adresses with geo-location
Navigation possible by inserting adresses

Pedestrian navigation

This type is based on places oriented navigation principles. Google Maps started to shift towards such navigation principles to match modern users needs in urban environments.
Awareness of nearby points of interest
Dynamic map behaviour (asks user if a recommended location or point of interest should be added to the route)
Locations own characteristics (meta-tags)
Possibility to explore the nearby environment by getting information on every place there is

The way we approach things

To create convincing solutions we follow a specific iterative design-thinking process. This process helps to build up a decent workflow for designing user experience based projects.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking itself is an ideology. It asserts that a user-centered approach to problem-solving can lead to innovation. This innovation can lead to a competitive advantage. To achieve this innovation a design-thinking framework consisting of six distinct phases is needed.

The design-thinking framework

The design-thinking framework is the core of the design-thinking process. It is based on three main pillars. Understand, Explore and Materialize. These pillars contain two project phases each. Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test and Implement.

Conduct research in order to develop knowledge about what the actual users do, say, think, and feel. The the ideal approach would be talking to users, observing their behaviours, actions and their environment. The the goal of Empathize is going get as much information as possible to get emotionally connected to the users.

Combine all your research and observe where your users’ problems exist. In pinpointing your users’ needs, begin to highlight opportunities for innovation. The ideal approach would be gathering all data acquired through the Empathize phase to generate insights. The goal is to find connections and parallels the users have to extract pain points all users share. This way you can identify the user needs of your target group.

Brainstorm and sketching a range of rough creative ideas of how the unmet user needs discovered in the Define phase could be addressed. Since there are no restrictions at all this phase is a lot of fun. The ideas are constantly shared and mixed to find new ones that nobody thought of beforehand.

Create interactive prototypes that evaluate if the components of your ideas collected in the Ideate phase work or not. The prototyping phase is essential to weight the impact and feasibility of ideas. This is done by testing the tactile prototypes internally or with a group of people.

Do the prototypes actually meet the user' needs? Do the prototypes improve how they feel, think, or do their tasks? To get an answer to these questions it is time to put the prototypes in front of real customers and verify if the ideas and components help to solve the users' problems.

To put the intended vision into effect it is necessary to transform the ideas into something real. It is crucial to ensure your solution touches the lives of the users. This phase can be long and difficult but if it is executed well it can transform an aspect of the user's life.

The design-thinking process is the most effective if all phases are iterated several times. It is important to re-evaluate and overthink about all things created. If a component does not quite fit it is crucial to go back to the start and build up some new ideas that improve the experience more.

The iteration process can be tedious, hard or frustrating but it is important to keep the users' needs in mind. The goal is to solve the actual user pains.

Nielsen Norman Group - Design Thinking 101 article

Characteristics of the user base

In the following, we describe how we achieved the different characteristics of the user base.
(In the Documentation.pdf at the bottom of the case study you will find each step in more detail).

Surveys and Interviews

On the way to understand what users need, want or even hate it is important to collect first data by starting a broad-ranging survey to get a rough answer to these questions. The gathered results are beneficial for the interview set-up process. Surveys help estimate which interview questions might be useful. Interviews are one of the most important tools during the user research process. They return highly detailed information about a single person and are essential in finding user pains and user needs.


All gathered insights, user pains, needs, feelings and personal information have to be embodied in fictional persons, also called Personas. These Personas help to create additional empathy by simulating real personalities.

Merging to user base

Since Google Maps is used by a vast amount of different user groups, it is necessary to cluster all Personas into a few basic user types. These types try to cover the broad range of user traits as good as possible.

ITProportal - Google Maps is the world's most popular smartphone app
Firstpost - Google Maps most used app worldwide

The Casual

Very busy in life: No priority on spending time with technology
Impatient with technology difficulties
Not interested in details behind technology
Needs an easy to use interface to get from A to B

The Explorer

Technology is not the focal point of her life
Curiosity about unknown places in the world
Tries to solve own technology problems, if needed
Not interested in details behind technology
Needs an overview of her surrounding
Wants to find new and alternative routes

The Technologist

Enthusiastic about new technology
Loves digging into new features
Solves own technology problems
High level of expertise
Needs high performance and visual appeal to be satisfied

The basic pattern of pedestrian navigation

If you want to understand and improve the way pedestrians move and navigate in urban space you have to deconstruct the navigation process into different small steps. By deconstructing the process into separate parts we understood that there are actually three main phases.

Phase one is all about the personal history of a user and his individual movement behaviour. Where has the user already been? Are there any unknown locations or places in his or her urban environment?

Phase two covers the actual navigation process itself. It consists of four steps in total. Start of navigation process, route definition, navigation to destination and arrival at destination. In this phase, the user asks himself where he wants to go and how he wants to get there.

Phase three tries to motivate the user in exploring his environment further and provides possible suggestions according to his interest.

In the following, we want to provide possible solutions to the special user needs and a deeper insight of those phases.

Possible solutions

Each of the six steps provides a variation of user pains which were examined through interviews and testing. Thereby we gained insights which we used to generate a number of possible solutions for each step. The main focus here by were steps two and three: Start of the navigation process and the route definition. Those concepts target the idea of alternative route calculation models which led to a change in the UI and flow optimization.

Information Architecture

Google Maps is a huge and complex application. To get an overview an information architecture was created. It helps to understand the different interleaved menus and levels of complexity. Each change in the UI and user flow has side effects on the overall structure and usability of the app. Therefore it’s very important where and how you implement new features and changes into this architecture.

In the following you can zoom in on several parts of the architecture to take a closer look on how we implemented our functionality into the existing structure.


Dear Google,
navigation is a highly complex process which can be examined in an overall context or by breaking it down into specific steps. There might be several different ways to address the upcoming user needs and we do not claim to have the final solution for this development. More importantly, our approach should raise awareness for possible changes in the way people will navigate and how they perceive mobility in the future. Our concept should be seen as a suggestion on how you could be more pedestrian friendly.

As the continuing development process of Google Maps shows, the application tries to adapt to those needs and is in a constant state of change. During our project period, we discovered that new features found their way into Google Maps on a regular basis to improve its overall user experience. As a result, Google Maps is already shifting to a more human-centered application and becomes more and more a map of places rather than a map for streets.

Since we know this will totally impress Google we expect job offers shortly… ;-)