Google Nav (review on!) and the importance of voice

Just in case you missed it, my review of Google Maps Navigation went up on the Sun-Times site on Friday:

My verdict? I liked it a lot. It’s not a great navigation app, but it’s a good one. And as a free download or an app that comes pre-installed on your phone, it defines the minimum number of features and minimum level of usability that all commercial GPS systems must have from this point onward. Even if you don’t use it yourself, you’ll benefit from its presence in the marketplace.

(Assuming that Google Maps Navigation doesn’t drive all commercial GPS apps out of business. Which it won’t.)

My biggest complaint about the app is the voice it uses for the turn-by-turn directions. It’s utterly horrifying. It’s flat and robotic and it mispronounces things like crazy. I quickly went from “what was that?” to “what the **** was that?!?” and often, I had to look at the screen to find out just to figure out what my next turn was supposed to be.

Worst, it’s painful to listen to. An hour or two of driving actually left me with a headache. No adjustment of volume in the Droid phone or my car stereo could help this voice any. The only solution was to turn the damned feature off completely.

It’s not really the Google Nav team’s fault. It relies on the built-in speech synthesis of the handset the app is running on. And apparently, whoever did the speech system of the Android 2.0 OS never bothered to actually listen to its output.

(“Why bother?” he said, tapping an enormous spreadsheet with one hand while gesturing towards the Ph.D on his wall with the other. “The math says that this voice sounds exactly like Kathleen Turner in ‘Romancing The Stone’. You can’t argue with numbers.”)

It ignores a crucial lesson of software and hardware design. The closer a feature is to the user, the more important it is. As the developer of a new word processor, you might be very proud of a feature that highlights phrases like “…you lying, two-faced, pigeon-toed sock-knocking dwit-wad” and suggests softer language. But it shouldn’t be buried inside a pane inside a dialog under the “tools” menu. Unless there’s a nice button in the toolbar labeled “Extend Career…” your work was a complete waste of time.

The speech system in Google Maps Navigation is technically more informative than that of my favorite iPhone app, Motion-X GPS. Motion-X will tell you “Turn right in 200 feet.” Google Nav says “In 200 feet, turn right onto Washington Street.”

Ah, but it’ll be “Washing-STONE Street.” And I probably won’t even hear it because I would have turned the sound off to prevent me from twisting the steering wheel and crashing into the closest bridge abutment. An expensive move, but far less painful than listening to Google Nav’s voice.

Motion-X is sweet, soothing, mellifluous.

“Thank you, Magic Voice,” I say, after a contented little sigh.

On paper, it’s inferior. But in practice, it’s absolutely better than Google Nav. It’s a primary means of interaction between the software and the user. It’s an area in which “limited features DONE EXACTLY RIGHT” is better than “more features, executed in a half-assed manner.”

I’m catching up on Project Runway as I write this. I know that I would pay good money for a Tim Gunn GPS voice module. When you’re late for an appointment and tearing though a complex tangle of streets you’ve never seen before, what you want most of all is something that’s supportive, encouraging, optimistic, and helpful. That’s Tim Gunn, down to the leather soles of his simple but stylish shoes.


“I love the fact that you’re a risk-taker. But you’ve sort of lost me here. Can I offer some advice, which you’re free to ignore? I’d proceed 200 feet, then take a right onto Moody Street. …All right? I’ll let you get to it. I have _complete_ confidence in you…”

Yes, these lines were all taken verbatim from the past ten minutes of the show.

If Tim Gunn can’t record a custom voice for my GPS app, can I at least pay him a retainer to simply call me every week on Deadline Day, and ask me how the work is going?

Posted via email from ihnatko’s posterous