From a NYT article by Julia Frankenstein arguing that relying on narrative GPS for navigation ("turn left 1/4 mile") can atrophy your ability to remember maps of your city:
In one experiment, I had 26 residents of Tübingen, Germany, navigate a three-dimensional model of their hometown by wearing head-mounted displays. My team and I asked them to point to well-known locations around town not visible from their current perceived position.
Varying their viewing direction — facing north, facing east — we then assessed their pointing error. All participants performed best when facing one particular direction, north, and the pointing error increased with increasing deviation from north. In other words, by using knowledge gained from navigation to link their perceived position to the corresponding position on a city map, participants could easily retrieve the locations from their memory of city maps — which, after all, are typically oriented north.
To a spatial navigator like me, this is obvious. But the sample must have included at least a few narrative navigators, people who prefer to navigate with directions rather than maps, and even these people have a sense of north that organizes their understanding of the city.
A great deal of navigational technology is designed and focus-grouped with people who don't like to think with maps. Hertz's Neverlost GPS, for example, no longer allows me to pin north to the top of a map, as earlier versions did. Instead the map rotates crazily every time I turn, which helps orient to my line of sight but undermines my ability to relate the map to any larger understanding of the city. I understand that many people prefer the map to be oriented to their point of view, but in fact, we still seem to need the map with north at the top, because as Ms.Frankenstein showed, people have a better sense of what's where when facing that way.
All this comes back, as it often does, to transit maps. Often it seems like transit maps are designed by people who don't like maps as information, though they may appreciate them as design. But maps are still important. Spatial navigators like me can't navigate without them, and even narrative navigators have them in their brains, with a north-arrow.