In the rush to reach ultimate optimization, navigation and map apps have become invisible; blended into all forms of digital interfaces from our phones to our cars and watches. 

These tiny assistants are perpetually helping us get from one place to another in the fastest way possible, using sophisticated algorithms to tell us whether it’s better to hop on a train, catch a bus, call a taxi, have a quick cycle, or simply walk. All of them serve the ultimate goal of route optimization, so humans can spend less time on the journey and more time, basically, elsewhere. 

And the world is hooked on them. Navigation and maps are among the most popular apps worldwide, with Google Maps ranked as the 8th most-used app in both the UK and the US.

But do people actually want ever greater efficiency?

We’re all busy and stressed and short on time, and we want apps to give us what we want, when we want it. However, let's not forget that humans are also curious beings. People want to explore and wander, particularly when they’re in a new place and sometimes a bit of friction is a welcome distraction.

By prioritizing optimization and ignoring their central purpose as the intersection point between the digital and real world, these apps have overlooked their potential to really influence our daily lives by going beyond straightforward, pure navigation. 

Heading out for a half-day car trip to your hotel in a new place? Why not take the most beautiful  route? Decided to skip the train and head home, on foot, on the hottest day of the year? How about picking a path that keeps you cool in the shade?  Got an extra hour to spare? Why not go for the route that takes you past the most parks or pubs? Or the one that's farthest from the hustle and bustle of traffic?

Whether it’s Google Maps, Waze, Moovit or Apple Maps, navigation apps have a problem: they’re all the same. It’s a problem from a brand point of view, because there’s barely anything to distinguish the service they offer, and it’s a problem from a usability point of view, because none of them offer an enjoyable or compelling experience. By optimizing for efficiency, these apps have lost their soul. They’ve become wallpaper. 

The shift from navigation to exploration

So why isn’t efficiency the answer? Just think about the rapid transformation of our digital-world navigation tool – the thing we all call "the browser”.

What was originally designed for taking you from one place to another on the internet has evolved into our operating system for the web, allowing us not only to navigate but to explore the unknown – often without knowing where we're headed. It’s an example that underscores a vital aspect of human nature: our quest for exploration is about more than just efficiency, and that raises a bigger question about what efficiency entails.

With the advent of technology and recent innovations in XR, such as the Apple Vision Pro, we are poised to see a rapid evolution in mixed reality experiences that will encourage navigation apps to reconsider their approach to user experience, uncovering hidden interaction opportunities and encouraging us to focus more on the road and less on the app itself. 

The race toward fully autonomous cars also promises to revolutionize our travel experiences. These vehicles will liberate us from driving, allowing us more time to enjoy the journey and offering a new travel experience where navigation apps are seamlessly integrated, and transparent to users. These cars will understand our route preferences, schedules, personalities and even moods.And it's only a matter of time before our vehicle navigates us to the best views of a breathtaking sunset, making slight detours along the way to keep us calm and relaxed.

So, will we witness the emergence of a new generation of map apps that blend navigation with emotional interaction? Considering our natural human instinct for exploration and discovery, it’s just a matter of time. The question is, which product will take the fastest path to our hearts?