Maps Usability in Google IO

I was interested to watch the Google IO video above of Designing Maps Applications for Usability on Mobile and Desktop by Luke Mahé, Jez Fletcher, Justin O’Beirne as a while back I had a go at presenting my own map design ideas to developers. The other week I said I’ve stopped critically reviewing other people’s projects but when Googlers stand up and present about map usability I think some critical discussion is deserved. Here’s some thoughts in note form:


Stuff I liked:

  • Mobile vs Desktop: I don’t do much with mobile maps so it was interesting to have the differences between mobile and desktop discussed, I liked the idea that users on the desktop are ‘planning’
  • Rendering Speed: Fast response is an integral part of the UX (user experience), I haven’t really thought about this before except for very slow rendering maps so the discussion at 21 mins in was useful.
  • Emphasising: Justin’s points about how to use the GMaps API to demphasise uneeded map elements (30mins onwards) were smart and well made. I liked his examples of both good and bad maps.
  • White roads for routes I especially liked Justin’s point about making roads white for route focussed maps (36 mins), he’s right that it emphasises the route well.

Stuff I didn’t:

  • Placemark Clustering: At 14.29 Jez and Luke promote the idea that a placemark clustering visualisation is better than not clustering points. Strictly they’re correct as it is a way of tackling the ‘too many points’ problem but I think placemark clustering is flawed and not as good as other techniques. It should be said that this is my opinion – it may be that the clustering they show is actually a very effective technique, the proof would be a user test (which I will have a student looking at later this summer). My point is you shouldn’t promote an unproven technique.
  • Walk the Walk: It would have been good if the heat map Jez and Luke presented at at 14.58 had heeded Justin’s smart advice and faded the background so the mix of colors stood out. To be fair, I guess it wouldn’t have been straight forward to do this as it was a fusion tables map visualisation rather than a straight instance of the maps API but it can’t be that difficult.
  • Missing Topics: So they covered a lot of topics but there’s a of UX things that IMHO are relevant to developers that I discussed but which failed to get a mention: Layer control, Icon design (although they did point out that you should choose useful icons rather than just use the default markers), use of color, balloon design, map copy/micro-copy and introductions.

Streetview now Captured by Tours

I was away when GEarth v6 was released but I was excited to see the pegman make it into GEarth bringing the smooth usability of streetview in GMaps into GEarth.

Others have documented the feature well but no one in the blogosphere appears to have noticed (and isn’t mentioned in the above clip) that you can now record streetview in tours too: tour of the walk from Waterloo Station to the London Eye. All you do is;

  1. record a tour in the normal way,
  2. drag and drop the pegman (orange man icon on the main screen controls) half way through to enter streetview
  3. navigate around in streetview
  4. click ‘Exit Street View’ button top left of your screen to exit street view
  5. stop the tour.
to quote a famous meerkat: ‘simples’
This has a ton of applications:
  • What better way to direct your friends to the pub?
  • Real estate (relators in US speak) adverts showing the town amenities close to their property
  • Teaching human geography
Well done Google, a smart feature all round.
Techy KML Details: GEarth 6 has spawned a new gx KML element: “gx:ViewerOptions“, this element inserted into a FlyTo parent with”gx:option name=”streetview”” tells GEarth to changes from normal to Streeview in the middle of a tour. ViewerOptions also allows historical imagery and sunlight conditions to be captured as well.

Timelines and Tours outside Google Earth

I’ve come across a couple of examples of GEarth features implemented elsewhere which were worth a mention:

Timeline Example: I thought this timeline from a New York Times graphic is much better than the timeline in Google Earth:

  • Easier to grab and move the jaws, in GEarth the jaws are too small
  • The play button only allows the jaws to move together, in GEarth you can press play and the far side of the jaws will move which is too complex for users to understand and utilise IMHO
  • The time labels are simple and clear whereas in GEarth the labels are more fussy
  • The blue shading communicates ‘this is the time range’ in a clear way and its semi transparent so you can see the graph below it.
The GEarth timeline remains high on my list of things Google should really fix in GEarth.
Tour Example: I think the tour feature of GEarth is one of its strongest features allowing user in presentations or promotional film clips. I came across a film sequence in a TED talk which has a form remarkably like a tour:
(BTW the clip is fascinating and well worth watching in full)
The clip ‘zooms’ down from large to small scale and at the destination scale the camera moves around a 3D object which is then manipulated in various ways to illustrate the relationships of neurons. Compare it with this GEarth tour:

The building clip has a poor frame rate and the building isn’t manipulated in some way (like showing the inside rooms) but otherwise, the format is exactly the same. I’m in the middle of researching to best design tours at the moment and the Seung clip is a lovely illustration of how the results of my studies will not just apply to GEarth and other Virtual Globes but to any 3D visualisation system where zooming across scales in a film clip is important.

With the Seung clip I defined where it should start, see how to get a YouTube video to start where you want it.