Saturday, October 29, 2011

Map Usability Fail Series: #5 Take the GIS out of Your Map!

Take the GIS out of Your Web Map!

The biggest tip that I can give you is to TAKE THE GIS out of your map! This is one FAT usability fail and the most common! Consumers could not care less about GIS period! They don't want to hear it, see it or have anything to do with it. So many cities and government organizations come back from a GIS conference and put up a standard, out of the box, web map that is built for the GIS guy. Step back and ask yourself how many people in my city actually know what GIS is or how to work with it. "Psst GIS'er you went to school and spent a lot of time in labs to figure this stuff out and now you want the average every day consumer access and use your map. Not a chance."

I would like to applaud the cities that go to the extra step in adding a map interface for consumer use. It is a step toward transparency and provides access to data 24/7. If you are going to put up a map, strive to make it easy for your grandma to use and not the guy sitting next to you in the GIS department. The map above is such a great example of what I am talking about.

What I like
  • The fact that the city put up a map is great. I love maps and expect them at every city website that I go to.
  • I like the use of standard zoom and pan controls that look like Bing and Google, two mapping applications that the general consumer has experience with.
  • I can use this map, but I am a GIS Professional and have spent many years working with this type of interface. So for me easy but for the average consumer it is very challenging.
What I don't like
  • First of all to access this map I need to click on a link that says GIS Map. A consumer has no clue what GIS nor do the care.
  • A box of layers that is confusing and daunting to a consumer. One look and they will throw up their arms and go back to Facebook.
  • Numerous GIS widgets on small buttons with icon images that mean absolutely nothing to a non GIS professional.
  • The functionality is too generic and not focused into any specific use that the average consumer is interested in.
What they could do better
  • First of all do not put the word GIS on the map link. Use something like Community Maps or City Maps
  • Don't display every layer. Make your map specific to the one or two work flows that your consumers will be doing on the site such as property look up and use only the layers specific to those work flows
  • Make buttons with easy to discover icons that the user will be able to understand. Make the buttons large
  • Wrap work flows in to single step. i.e. Enter a APN press search and the maps zooms highlights the property and displays information that the consumer can use in a single process.
I do love maps and think any web map is better then none. The goal of any publicly available map is to have is used by the public. To get the most out of your investment you must make it easy for everyone to use and not just to impress the GIS folks.

I give this map a 2 out of 10 for usability for the consumer audience
I give this map a 7 out of 10 for usability for the GISer's

Map Usability Fail Series: #1 Zoom To Rectangle
Map Usability Fail Series: #2 Map Widget Hoarding
Map Usability Fail Series: #3 Creating Custom Map Controls
Map Usability Fail Series: #4 Take Advantage of your Base Map Control!

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Map Usability Fail Series: #5 Take GIS out of Your Web Map! A Post - @SkipCody #WEBMAP #MAP #GIS


  1. I couldn't agree more with you. I made this post (it's in danish but use google translate) or ask me.

    I will post a link to your message a little later in my thread. :-)


  2. Tine, I took a look at your post and your question is a direct hit. These organizations need to keep in mind that the map is a tool and should be used as such. OSM, Google, Bing, ESRI can be used as base maps and still be useful. The idea is to figure who the end user is, what they want to accomplish and provide an interface that allows them to get it done. I would bet that the city above gets no more than 100 – 200 visits a month on this site when they should be getting thousands. The GIS department does not need another tool such as this map the consumer needs it and they are the one that the map needs to focused on.

    Just think that if this map provided a solution to the most common question at the front desk, whatever it might be, how much time it would save the counter person and let them do other pressing tasks.

  3. Amen, brother Skip. These kind of maps scream "I figured out how to make an ArcGIS Server Map!!", nothing more.

  4. Very good statement and very good tips!

  5. Best line: "A box of layers that is confusing and daunting to a consumer. One look and they will throw up their arms and go back to Facebook."

    Our site is better than some, but still geared towards the engineer/GIS/techy person. It's hard to find that middle ground without overwhelming them with different options.

  6. @falseNorthing Thanks for your comments, I really appreciate it. It is difficult to find the middle ground and sometimes impossible. In this case having two apps might be your answer. Remember the days when you bought a calculator and it came with a phone book size set of instructions. The power of such a devise is needed by 1% of the consumers where the other 99% just needed add, subtract and divide functions. Focusing on what the end user is doing is critical. Hiding the GIS is also a good way to approach the problem. GIS’ers will find the functionality and use it where a consumer will stop looking after about 1 min. They are very impatient and won’t put up with it. I would love to see your site and see how you have approached the problem. Have a great day and Happy Mapping.

  7. I think one of the problems with organizations offering mapping applications such as these is that they often look to Google Earth for inspiration in what is acceptable, or worse, expected. Users can make a real mess out of their map in a hurry when clicking through the seemingly endless tree of layers offered in Google Earth. Just because you can turn it on, doesn't mean you should. So to your point on turning layers on that support the desired result of the product; developers need to have a clear vision of what exactly they are trying to accomplish and provide only what's necessary to the average user. (This is not to say that you can't have an advanced section somewhere for the rest of us nerds.)

    That said, it's clear that people seem to adopt Google UI as the de facto, easy to use, every day consumer UI for just about everything. And it would appear to me that developers often try to duplicate what they've done. This couldn't be further from the truth with regards to Google Earth and therefore should not be duplicated in many cases. (Google Maps on the other hand is pretty good as you state in the "What I like" section.)

  8. I noticed your comment on Twitter and agree that there are a lot of bad sites out there but check this one out - they seem to have done a good job