Thursday, December 22, 2011

Map Tales vs Google Earth Tours

Readers who have read my other blog Google Earth Design will know I promote Google Earth Tours (GETs), the ability to record a virtual trip around Google Earth as a good communication tool for maps. I came across Map Tales, a web map based service (More detail on Map Tales) that allows you to create a set of locations linked by a story.  I thought I'd compare the two as I think the idea of GETs on a web map is an interesting idea.

click to open the tour

GETs in Detail: Some key characteristics of a GET (and example above): 
  1. A recording of a virtual flight around Google Earth: camera orientation, location and altitude is recorded throughout and can be replayed. 
  2. Easy to produce simple examples (Click a record button, fly around, click stop recording).   
  3. Layers can be turned on and off 
  4. Pop up balloons with text, images, video clips can be triggered and closed automatically 
  5. To produce them Google Earth is pretty much essential  
GETs advantages over Map Tales:  The Map Tales service shares some characteristics of GETs, like them they are easy to control, produce and pop up information can be added easily (see 2 and 4 above).  A Map Tale differs slightly in that it has 'steps' - a window of information presented for a unique location and the Tale stops at each step.   There are major differences though: 
  • No Layer Control: in a Map Tale layers cannot be controlled which stops the author from useful structures such as having two markers from the map tale visible at the same time in an overview.  This is very useful in helping users track the spatial relationships between the points.  
  • No Paths: Not having layers also means paths, routes and roads can't be added.
  • More Sophisticated:  GETs have a wider range of features including being able to add audio, using streetview, 3D topography and flight speed control.

Map Tales' (see above or full size versionadvantages over GETs : 
However, Map Tales have advantages because they're simpler:
  • No Software: you don't need to install any software  to produce a tale, it's all in the browser.  
  • Stepped controller is an improvement over the VCR control in GETs.  I find when playing a GET I'm often have to stop it at a place.  You can do this with GETs (as in the link from the screen shot above) but you need to add pauses by hand editing the KML.   
  • Editing a Tale: When you've completed your tale you can drag and drop the steps up and down the 'play' list.  This kind of simple editing is not possible in a GET.
  • Look:  The visual look of Map Tales is well designed and distinctive.  For simple tales I think this design adds value but for more complex tales I think the lack of control of the site design (e.g. size of info window) would be a problem.  To embed it above its size is a problem and it looks cramped.
Overall I think Map Tales is a useful example of how a simple form of map based GET could look.  If you want to produce anything but a simple tour I think GETs are definitely the to go.  In addition,  the inability to be able to view more than one marker at once or mark a line route is a serious disadvantage.  However, the ability to edit tales and the stepper control are interesting features and I think with the ability to control layers it could be a useful tool especially in education.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

oMaps, Google Map edits and Google Map Update

Back from my break, had a great time in New Zealand and Australia although my brain still isn't quite in gear again.  Today I've three topics to discuss:

Off 3G Mobile Map use:  While I was away, my iPhone 4 was invaluable for navigating around.  Of course download fees on 3G outside of the UK for me are a daylight robbery so I limited myself to picking up data via WiFi hotspots.  There are two techniques I used:
  • Google Maps:  Navigate to the place you are going whilst on WiFi, so long as you have cached all the data you need, when you're moving in city the blue locator works and you can navigate around as normal.  However, if you only stay on one zoom level whilst on WiFi you can't zoom in when you're on the ground - only the zoom levels you've cached are available.  
  • OMaps:  The OMaps App on iPhone works with OSM data and allows you to define an area and cache all the tiles at all levels prior to getting there.  Its a bit fiddly, the tiles don't download quickly and you have to get the balance right between getting a big enough map and defining an area that's large with an unreasonable download time.  Once you're through these hoops its very useful.
Google on the Ball:  After my recent critique of Google/Bing/OSM maps with respect to the UK Houses of Parliament and Clapham Junction train station Google updated their symbolisation (discussed in more detail below) in both areas.  I suspect the changes to Clapham Junction were part of a broader update but the changes to the symbolisation of the Houses of Parliament look like they are a reaction to my comments and work much better.  That sort of reaction is impressive.

I just checked Bing Maps, no change to their map.   

Google Maps Update:  In the UK, Sweden, Germany and Finland Google have just added a major update to their map.  They point out in the post that map data has improved in terms of 
  • Water bodies 
  • Parks
After a quick glance at the UK map I also note some other changes I think they've made:

View Larger Map

  • More detailed train lines and a change in symbolisation to dashed lines (see above)

View Larger Map

  • Parkland, common land, university campuses, cemeteries are marked by different colored polygons (see above)

More data on a map obviously adds to its value but if the symbolisation is not well thought out you can get problems with visual clutter.  I'll be discussing this update in terms of map usability in a later post.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Blog Break

I'm downing tools for a while but I'll be back 2nd week in December.

Google, Bing and OSM Maps: Train Station Symbolization

As part of my research for last weeks blog looking at how the three maps in the title handled symbolization with zooming, I had a look at some other locations in London.  The one that stuck out for me in terms of usability was Clapham Junction Train station at a low altitude zoom level.  This is a local station of mine and also happens to be the busiest station in the UK with over 100 trains an hour.  With so many passengers it makes sense that it should be mapped well.

The User's Needs when Zoomed In:  What is a general user looking for if they access a web map of this station?   If they are zoomed in close then chances are they are searching to answer these questions:

  1. Where is a station entrance with temporary parking? - I want to drop off someone by car.*
  2. Where is a station entrance handy for me?  - I'm getting to the station by bus/bike/foot?* 
  3. Where do I find food/drink/toilets/cash machine?
If they are changing trains at Clapham they will probably follow the station signs rather than looking at a web map so 'where is the platform I need?' doesn't get onto the list. 

Entrances and Exits are Key: So from a user's point of view I think the primary information that a map of this scale should show are the station entrances and exits.  If the user question is [3] then they still want to know about exits/entrances since often services are ouside the station and they will have to get in and out.  Using the above list it seems to me that the map could also usefully show temporary parking, bus stops, cycle racks, food outlets, toilets and cash machines.  However, the symbols showing these services should be secondary in visual impact to the entrances.

Let's see how the map providers fare in meeting these user needs:

Entrance locations: Before we begin the review we need to understand a little about the entrances to the station.  On the Open Street Map below I have added the four entrances to the station as red squares.  Its also important to know that the Brighton Yard entrance (bottom) is relatively new compared to the others.

Open Street Map of the Station:

First up, Open Street Map is packed with detailed information.  All the entrances are marked except Brighton Yard, however, they are symbolized weakly as dotted red lines and are difficult to pick out.  Services are marked on the map at many locations although I note that food outlets on the platforms and the access bridge are missing (I've now added them myself, because that's the point of Open Street Map).  There is no opportunity to click symbols and access further information.

Whilst Open Street Map has done well in terms of having the information available, my problem with this map is that it shows too much.  Most of the information is there but by packing all the data onto the map it becomes visually complex and the entrances are not emphasized.  A particular problem is the rail tracks: all the lines and sidings are shown but the location of these has no use for the average user as they will be navigating within the station guided by signs within the station.  Also, the dashed line symbolisation just doesn't work when the lines are packed together.

I discussed the 'too much' information problem in a previous post.

Google's Map of the Station:

Google's map is far clearer when compared to the Open Street Map but important information is missing and the symbolisation is confusing.  It shows roads and bus stops clearly but other services aren't well marked.  Entrances to the station are missing.  The multiple rail lines have been reduced to two which show the general directions of the lines leading out from the station - much better symbolisation.

My main problem with this map is that rather than use a polygon and a single marker to show the station (see last weeks discussion), Google has a confusing group of 3 markers.  You would be mistaken for thinking the station was quite small and in three separate locations.  In fact it's one large station that covers most of the above map, as you can see from the Open Street Map.  Click the rail station symbol and you are not linked to anything to do with the station but see information about the nearest buses.  Very odd.

Bing Map of the Station:

Bing's map is similar to Google's in terms of clarity:  Few train lines are shown, roads are clear and easy to see.  Bing also uses a single marker at the main St John's hill entrance which is logical and an improvement on Google's map.  When clicked this station symbol links to a route calculator which is more sensible.  

However, the other entrances are not marked and no services are marked.  At this zoom level I would expect at least some services marked and the lack of entrances is a real issue.

Conclusion:  I've outlined why I think at this scale of map, the key information users need about Clapham Junction station is the location of the entrances.  The maps vary in how many entrances they mark but none of them show all of them with the required level of emphasis IMHO.

Looking at other data that could be usefully marked on the map; Open Street Map has the most detail but it is presented in a visually complex way.  Bing maps goes to the other extreme with a very clear map but showing little useful information.   Google's approach of mixing some service information on a relatively clear map represents the most sensible approach but they have used some very odd symbols in the process.

*Obviously 'entrance' could be replaced by 'exit' in these questions for journeys going in the other direction.  For clarity of discussion I just describe outgoing journeys in this post as return journeys are exactly the same from a map point of view.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Google, Bing and OSM Maps: Zooming Symbolization

How Symbolisation changes with Zooming Out: A couple of weeks ago I sang the praises of Google’s 3D building symbolisation. I said putting 3D building models into Google maps with a faded gray coloring could really help people using their maps to navigate around a city. Such models represent symbolisation: the simplification of reality (3D buildings) into simpler symbols that help understanding. This week I look at how the symbolisation of buildings changes as user’s zoom out from a close in view.  I'm assuming that the user is doing some sort of navigation task again and I compare
  • Google maps
  • Bing maps
  • OpenStreetMap
Change Sucks: The first thing to point out is that evidence from my PhD student Craig’s work on the usability of maps shows that changing symbolisation as users zoom out makes it difficult for users to track what’s going on. So any sybmolisation change, say from a building polygon to a point symbol, has a mental  ‘cost’ to it, symbolisation should only change where there is good reason to do so.

Polygons to Points: So how should building symbolisation change as a user zooms out from an urban landscape? A good best practise is to have buildings represented as polygons at low altitude. As the user zooms out, the polygons become difficult to differentiate visually so it makes sense to change symbolisation to a labelled point. This is exemplified by Google’s rendering of the White house as in the screen video below. (apologies for the quality and varying sizes of the videos below, I'm experimenting with a new screen capture tool and haven't got it all worked out yet)

Points to note:
  • The symbolisation starts out as a 3D gray model
  • It switches to a polygon on zooming out
  • At all times the building is represented by a labelled point. As the user zooms out the polygon disappears and we are left with just the labelled point.
Its pretty faultless, every change in symbolisation is helping the user and it's an intuiative system.

Parliament by Google: So how does the white house example compare with the UK seat of government, the houses of parliament?

Oh dear, nowhere near as good.  A clear glitch that all labels and symbols disappear at altitude.

Parliament by Bing:  How does that compare to Parliament by Bing Maps?  Bing uses a different approach, instead of having one base map that switches symbolisation as you zoom out they have incorporated an old static style road map as the base level which changes at altitude to what amounts to a completely different map.

As you can see, the symbolisation at the lowest level is better than Google's Houses of Parliament but less good (IMHO) than Google's White House.  As you zoom out, the symbolisation stays the same which is easy to follow as a user, but the view becomes very cluttered.  The switch to a completely different map system is clumsy at best.

OpenStreetMap:  In comparison OpenStreetMap does well at low altitude with good labeling (shown here as an image rathe than a video):

Their approach is to have labels without points which then disappear at altitude while the polygons persist.  I think a labelled point at high altitude is the better system.  This alternative technique isn't too bad visually as the polygons are a neutral color and, as we've discussed,  keeping symbols the same helps users understand the map.  However, if the polygons became paled out at high altitude (so they blended in with the background) then they would work better IMHO.  This is because the road network operates as a landmark system at altitude so needs to become visually dominant over the buildings. 

Conclusion:  I wouldn't want to generalize to judging the quality of these three mapping systems on the 'Houses of Parliament' test.  As we've seen with Google, the quality can vary from place to place.  Its also easy to pick holes with mapping systems in this way, there's an enormous amount of work in producing intelligent symbolisation for multiple zoom levels across the entire globe and the visibility of polygons, labels and points at different zoom levels has to be automated in some way.  However, IMHO the symbolization could be improved in all of these three map systems and the building is important: its the seat of government in a G20 country and a major landmark in a world class city.    

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Streetiview vs Streetside from a users point of view

So there has been a lot of blog posts on the internets comparing Bing's Streetside with Google's Streetview.  Mostly these cover technical and privacy points:

Streetview: Much larger coverage (certainly in the UK), Full 360 degree view

Streetside:  Avoided some of the privacy controversy by targetting 'super public' areas such as city centres rather than residential areas.  Viewing is more limited to a row view of buildings that slides by.

No one has covered the usability issues in detail so I thought I'd make some observations, to do this I need to go off on a bit of a tangent into 3D virtual environments:

Less Control = Easier to Use:  I've just finished a draft of a paper in which I reviewed Google Earth Tours.  One thing I discovered in the literature is that in 3D environments (Google Earth, Second Life) the 6 degrees of freedom* that a user needs to control can cause problems of usability:
  • Walls aren't solid: Users can crash through model walls which is disorienting
  • Desert Fog: Users end up very close to a plane surface like the ground, they can't see any features to orient themselves or guess scale - they are said to be experiencing desert fog.  
  • Peripheral Vision:  Because of the limited computer window into the environment they miss visual clues from their peripheral vision that they pick up in the real world (better in a CAVE setup or similar of course) 
Limiting their degrees of freedom of movement can help users avoid these issues.   An example is a tower in Second life - if a user can be 'locked' into moving around it so they can only fly a fixed distance from the tower and their vision is locked directly towards the tower they would avoid some of the problems listed above.  Their degrees of freedom have been reduced from 6 down to 2 (they can only fly up/down outside the tower, orbit it left/right) but they can still explore it.  Even more radical in a Google Earth tour users only have VCR play/pause/rewind controls effectively reducing their freedoms of movement down to 1.  

Streetside Constrained Freedom:  Streetside has taken the same 'constrained view' approach.  They allow a user to only look directly at the side of the road, this is sensible as in a cityscape as this is the most useful view.  To switch view to the other side of the street you simply click a little 180 degrees view button which zooms you around.  Streetside:
  • Mutiple Controls: Avoids problems of having to operate multiple controls (in Streetview they may expect double clicking to zoom them into a photo view, in fact it moves their position)
  • Look Sideways: Allows users to move along a street whilst looking at buildings.  In Streetview users have to face foreward to move foreward, to look at the buildings on the side of a road they need to stop and turn.
UPDATE 3rd Nov:  Actually that's not strictly true.   Streetside offers 'slippy slides' of the street going past which is better than Streetview's click-refresh operation.  However, you can arrange Streetview so you're looking side on to the street and then click the arrows so you move along.  Its quite clever actually.   
  • Fast: Allows users to whisk along a street in a zoomed out view faster than moving through Streetview (in a little informal test I did myself, see the zoomed out view that allows this in the above screenshot )
However, this comes at a cost.  Streetview has the advantages:
  • Less Disorientation: I think its easier to become disorientated by moving down a street only looking at one side.  Certainly for testing out a cycle route across a town, Streetview is more natural and would be the better tool.
  • Photo stitching is better in Streetiview, in Streetside I noticed whole streets warped out of view.  This may be a technology issue that is solved soon but at the moment it's a real issue.
  • 3D Buildings: While looking at Streetview, Google Maps also supplies 3D building models (earlier post on this topic see screenshot above) which further helps with orientation. 
I think the Streetside approach is very sensible and may well be better than Streetview in cities.  However, outside of urban areas you would need to use Streetview as the side of a road becomes far less interesting.  IMHO the best product would offer both these approaches.  

*Avatar: up/down, forwards/backwards, left/right
  Camera orientation: yaw, pitch, roll

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

3D buildings as Landmarks in Mobile Maps

Maps and City Navigation: Today I’m going to be looking at ways of including buildings as landmarks for user’s trying to navigate an urban landscape.  How important are landmarks for navigation and recall?  its relevant that memory champions who can memorize the sequence of a deck of cards in a minute use spatial landmarks as a system to aid their recall:  The memory palace technique has the user walking through a building well known to them imagining vivid tableaus such as a moonwalking Einstein (the title of an excellent book on memory) happening in different rooms.  The technique taps into our spatial memory system and shows how powerful landmarks can be. 

Google’s 3D buildings as Landmarks:  As an example I really like google's 3D buildings in google maps (see above, bottom screen shot). In a city scape the buildings can carry important landmark information for users trying to orient themselves using a map on a mobile device. A 'you are here' marker from GPS readings can make such orientation irrelevant but cities can cause a GPS trouble because of the 'urban canyon' effect so landmarks are still important.

You could choose to put full color 3D buildings onto a mobile device map as landmarks but this has issues that are useful to consider: 
  1. Device processing time: full color models would slow the device down, the data bandwidth needed is very demanding. 
  2. Visual processing: full color 3D can be complex for the user to process cognitively, for instance the color and structure of the buildings would make it more difficult to see the road pattern below.
  3. Bird’s eye View:  For way finding, the bird’s eye view of a building is often not its most salient feature visually.  It is often the view from the pavement (sidewalk for US readers) like the colorful facade of the building or the grand doorway that provides the memorable image a user can latch onto (see top part of image above which relates to the location shown on the map).  
Google’s gray, plain rendering of buildings in 3D is a good solution to the first two issues but fails on the third.

Interesting 2D Alternative: Another way of including buildings in maps so they can be used as landmarks is to use photos.  A photo of an interesting building from road level at a node (road junctions or other important route points) mimics streetview functionality but pulls out the best landmark features of the view at that node (see top part of the image above which is taken from the streetview image of the map below). When a user trying to navigate a city reached such a junction and had a choice of routes she could locate herself using the building photo.  IMHO this addresses the three problems listed above but unfortunately it introduces another issue:  what makes a good visual landmark requires human input whereas Google’s gray building layer can be produced automatically.

    Interesting 3D Alternative:
    A second alternative is to move into sub 3D view as illustrated above. Selected buildings at nodes are shown, they are rendered in gray at an enlarged scale (from a post by Digital Urban )

    If you follow the link to the post you can also see the image placed into a zoomable Google Maps interface but at a 45 degree angle, this has a lot of potential for navigation but it has issues:
      • Plan View: A plan view is better for viewing roads
      • Single Direction View: You can only see the building from one compass angle direction (North Eastwards in the above image).  Often from ground level it’s a street level feature like a large doorway that is most salient to the viewer.  Unlike features such as the Gherkin (the torpedo building in the above image) a model of a doorway doesn’t make any sense viewed from the wrong direction.  
      Usability of 3D maps in Navigation:  Related to our discussion of 3D in navigation, the comments on this post of mine about a 3D map of Southampton University's campus are interesting:  they suggest that 3D may be causing usability problems for those who are not familiar with maps .

      Conclusion: Google have to provide a base map for any journey that their journey planner may suggest to a user that works on a mobile device.  Overall, I think their current solution is arguably the best given the need to produce their maps automatically and addressing the three issues I list above.  Where it would be worth trying out the alternatives I've suggested in this post would be a map for a particular route e.g. a map informing people how to get from a particular train station to a museum.

        Sunday, October 16, 2011

        Steve Jobs on Design

        I often quote examples from Steve Job's career as examples of good design, and by design I mean usability and a more holistic sense of knowing everything about a product that is important and getting all those things right.  So I was pleased to find this quote from him via Stephen Fry:

        “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains and the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” 

        Steve Jobs in an Interview with Fortune Magazine, 2000

        Wednesday, October 5, 2011

        Usability of GeoData: Sat Nav Example

        In my review of the Google maps public transport route calculator recently the major problem I found was that overland trains, a major and quick form of transport in London, were left out.  This is an issue of the usability of data and I recently came across another transport example.

        I happened to drive across central London recently as I had to pick up a bike.  If you don't know London that well, this really is a last resort transport solution as our streets are complex and crowded.  I was lent an Android HTC phone to navigate with as it had a Google Maps Navigtion app.  Apart from driving in London being terrifying if you're not used to it (as I'm not) the app worked well.  Some positive notes:

        • Voice prompts allowing you to keep your eyes on the road
        • Free rather than over $100 for TomTom on the iPhone.  Thanks Google!
        • Dynamic Rerouting when I went wrong, it rerouted me which is very helpful though its been possible on all the sat navs I've used to date.
        • One Way Streets: It had data on which roads were one way and which weren't, a common problem in London.  It incorporated this into its journey calculation flawlessly.  
        Some things I didn't like:

        • Voice Prompts on demand:  I'd prefer to have voice prompts on demand, there were times when it told me information I didn't need and other times where I was wondering where to go that I wanted to make it give me an update.  Maybe it could talk when you touch the screen?  This would mean your eyes could remain on the road.
        • Restricted Turns Data: It didn't have a complete data base of the restricted turns in London (it may have none of this information).  Its common in my home city that even though a street is not one way you are not allowed to turn right or left at a junction.  
        The second of these is the more serious.  On the way out I encountered the problem and got away with it.  However, on the return journey I got lost and into some tiny medieval streets in London city.  I totally lost my bearings, the app found me a route but it wanted me to turn left at a junction where it was forbidden.  I drove away trying to find my way around the problem but being completely lost, I ended up coming in a big circle and found myself being instructed to turn left at the same restricted junction for the second time.  I was tired and confused and I have never sworn so loudly at an inanimate object in my life as that poor HTC phone when I got to that junction for the second time.

        Conclusion:  Its common that usability issues with web maps come from the interface or symbolisation, what I hope I've shown here is that if the data isn't complete, they can come from the data too.  

        Friday, September 30, 2011

        Weasley Clock as Tube Map?

        This post is about how we can improve on a normal map to show the members of a work team where everyone is in real time.

        Introduction: One of the most fun of the magical items in the Harry Potter world is the Weasley clock .

        It shows the general location of all family members with a hand for each family member  (the photo above shows a mock up with not enough hands).  Various hackers have had fun building real non-magical versions.

        Whereabouts Clock: Back in 2006 the basic idea was taken by Microsoft and developed to an actual device which showed location of workers in their team to each other.  It proved popular with the team who liked being able to see where people were at a glance and found it useful to see who was in the building.  Key characterstics:
        • It was an actual physical device and was always on
        • It used a weasley clock analogy with people's icons moving between 'home', 'in the building' and 'out'
        • Worked off SMS checkins
        • Only available for the work group, e.g. could not be shared with family groupings.
        Google+ and Latitude:  This post from the 'about Foursquare' blog notes that the Google+ circles idea and Google latitude checkins is a powerful way to share 'where am I' information without running into privacy issues.  E.g. it allows me to checkin to a supermarket so that my girlfriend knows I'm doing some shopping whilst not telling my boss because it's during work hours.

        The Whereabouts Clock appears to have never been developed beyond the original concept.  Recent developments in Google+, Latitude and mobile devices leads me to think it's a concept that is worth revisiting.  In the rest of this post I'll look at the problem purely from the visualisation and usability angles and produce a mock up of the main interface for a smart phone app.  There would be a lot of work necessary on the technical side to make my ideas work but having a workable visualisation system is the core problem IMHO.

        Work Journey Tube map:  My solution is to suggest a single train or tube line map analogy for displaying the information.  I've actually taken the background of the screenshot from a train journey planner app I have on my iPhone.  This design comes from the idea that for a work team the key information is knowing where a person is on the usual home to work route*.  In the UI sketch above, what were the train stations have been replaced with specific locations (Home desk, Office desk) but also with general areas (on campus, in transit.  Strictly 'in transit' isn't an area but it is really:  The space I move through to get from home to University Campus).

        Description: Team members are represented by colored blobs, their smart phones are tracking their position and converting that into general information for the visualisation, the arrows represent direction of movement of each team member.  Jim is at his desk and his smart phone (or login from desk computer) predicts he is not moving at the moment.  Dave is on campus and has just reached the Shackleton building and is coming in.  Meanwhile I (Rich) have just got off the bus and am on campus heading to the Shackleton building.  Sam is somewhere else than his work route in the UK.

        By clicking 'Rich' the screen displays my estimated time of arrival at various locations (blue text), shows my annotation saying what I am doing (yellow box left) and grays out the stations I've come through

        Key Information and Outward links: The visualisation offers key information on one screen, users would have no interest in where I am in Hampshire on my normal train journey, they just want to know I'm on the train headed to work.   However, they are interested in fine grained data such as am I at my desk or elsewhere in the Shackleton building.  Other information such as where I am on campus if not in the Shackleton building can be accessed by clicking on the map button bottom left which will link to a standard latitude map visualisation.  The calendar icon (bottom) links to the team calendar since the ability to schedule a meeting will often be wanted if a team member is not immediately available.

        But is it a Map?  I would argue that it is because it is showing locational information.  It just happens to do it in a highly stylised manner. Like the tube map it warps real space as a way to improve clarity in terms of line length, however, it goes one step further as it takes polygons of a large variety of sizes and represents them as one 'station'.  On the tube map this would be the equivalent of grouping together  a number of stations and representing them as one.

        Provisos:  I think the idea will appear in some form or the other in the future but there are a number of conditions that need to be met some of which I discuss below:

        • Mobile Devices:  Obviously the system needs data input from smart devices so the whole team will need them.  The data input could be from check ins or from passive tracking.  I think there is every reason to expect the vast majority of people to have smart phones in the next few years.
        • Can I track you?:  As with many social network technologies, this one requires a critical mass of people to be using it for it to really take off.  To start using it people would have to be happy with people tracking them.  At the moment I think most people would have reservations but just as 'I don't want to be contactable all the time' was a common moan about mobile (cell) phones when they became common in the 90's I suspect over time people will come to accept broadcasting their location provided they have control over the data.  Google+ circles provides just the sort of system.
        • Model: If the system incorrectly predicted my movements you can imagine that users would soon abandon it, the model that predicts my movements needs to be smarter than just calculating that I am travelling towards my work desk therefore I am likely to end up to it as I may just happen to be walking from meeting to meeting and heading in a general deskward direction.  The model therefore needs a certain sophistication and it could be a complex problem to solve.  It could be mostly solved by tracking people for a month and using a combination of calendars and previous journey data to predict movements.
        And Finally: One aspect of the Weasley clock was not a location at all, it was  'mortal peril'.  I doubt that could be incorporated on my map anytime soon.  

        *This assumes that as in my work place, people work from home a lot.

        Friday, September 23, 2011

        My New Course in Web Maps

        I'm part of a scheme producing a suite of innovative new courses at Southampton University.  This is a promotional clip that explains what it's about:

        Although I gave them a Google Earth tour clip to use and I talk about Google Earth the course covers web maps far more than virtual globes.

        Thursday, September 22, 2011

        Point Clustering Usability Example

        Intro: A number of times before (1, 2) I’ve discussed point clustering maps. I thought it would be useful to present an actual case study of a mobile app* that makes use of clustering to explain why I think the technique has problems from a usability point of view.  

        Herd of Sheep Problem: Clustering maps have appeared as a solution to an old cartographic problem: If you have too many points on screen they overlap each other producing a map that looks like a herd of sheep has wandered over it (particularly if you use white markers as below).

        Barclay's bike hire Stations map in Zoomed out view   

        The Technique: The clustering solution involves sorting points into groups, each group then gets a maker (usually a circle) which is labelled with the number of points in the group.  This reduces the total number of markers rendered on screen.  As the user zooms in on an area big groups break up into smaller groups.  At a low altitude  the point icons themselves separate out from the groups.  

        Boris Bike Example: My case study is the London Cycle App for the iPhone which shows in real time where Boris Bikes (aka 'Barclays Bikes') can be hired from.  Bikes can be picked up from a large number of docking stations and the app is very useful as bike stations often become empty as a typical day progresses.  The app needs to deal with the herd of sheep problem, the screenshot above is actually the bike stations it needs to visualise, it does this using group clustering.  We'll discuss the map's symbolization at high and medium zoom levels and compare that to the needs of an imaginary user who's using the app to find a bike to hire for a trip into town.

        High Alitude Zoom:  At this viewpoint we see two cluster circles which show how many bikes are available for hire in two groups (repeated 3 times below).

        High Altitude View with different possible group catchments.

        The major usability issue here is that the catchment areas that the groups have been created from are not visible.  Any of the dotted catchment areas I've added in the three screenshots above are possible.  This is an issue for our user for two reasons:
        • Where are the bikes?  It isn't possible for our user to know precisely where the 230 and 178 bikes are so how can she know where to head to?
        • Density:  Knowing the total number of bikes in a group isn't as useful to her as knowing the density of bikes per square km.  For example, if the centre map catchments applied she'd be sensible to head for the 230 group SW of Islington but if the right hand map catchments apply the 178 group may well be a better bet as it has less bikes but in a much smaller area.
        Overlap?  Not knowing the catchments of the cluster groups isn't a complete fail, its just unnecessarily vague. However, what is clearly a serious problem is the group circles overlapping.  That's plainly confusing for our imaginary user, it has no meaningful interpretation that I can think of.

        Alternatives:  I think that both heat maps and grid density maps (below) are better solutions to the herd of sheep problem in this context as they communicate the data as density of bikes rather than total count.

        Alternatives: heat map of house prices (bottom) Grid map of mobile web coverage (top) from this BBC site).  Boundary is of the whole bike scheme.

         (Note that I didn't have the time to create actual maps of the data we're discussing, these are maps of different data sets over London but they illustrate the techniques).  

        High Zoom Best Alternative: No Data  My solution to the head of sheep problem is not heat or grid maps and is shown below:

        its slightly counter intuitive but I've come to it by thinking about what the user actually needs.  She's probably getting into London by public transport and therefore knows the rough area that she wants to pick up a bike from.  My reasoning is that at this zoom level, the data is actually a visual distraction, what she really wants is to see landmarks so she can zoom in on her chosen area.  The bike availability is best kept off screen until she has zoomed in   You can see I've used three landmark layers above:
        • Boundary: A polygon showing the boundary of the area covered by the Boris bike scheme 
        • Big Train Stations: The location of a number of mainline train stations.  Not only are these well known landmarks in London but a large number of people wanting to pick up bikes will be arriving here (red pins).
        • Bike Stations: The location of the bike stations themselves (blue circles)*
        Medium Zoom: As the user zooms in from the High Altitude Zoom view, the two big clusters resolve into smaller groups (below left).

        Medium zoom screenshot (left) and suggested alternative (right) created by screen capture from excellent oobr's bike share map

        With each further progression down the zoom levels the number of clusters, their size and their location changes.  This change of symbolization proved highly confusing to users.  My PhD student Craig did some user tests on a similar visualization, his observations show that users expected that the circles would persist across zoom levels - some even said they wanted to use them as landmarks and were very put out when they disappeared from the screen!  

        Medium Zoom, Improved View (above, right):  At this zoom level, by reducing circle size, its actually possible to present circles representing all the bike stations with color coding showing where bikes are available (red = lots available, blue = few, circle size = number of docking points at each bike station).  Our user can probably locate a station to head for without having to zoom in further, a good usability gain plus she avoids the problems of changing symbolization outlined above.  The alternative map isn't optimized for an iPhone screen but I think you can see my point.

        Conclusion:  My suggestions for improvements to the bike app screen shots at high and medium zoom levels involve not using a clustering technique at all. They could be combined as an complete alternative to the app; at high zoom levels the user sees just landmarks, when she zooms on her chosen area the map view switches to the medium zoom visualization illustrating bike availability. This alternative app would;

        • Avoid multiple confusing changes of symbolization with zoom (the most important advantage)
        • Avoid cluster circle overlaps
        • Avoid obscuring the view of the map by big cluster circles at high altitude zoom levels 
        • Show landmarks to aid effective zooming in
        • Show the user bike location data precisely - the user only sees bike availability at each station, there is no ambiguity created by grouping stations.  
        • Present the user with bike availability at the highest zoom level meaning she doesn't need to zoom in unnecessarily.  

        I don't think this technique of avoiding point clustering completely would work in all situations but in the case of the Boris Bike app, I think it's the best solution.

        Further Testing:  My PhD student Craig is going to be comparing the usability of alternatives such as the heat and grid map to the cluster circles in the future.  So far preliminary results show there are serious issues with point clusters but also that there are issues with the alternatives as well.

        *I've got the boundary of the Boris Bike scheme and the station points wrong in some screenshots but I haven't corrected it because I'm short on time at the moment and it doesn't impact the discussion.

        Thursday, September 15, 2011

        Nerd Day Trip Map Review

        Ben Goldacre has kept me amused over the years, he's just published an interactive map project (with a team) 'nerdy day trips' and asked for comments, so I thought I'd repay him with some ideas and publish it as a blog rather than just put it in an email.

        Look and Layout: I liked the look: Professional look with a quirky feel.  Maybe save some map space by thinning out the header or by incorporating the graphic in the top left of the screen into the header?  Users generally like having more map, less graphics.

        A minor point is that most users will look top left for the zoom bar in any Google Map.  You might like to move it up there for them if you don't feel it jinxes your look too much.

        User Interface:  Nothing major wrong here either.  Minor point, I didn't know the post code of the Elan Valley trip I added in Shropshire, I imagine other users won't know postcodes of sites either so it shouldn't be compulsory to add one.  Do you really need the user to enter this data at all?  You have the latitude/longitude from their point and can generate post codes using this data.

        Users will be expecting the info bubble to be graphically linked to the point that was clicked to create it.  By not using this you clear more space for your information and therefore less scrolling necessary which is good.  However, you might like to think about animating the info screen so that it grows out of the point that created it in some way.

        Symbols:  A more important point - The paddles you currently have are bigger than necessary.  Reduce their size and avoid 'herd of sheep' visual clutter (where paddles obscure other paddles) in more areas.  You may like to consider using small circles as this would help even more (you can see this effect by doing a search on Google Maps for "cafes" over London).  The problem with this is that you really want to make them an intense red so they are visible and that doesn't fit with your color scheme.

        Future features: I'd endorse your feature idea of categories but don't go overboard with very many - a great charm of this map is that it is so simple, don't spoil that by letting it get overly complex.

        If I had one suggestion of my own it would be that you work on the day trip creation user interface. I would have it so that a user creates a day trip by dragging a symbol to the right place.  When I created my day trip by a simple click I wasn't zoomed in enough on the map to locate it accurately.  Dragging and dropping a symbol is not only intuitive, it gets over this issue, people will only do it when they're ready.

        Tuesday, September 6, 2011

        Goldilocks Maps: Enough Info but no more

        Introduction: There are Goldilocks planets (not to hot, not too cold, just right) and Goldilocks economies (moderate inflation, moderate growth). I want to propose that we aim for producing goldilocks web maps: Not too little information, not too much, but just enough. 

        Finding Cafes Problem: A web map example is using satellite imagery or a road map as base data in a mash up.  Satellite imagery has lots of information people find interesting, like who has the biggest patio in their neighbourhood (below left). 

        However, if you're on your iPhone trying to find somewhere to eat (cafes in the above map are red pins or dots) you don't want the visual complexity of seeing patios or even gardens.  You want to see a road map mash up (above right), where the only information is the cafe locations, roads and road names.

        Related Web Map Design Issues: It's not just base data this applies to, there are a number of web map design topics where  we should be actively thinking 'have I got the information balance right here'.  Examples include:
        The Goldilocks web map concept is related to Edward Tufte's idea of 'chart junk': any pixels not directly showing data or helping show data (e.g. a key) are junk and need to be removed.  

        A lovely idea for a map but full of chart junk.

        There's more of an argument for putting too much information into a map than allowing it to contain chart junk. Extra information, by definition maybe useful whereas junk is, well, junk.  For example, we could add other data layers to the cafe map by splitting the cafes into vegetarian, greasy spoon and coffee bars.  Its more complex to understand but will be important for vegetarians.

        For most maps the concept of chart junk holds true but I recently posted ideas about when chart junk has a place by discussing the flashiness of Google Earth Tours.

        London tube map:  This is the perfect example of a Goldilocks map, 

        The Modern Tube map is shown on the top and the real station locations are on the bottom.  The Circle Line is in yellow and has been distorted from reality on the tube map to improve clarity.  Other distortions to improve clariry include making lines vertical, horizontal or at 45 degrees .

        Harry Beck's genius was to realise that when navigating within the tube system the true locations of the tube stations is information that can be left out, users can navigate perfectly well given just lines and node information.  This means the actual locations and distances on the map can be distorted in order to improve the clarity of the map.  E.g. the area inside the circle line (yellow above) is expanded, it has a high concentration of stations and expanding them makes the station labels easier to read. The idea has been copied for transport systems the world over making it very familiar today but it isn't hard to imagine people's initial reactions:  A map that doesn't show locations properly?  What good is that? Dismissed by the authorities at the time when released it to the public it proved very successful and it is now, rightfully, a design classic.

        London Transport Maps: Google, Bus Mapper and TFL

        Google recently released a Public Transport Directions in London mapping tool as part of Google Maps.  I thought it would be good to compare it to other London transport services (Transport for London and Busmapper) and discuss the usability in terms of UI, symbology, data and mobile use.

        Transport for London: up to now the only transport directions tool covering multiple transport types (that I've come across anyhow) has been transport for London (TFL). Although it produces a zoomable map in the results you can't input your start and end points by creating points on a map.  Also, the output map is small on the screen surrounded by adverts and other chart junk elements I don't want to see (see screen grab below):

        not that user friendly - I want to be able to expand the map easily and enter points directly onto it.

        Google Maps:  The new Public Maps transport directions answers both of my criticisms of TFLs website; you can click to define points, type in post codes (UK zip codes) or type in other place identifiers to define your start and end points directly.  You can also expand the map easily and it already covers most of the page with no ads.  Neat!

        User Interface - Adding Start/End isn't Easy: Whilst the expand screen arrow (actually termed 'hide panel') is pretty self explanatory it's not obvious how to add points to the map.  Expected behavior: two pins icons to be available in the control panel with some micro text saying 'drag to define trip'.  What you actually have to do is right click on the map and choose 'start journey' or 'end journey'.  Bus Mapper does it much better with some simple 'click twice' text advice.  See me do it in the clip below

        (note that the orange circles denote a click but were added by my screen recorder).

        Symbology:  Moving on from the UI to symbology, there is some good work in this service but also some aspects I hope Google sort out soon.  Discussion refers to the above screen shot or you can open the original map.  To reproduce the view above, turn on the transit layer and create pins as outlined above.
        • I like the angled labels (e.g. the label behind the green 'A' pin).  These enable a point to be labelled without overlying a nearby marker/label, unfortunately it seems the service isn't programmed to deliver this functionality.  For example, in the bottom right - the start (A) label could be separated from the 295 bus label if the angle went towards the bottom left rather than the top right.  
        • Label Lines not Points: While we're still talking about the labels it's counter intuitive that they point to bus stops rather than lines.   For example, in the screen shot the 295 bus route is shown as a blue line but its not labelled 295, the label points to the bus stop at the end.  
        • Colors for travel modes: Its useful that walking and transport are different colors (black and translucent blue respectively).  It would be nice to see different symbols for the lines for different travel modes, the tube line colours are known by most Londoners but I think this would get confusing because the suggested route would get mixed up with tube lines and other on screen elements.
        Data - Missing Overland Train Info: The major problem I have with the transit map is that it misses out overland trains, on the map these appear as orange lines.  As an example, for the trip in the screen shot its actually much better to walk to Clapham Junction (covered by 295 label), then go by overland train to Kensington Olympia (East of Kensington) and then walk the last section.  Google not only doesn't include that mode of transport - it doesn't even tell you its not using it.   Not a fail but pretty serious problem for a journey planner - you could easily double your journey time as a result of not knowing about the overland route (buses can be very slow in London).

        Mobile:  Comparing the Google map on my Mac to that on the iPhone there are a couple of things that stand out:
        • Consistency:  Why is the transport line blue on the Mac but purple on the iPhone?  It's not a huge issue but I can't see any reason not to get the colors spot on.

        • Step Through: When you have the route calculated Google Maps has a really nice feature that allows you to step through the directions.  A purple circle (see above) shows the transfer point and clicking the arrow (top right) steps you through the complete route animating the circle from transfer to transfer and automatically moving the screen.  Very slick and easy to use.
        • You Are Here:  Where the Google mobile map thrashes transport for London mobile enabled website is the blue 'you are here' indicator.  It's very useful for travelling, you don't necessarily know where you are when you start a trip so typing in a name or post code is difficult, much better to use the blue marker and drop a pin on the map.  Not having a decent map interface leaves transport for London dead in the water IMHO. 
        Conclusion:  I haven't reviewed other transport apps for the iPhone in researching this review so there maybe services better than Google Maps transport for London out there.  Up to now I've been using transport for London and Google Maps is a huge improvement on that especially on the iPhone.  That being said, Google have work to do, I'd suggest adding the overland train routes is a priority.

        Welcome to Web Map Design

        Welcome to my new venture!

        Why Switch?  My old blog (Google Earth Design) became a 'whatever is on my mind about web Geo this week', that was OK but important norms and practices are being defined at the moment and its all happening in maps, not Google Earth.  So I've decided to refocus on web maps rather than the broader virtual globes, education and maps I used to discuss on my old blog.

        Evidence for the importance of maps compared with virtual globes can be seen in the Google Trends screenshot above: Google Maps has become consistently more searched for than Google Earth within the life span of my old blog*.

        Developers making Decisions:  IMHO web maps today are pretty dire in terms of design.  By comparison, web design has moved through a period dominated by poor layouts into design patterns that are now pretty good.  I want to start or join in discussions of how maps are developing so we can ensure web maps follow a similar path.   It seems to me that the people making these decisions are mostly developers so I'd like them to be my core audience.  I worry that many of the innovations that are appearing today have poor usability and, if we don't nip the problem in the bud, we will be left with web map norms and practices that are impossible to change in the future.

        How this blog compares to my older blog, Google Earth Design:
        • For Developers:  The primary audience of this blog is meant to be developers although it should interest HCI, cartographers and GIS people too.
        • Main Blog:  I mean this blog to be the main one so if a topic covers both virtual globes and maps I'll cover it here. 
        • Google Earth Design:  I'm carrying this on and I think it will mostly be about applications of 3D and educational stuff, I think Google Earth is still the main tool educators should be looking at.
        * Muki  Haklay pointed this out to me.