Confusing interfaces…

29 February, 2008

The Manifold training course that we ran earlier in February is always an excellent opportunity to observe how new GIS users interact with such a system.

Running a training session for new users of any GIS will expose major usability problems with the interface. Many of these problems are unnoticeable to experienced users, since they have learned the idiosyncratic aspects of the interface. Usability problems surface in such a session through misunderstandings and questions that the participants raise.

With Manifold, one of the interesting problems that came up is with the query toolbar (see below):

Manifold GIS query bar

The way the query toolbar works is that you select a field in the left drop-down list, an operator at the central drop-down and a value in the text box on the right and click on select to see the result. For example, if you enter 5 in the toolbar in the picture, it will lead to a selection of the 5 polygons on the map with the smallest area.

The confusing part of the interface is the ‘not’ between the left drop-down and the central one. For a new user, the interface reads ‘find objects on the map where the field Area (I) are not the bottom X’. The ‘not’ in this case is a toggle button that can be activated to negate the operation that was selected in the central drop-down. Clearly, it would be better if, when not activated, it had the word ‘is’ (Area is the bottom 5) and ‘not’ appeared only when it was active. This is one of the cases where usability enhancement could be carried out in less than a minute of a programmer’s time – and surely makes life less confusing to many novice users…

Finding your way as a tourist

26 February, 2008

During the visit to Turin, I had an opportunity to experience the consequences of address matching and georeferencing which I’ve noted in the entry ‘British Museum Test’. After touring the city, I needed to get to a restaurant to meet colleagues that were staying in the Institute for Scientific Interchange (ISI) in Turin. The meeting place was the ‘Il Porto di Savona’ restaurant in Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2. Since the hotel room was connected to the Internet through a relatively slow ‘Swisscom Hospitality Service’ connection, I decided to try to find my way to the restaurant with Google Maps, which are the fastest to download.

My first attempt with Google was unsuccessful – trying to search for ‘Piazza Vittorio Veneto 2, Turin’ pointed me to a place 10 miles away from the city. The next attempt was with Yahoo! Maps, but this one could not find anything. Microsoft Virtual Earth failed to find the full name, but offered a location called ‘Piazza Vittorio’ which I selected, only to zoom in and discover that the full proper name does appear on the map! Using this name (‘Piazza Vittorio’) with Google also worked and it managed to find the location.

Turin Map Virtual Earth

Interestingly, because the connection was relatively slow, the interface of Microsoft was fairly annoying as parts failed to upload, and I was deterred from using Multimap as I’ve experienced slow response in the past on a fast broadband connection at home. Even so, checking more recently with Multimap shows that it will direct you to the wrong place in the city – although again, if you zoom to the map, the square is clearly mapped with its proper name…

The experience demonstrated how significant the problem of georeferencing is on these public mapping sites. This is a fundamental problem for these search engines to make them really usable. In this case, I used my knowledge of the range of public mapping sites, manipulated the address until I got the location and did a lot of things that, I suspect, a less experienced user would not do. I persevered with the problem because of my interest in usability and because it was an interesting problem. Actually, in terms of efficiency, it would have taken me less time to just go downstairs and ask the concierge…

Another aspect is that download time still matters. This is an aspect that web designers tend to ignore. I suspect that the assumption here is that broadband connections are ubiquitous. The speed of downloading a page is significant in geospatial applications – because there is no way round the fact that, unlike text based sites, the map is the most significant part and must be delivered as graphic files which tend to bulk-up the overall size of the page, as far as the end-user is concerned.

I must note that once I managed to find the location, it was again a pleasure to use the old style tourist map to navigate to and from the restaurant, which, by the way, I warmly recommend.

Map reading and navigation can be challenging – personally, finding my location on the map when touring a new place is not always easy. As a result, I thought for many years that having a device that could guide me ‘home’ would be really useful. Of course, away from home, ‘home’ may mean the hotel that I’m staying in. Today, it is possible to have such a device, as many smartphones are capable of finding their location and use services such as Google Maps.

A recent visit to Turin (Torino) made me rethink this view. The hotel I stayed in provided a typical tourist map (see example below) with a delightful depiction of the buildings in the centre of the city, clearly marked tourist attractions and, as always, some additional information on the back of the map.[ The map was produced by A&C e Turismo Torino ]

Turin Map - Small

Touring the centre of a new place is a very enjoyable activity, and I realised that I didn’t want to get from the hotel to the centre in the most direct and efficient way. I really enjoy in looking in shops, public buildings, markets and other urban features along the way. Also, the fact that the map covered a large area at ‘high information density’ (the amount of information per square inch of interface area), because the printing is 6 to 10 times denser than a computer screen and arguably 60 times the area that is covered by the best smartphone screen, enabled me to see the ‘big picture’ and to notice more or less where I was heading. Instead of navigation by following a specific street, I was using the map to provide me with the general direction.

Nothing of the above is new, but, when I consider my experience and the enjoyment of touring a city and compare it to the current provision in navigation devices, I can see how much they are capable of spoiling the enjoyment of getting lost. Maybe the smart compass, as suggested by Max Egenhofer, can be useful for keeping the experience without destroying the really enjoyable aspects of it.

For a more general comment in the same vein, see Don Norman’s discussion in the recent ACM ‘Interactions’ journal for a more general complaint about devices and services which can destroy certain human enjoyments.

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