29 January, 2014
Once upon a time, Streetmap.co.uk was one of the most popular Web Mapping sites in the UK, competing successfully with the biggest rival at the time, Multimap. Moreover, it was ranked second in The Daily Telegraph list of leading mapping sites in October 2000 and described at ‘Must be one of the most useful services on the web – and it’s completely free. Zoom in on any UK area by entering a place name, postcode, Ordnance Survey grid reference or telephone code.’ It’s still running and because of its legacy, it’s around the 1250 popular website in the UK (though 4 years ago it was among the top 350).
So far, nothing is especially noteworthy – popular website a decade ago replaced by a newer website, Google Maps, which provide better search results, more information and is the de facto standard for web mapping. Moreover, already in 2006 Artemis Skaraltidou demonstrated that of the UK Web Mapping crop, Streetmap scored lowest on usability with only MapQuest, which largely ignored the UK, being worse.
However, recently, while running a practical session introducing User-Centred Design principles to our MSc in GIS students, I have noticed an interesting implication of the changes in the environment of Web Mapping – Streetmap has stopped being usable just because it didn’t bother to update its interaction. By doing nothing, while the environment around it changed, it became unusable, with users failing to perform even the most basic of tasks.
The students explored the mapping offering from Google, Bing, Here and Streetmap. It was fairly obvious that across this cohort (early to mid 20s), Google Maps were the default, against which other systems were compared. It was not surprising to find impressions that Streetmap is ‘very old fashioned‘ or ‘archaic‘. However, more interesting was to notice people getting frustrated that the ‘natural’ interaction of zooming in and out using the mouse wheel just didn’t worked. Or failing to find the zoom in and out buttons. At some point in the past 10 years, people internalised the interaction mode of using the mouse and stopped using the zoom in and out button on the application, which explains the design decision in the new Google Maps interface to eliminate the dominant zoom slider from the left side of the map. Of course, Streetmap interface is also not responsive to touch screen interactions which are also learned across applications.
I experienced a similar, and somewhat amusing incident during the registration process of SXSW Eco, when I handed over my obviously old laptop at the registration desk to provide some detail, and the woman was trying to ‘pinch’ the screen in an attempt to zoom in. Considering that she was likely to be interacting with tablets most of the day (it was, after all, SXSW), this was not surprising. Interactions are learned and internalised, and we expect to experience them across devices and systems.
So what’s to learn? while this is another example of ‘Jacob’s Law of Internet User Experience‘ which states that ‘Users spend most of their time on other sites’, it is very relevant to many websites that use Web Mapping APIs to present information – from our own communitymaps.org.uk to the Environment Agency What’s in Your Backyard. In all these cases, it is critical to notice the basic map exploration interactions (pan, zoom, search) and make sure that they match common practices across the web. Otherwise, you might end like Streetmap.
Looking across the range of crowdsourced geographic information activities, some regular patterns are emerging and it might be useful to start notice them as a way to think about what is possible or not possible to do in this area. Since I don’t like the concept of ‘laws’ – as in Tobler’s first law of geography which is stated as ‘Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.’ – I would call them assertions. There is also something nice about using the word ‘assertion’ in the context of crowdsourced geographic information, as it echos Mike Goodchild’s differentiation between asserted and authoritative information. So not laws, just assertions or even observations.
The first one, is rephrasing a famous quote:
‘you can be supported by a huge crowd for a very short time, or by few for a long time, but you can’t have a huge crowd all of the time (unless data collection is passive)’
So the Christmas Bird Count can have tens of thousands of participants for a short time, while the number of people who operate weather observation stations will be much smaller. Same thing is true for OpenStreetMap – for crisis mapping, which is a short term task, you can get many contributors but for the regular updating of an area under usual conditions, there will be only few.
The exception for the assertion is the case for passive data collection, where information is collected automatically through the logging of information from a sensor – for example the recording of GPS track to improve navigation information.
26 June, 2013
CHI 2013 and GeoHCI workshop highlighted to me the importance of understanding media for maps. During CHI, the ‘Paper Tab’ demonstration used E-Ink displays to demonstrate multiple displays interaction. I found the interactions non-intuitive and not mapping very well to what you would expect to do with paper, so a source for confusion – especially when they will eventually be mixed with papers on a desk. Anyhow, it is an interesting exploration.
E Ink displays are very interesting in terms of the potential use for mapping. The image below shows one of the early prototypes of maps that are designed specifically for the Kindle, or, more accurately, to the E Ink technology that is at heart of the Kindle. From a point of view of usability of geographical information technologies, the E Ink is especially interesting. There are several reasons for that.
First, the resolution of the Kindle display is especially high (close to 170 Pixels Per Inch) when the size of screen is considered. The Apple Retina display provide even better resolution and in colour and that makes maps on the iPad also interesting, as they are starting to get closer to the resolution that we are familiar with from paper maps (which is usually between 600 and 1200 Dot Per Inch). The reason that resolution matter especially when displaying maps, because the users need to see the context of the location that they are exploring. Think of the physiology of scanning the map, and the fact that capturing more information in one screen can help in understanding the relationships of different features. Notice that when the resolution is high but the screen area is limited (for example the screen of a smartphone) the limitations on the area that is displayed are quite severe and that reduce the usability of the map – scrolling require you to maintain in your memory where you came from.
Secondly, E Ink can be easily read even in direct sunlight because they are reflective and do not use backlight. This make them very useful for outdoor use, while other displays don’t do that very well.
Thirdly, they use less energy and can be used for long term display of the map while using it as a reference, whereas with most active displays (e.g. smartphone) continuous use will cause a rapid battery drain.
On the downside, E Ink refresh rates are slow, and they are more suitable for static display and not for dynamic and interactive display.
During the summer of 2011 and 2012, several MSc students at UCL explore the potential of E Ink for mapping in detail. Nat Evatt (who’s map is shown above) worked on the cartographic representation and shown that it is possible to create highly detailed and readable maps even with the limitation of 16 levels of grey that are available. The surprising aspects that he found is that while some maps are available in the Amazon Kindle store (the most likely place for e-book maps), it looks like the maps where just converted to shades of grey without careful attention to the device, which reduce their usability.
The work of Bing Cui and Xiaoyan Yu (in a case of collaboration between MSc students at UCLIC and GIScience) included survey in the field (luckily on a fairly sunny day near the Tower of London) and they explored which scales work best in terms of navigation and readability. The work shows that maps at scale of 1:4000 are effective – and considering that with E Ink the best user experience is when the number of refreshes are minimised that could be a useful guideline for e-book map designers.
As I’ve noted in the previous post, I have just attended CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) conference for the first time. It’s a fairly big conference, with over 3000 participants, multiple tracks that evolved over the 30 years that CHI have been going, including the familiar paper presentations, panels, posters and courses, but also the less familiar ‘interactivity areas’, various student competitions, alt.CHI or Special Interest Groups meetings. It’s all fairly daunting even with all my existing experience in academic conferences. During the GeoHCI workshop I have discovered the MyCHI application, which helps in identifying interesting papers and sessions (including social recommendations) and setting up a conference schedule from these papers. It is a useful and effective app that I used throughout the conference (and wish that something similar can be made available in other large conferences, such as the AAG annual meeting).
With MyCHI in hand, while the fog started to lift and I could see a way through the programme, the trepidation about the relevance of CHI to my interests remained and even somewhat increased, after a quick search of the words ‘geog’,’marginal’,’disadvantage’ returned nothing. The conference video preview (below) also made me somewhat uncomfortable. I have a general cautious approach to the understanding and development of digital technologies, and a strong dislike to the breathless excitement from new innovations that are not necessarily making the world a better place.
Luckily, after few more attempts I have found papers about ‘environment’, ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’. Moreover, I discovered the special interest groups (SIG) that are dedicated to HCI for Development (HCI4D) and HCI for Sustainability and the programme started to build up. The sessions of these two SIGs were an excellent occasion to meet other people who are active in similar topics, and even to learn about the fascinating concept of ‘Collapse Informatics‘ which is clearly inspired by Jared Diamond book and explores “the study, design, and development of sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity“.
Beyond the discussions, meeting people with shared interests and seeing that there is a scope within CHI to technology analysis and development that matches my approach, several papers and sessions were especially memorable. The studies by Elaine Massung an colleagues about community activism in encouraging shops to close the doors (and therefore waste less heating energy) and Kate Starbird on the use of social media in passing information between first responders during the Haiti earthquake, explored how volunteered, ‘crowd’ information can be used in crisis and environmental activism.
Other valuable papers in the area of HCI for development and sustainability include the excellent longitudinal study by Susan Wyche and Laura Murphy on the way mobile charging technology is used in Kenya , a study by Adrian Clear and colleagues about energy use and cooking practices of university students in Lancaster, a longitudinal study of responses to indoor air pollution monitoring by Sunyoung Kim and colleagues, and an interesting study of 8-bit, $10 computers that are common in many countries across the world by Derek Lomas and colleagues.
The ‘CHI at the Barricades – an activist agenda?‘ was one of the high points of the conference, with a showcase of the ways in which researchers in HCI can take a more active role in their research and lead to social or environmental change, and considering how the role of interactions in enabling or promoting such changes can be used to achieve positive outcomes. The discussions that followed the short interventions from the panel covered issues from accessibility to ethics to ways of acting and leading changes. Interestingly, while some presenters were comfortable with their activist role, the term ‘action-research’ was not mentioned. It was also illuminating to hear Ben Shneiderman emphasising his view that HCI is about representing and empowering the people who use the technologies that are being developed. His call for ‘activist HCI’ provides a way to interpret ‘universal usability‘ as an ethical and moral imperative.
So despite the early concerned, CHI was a conference worth attending and the specific jargon of CHI now seem more understandable. I wish that there was on the conference website a big sign ‘new to CHI? Start here…’
18 March, 2013
The Consumers’ Association Which? magazine is probably not the first place to turn to when you look for usability studies. Especially not if you’re interested in computer technology – for that, there are sources such as PC Magazine on the consumer side, and professional magazines such as Interactions from Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).
Over the past few years, Which? is reviewing, testing and recommending Satnavs (also known Personal Navigation Devices – PNDs). Which? is an interesting case because it reaches over 600,000 households and because of the level of trust that it enjoys. If you look at their methodology for testing satnavs , you’ll find that it does resemble usability testing – click on the image to see the video from Which? about their methodology. The methodology is more about everyday use and the opinion of the assessors seems to play an important role.
Professionals in geographical information science or human-computer interaction might dismiss the study as unrepresentative, or not fitting their ways of evaluating technologies, but we need to remember that Which? is providing an insight into the experience of the people who are outside our usual professional and social context – people who go to a high street shop or download an app and start using it straightaway. Therefore, it’s worth understanding how they review the different systems and what the experience is like when you try to think like a consumer, with limited technical knowledge and understanding of maps.
There are also aspects that puncture the ‘filter bubble‘ of geoweb people – Google Maps are now probably the most used maps on the web, but the satnav application using Google Maps was described as ‘bad, useful for getting around on foot, but traffic information and audio instructions are limited and there’s no speed limit or speed camera data‘. Waze, the crowdsourced application received especially low marks and the magazine noted that it ‘lets users share traffic and road info, but we found its routes and maps are inaccurate and audio is poor‘ (both citations from Which? Nov 2012, p. 38). It is also worth reading their description of OpenStreetMap when discussing map updates, and also the opinions on the willingness to pay for map updates.
There are many ways to receive information about the usability and the nature of interaction with geographical technologies, and some of them, while not traditional, can provide useful insights.
26 November, 2012
I’ve been using 37Signals’ Basecamp now for over 5 years. I’m involved in many projects with people from multiple departments and organisations. In the first large project that I run in 2007 – Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities – Basecamp was recommended to us by Nick Black (just before he co-founded CloudMade), so we’ve started using it. Since then, it was used for 33 projects and activities which range from coordinating writing an academic paper to running a large multidisciplinary group. In some projects it was used a lot in other it didn’t work as well. As with any other information system, the use of it depends on needs and habits of different users and not only on the tool itself.
It is generally an excellent tool to organise messages, information and documents about projects and activities and act well as a repository of project related information – but project management software is not what this post is about.
I’m sure that in the scheme of things, we are a fairly small users of Basecamp. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised to receive a card from 37Signals.
I’m fairly passive user of Basecamp as far as 37Signals are concerned – I’m please with what it does, but I have not contacted them with requests or anything like that. So getting this hand-written card was a very nice touch from a company that could very easily wrote the code to send me an email with the same information – but that wouldn’t be the same in terms of emotional impact.
As Sherry Turkle is noting in her recent book, the human contact is valuable and appreciated. This is important and lots of times undervalued aspect of communication and interaction – the analog channels are there and can be very effective. This blog post – and praising 37Signals for making this small effort, is an example of why it is worth doing it.