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).

Streetmap 2014

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.

Image representing Google Earth as depicted in...

It is always nice to announce good news. Back in February, together with Richard Treves at the University of Southampton, I submitted an application to the Google’s Faculty Research Award program for a grant to investigate Google Earth Tours in education. We were successful in getting a grant worth $86,883 USD.  The project builds on my expertise in usability studies of geospatial technologies, including the use of  eye tracking and other usability engineering techniques for GIS and Richard’s expertise in Google Earth tours and education, and longstanding interest in usability issues.

In this joint UCL/Southampton project, UCL will be lead partner and we will appoint a junior researcher for a year to develop run experiments that will help us in understanding of the effectiveness of Google Earth Tours in geographical learning, and we aim to come up with guidelines to their use. If you are interested, let me know.

Our main contact at Google for the project is Ed Parsons. We were also helped by Tina Ornduff and Sean Askay who acted as referees for the proposal.
The core question that we want to address is “How can Google Earth Tours be used create an effective learning experience?”

So what do we plan to do? Previous research on Google Earth Tours (GETs) has shown them to be an effective visualization technique for teaching geographical concepts, yet their use in this way is essentially passive.  Active learning is a successful educational approach where student activity is combined with instruction to enhance learning.  In the proposal we suggest that there is great education value in combining the advantages of the rich visualization of GETs with student activities. Evaluating the effectiveness of this combination is the purpose of the project, and we plan to do this by creating educational materials that consist of GETs and activities and testing them against other versions of the materials using student tests, eye tracking and questionnaires as data gathering techniques.

We believe that by improving the techniques by which spatial data is visualized we are improving spatial information access overall.
A nice aspect of the getting the project funded is that it works well with a project that is led by Claire Ellul and Kate Jones and funded by JISC. The G3 project, or “Bridging the Gaps between the GeoWeb and GIS” is touching on similar aspects and we surely going to share knowledge with them.
For more background on Richard Treves, see his blog (where the same post is published!)

At the beginning of May, I gave a lecture at the UCL Interaction Centre (UCLIC) seminar titled ‘Interacting with Geospatial Technologies – Overview and Research Challenges’. The talk was somewhat similar to the one that I gave at the BCS Geospatial SIG. However, I was trying to answer a question that I was asked during a UCLIC seminar in 2003, when, together with Carolina Tobón, I presented the early work on usability of GIS for e-government applications. During that talk, the discussion was, as always is in UCLIC, intensive. One core question that remained with me from the discussion was: ‘What makes geospatial technology special or is it just another case of a complex and demanding information system that you should expect difficulties with and spend time to master?’

Over the years, I have been trying to improve the answer beyond the ‘it’s special because it’s about maps‘ or ‘geospatial information comes in large volumes and requires special handling‘ or similar partial answers. In the book Interacting with Geospatial Technologies different chapters deal with these aspects in detail. During the talk, I tried to cover some of them. In particular, I highlighted the lag of geospatial technologies behind other computing technologies (an indication of complexity), the problems of devices such as SatNavs that require design intervention in the physical world to deal with a design fault (see image), and the range of problems in interfaces of GIS as were discovered in the snapshot study that was carried out by Antigoni Zafiri.

There was an excellent discussion after the presentation ended. Some of the very interesting questions that I think need addressing are the following:

  • In the talk, I highlighted that examples of spatial representations exist in non-literate societies, and that, therefore, the situation with computers, where textual information is much more accessible than geographical information, is something that we should consider as odd. The question that was raised was about the accessibility of these representations – how long does it take people from the societies that use them to learn them? Is the knowledge about them considered privileged or held by a small group?
  • For almost every aspect of geospatial technology use, there is some parallel elsewhere in the ICT landscape, but it is the combination of issues – such as the need for a base map as a background to add visualisation on top of it, or the fact that end users of geospatial analysis need the GIS operators as intermediaries (and the intermediaries are having problems with operating their tools – desktop GIS, spatial databases etc. – effectively) – that creates the unique combination that researchers who are looking at HCI issues of GIS are dealing with. If so, what can be learned from existing parallels, such as the organisations where intermediaries are used in decision making (e.g. statisticians)?
  • The issue of task analysis and considerations of what the user is trying to achieve were discussed. For example, Google Maps makes the task of ‘finding directions from A to B’ fairly easy by using a button on the interface that allows the user to put in the information. To what extent do GIS and web mapping applications help users to deal with more complex, temporally longer and less well-defined tasks? This is a topic that was discussed early on in the HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) and GIS literature in the 1990s, and we need to continue and explore.

In my talk I used a slide about a rude group in Facebook that relates to a specific GIS package. I checked it recently and was somewhat surprised to see that it is still active. I thought that it would go away with more recent versions of the software that should have improved its usability. Clearly there is space for more work to deal with the frustration of the users. Making users happy is, after all, the goal of usability engineering…

These are the slides from the presentation that I gave to the BCS Geospatial SG.

The talk abstract is:

Here is a useful party trivia: as a form of human communication, maps pre-date text by thousands of years – some early spatial depictions are 25,000 years old, whereas writing emerged only 4000 years ago. When it comes to computing, the reverse is true: the first wide use of computing is from the early 1950s, whereas the first effort to create a GIS only started in 1966. There are good reasons for this, chief among them is the complexity of handling geographical information in digital computers. An adverse impact of this challenge is that for many years geospatial technologies developers focused on functionality and not on the interaction with end-users. The result of this focus is that while word processors and spreadsheets became popular in the early 1980s, only with the emergence of ‘Web Mapping 2.0′ in 2005, GIS and geospatial technologies became more popular, albeit far from universally usable.

The talk covered interaction and user aspects of geospatial technologies, pointing to issues that permeate the usability and usefulness of geographical information itself (e.g. why ESRI shapefile is a popular format despite its drawbacks?), the programming of geospatial technology (e.g. why OGC WMS did not spark the mashup revolution, while Google Maps API did?) and the interaction of end users with desktop and web-based GIS.

And the talk happened at the same day in which the excellent Third Workshop on the Usability of Geographic Information was running at the Ordnance Survey.

Finally, after 2 years in the making, Interacting with Geospatial Technologies is out. It is the first textbook dedicated to usability and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) aspects of geographical information technologies. It covers desktop, Web and mobile applications and how they can be designed so they are more effective, efficient, error-free, easy to learn and enjoyable, which is one version of the 5 E’s of usability.      

Book cover

  

I started thinking about the book in 2004, when I realised that the most recent  academic books dedicated to HCI and GIS were published in 1993 and 1995. These are respectively David Medyckyj-Scott and Hilary Hearnshaw’s Human Factors in Geographic Information Systems  and the collection of papers from the NATO workshop Cognitive Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction for Geographic Information Systems, edited by Tim Nyerges, David Mark, Robert Laurini, and Max Egenhofer.  While these books and the collections of papers in them are still valuable, it must be noted that in the early 1990s, Web-based GIS was just starting to appear, desktop GIS was fairly basic, mobile GIS was not even experimental and GIS trade journals argued about which  UNIX workstation is the best for GIS.      

Apart from these books, the proceedings of COSIT (Conference of Spatial Information Theory) are also valuable sources of academic research on spatial cognition and other principles of geographical and spatial information, and there are also many papers in academic journals about GIS.      

However, not much attention was paid to everyday use of geographical information technologies, and no textbook included an introduction in a form accessible to postgraduate students and software developers. So, after complaining in various conferences that there is a clear need for such a book, I started working on it. It was an interesting process to identify suitable authors and encourage them to contribute to the book.      

While offering the breadth of several authors who specialise in different aspects of the field, I think the textbook is coherent and consistent, and its style both accessible and readable. The editing process was more active and time-sensitive than is often the case in academic books, to ensure that the textbook is usefully up-to-date. On UCL’s MSc in GIS, a recent course based on the textbook was well received by students.      

The book covers the principles and the practical aspects of interaction with geospatial technologies. There are sections about spatial cognition, cartography, user-centred design and usability engineering – here is the table of contents.      

So, now you can get your own copy – and any feedback is welcomed.

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