For a while now, I have been calling for the development of usability engineering for GIS – a set of techniques and methods that will ensure that geographical technologies are learnable, efficient, easy to memorise, error tolerant and provide a satisfactory and enjoyable experience. While general usability guidelines are as relevant for GIS as they are to other computer-based systems, the use of maps as an interface and the nature of the data require the development of specific methodologies for GIS.
An example of such a method is a snapshot study. This is a simple usability study where we ask current users of GIS to take a snapshot of their computer monitor (by pressing Print Screen), fill in a very short survey and send the results by email. It requires very limited investment from the participants, but actually reveals a lot about the software packages that they are using.
The study that I conducted with Antigoni Zafiri in the summer of 2005 helped in understanding common screen resolution, the way users set toolbars on their interface and what type of maps they are looking at.
This type of study can be effective for the revision of products, to understand how they are used. It can also be used to understand the common computing environment in which the product is used.
The study has now been published in the Cartographic Journal – and can be downloaded from here. The proper citation for it is Haklay, M., and Zafiri, A., 2008, Usability Engineering for GIS: Learning From A Screenshot, the Cartographic Journal, 45(2) 87-97.