Neo and Paleo GIS – is the difference in the usability culture?

At several recent GIS industry and academic conferences, I was not very surprised to see GIS presentations in which the presenter started by talking about ‘usability enhancements’ and ‘we took usability very seriously in this application’ but failed to deliver. In contrast to such statements, the application itself was breaking basic usability guidelines such as not giving any feedback to the user about some activity of the system, or grouping related elements together in the interface, among other problems.

Then I came across a report from 1991, which talks about User-Centred Graphical User Interface for GIS and notes that ‘It is not unusual for more than 60% of the code in a complex software system to be dedicated purely to the user interface. This stands in sharp contrast to the 35% dedicated to the user interface in early GISs’. This is still true in spirit, if not in percentage. GIS applications require sophisticated data manipulation, and most of the development effort of GIS vendors or Open Source GIS projects is focused on the information itself and its manipulation. The interface is probably seen as an add-on – the ‘fun’ bit of the development that you leave to the end after cracking all the engineering challenges that make the application work.

What I would argue is that, as a result, GIS as an industry doesn’t have a ‘usability culture’. Compare that to Apple, where usability and interaction with users has been at the centre of what they are doing since they started. Or with e-commerce which also shows a ‘usability culture’ because, if you fail on usability, there is a direct link to loss of sales. These are examples of organisations and sectors who know that usability is important and commit resources to ensuring that their products are usable.

In contrast, in the GIS industry there is a feeling that usability is a ‘nice to have’ element of the development process, so there is no practice of involving usability experts in software development projects. There are relatively few examples of user-centred design in GIS, and they are mostly in research papers, very rarely in practice.

Neogeography is changing it somewhat, since parts of it are coming from companies and developers who see the value in understanding the users. Maybe the competition between the existing developers of GIS and neogeography companies will cause the former to change and they will become more serious about usability.


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Professor of GIScience, University College London

2 thoughts on “Neo and Paleo GIS – is the difference in the usability culture?”

  1. Hi Muki

    If you want a practical example user centred or interaction design in GIS have a look at the way DigitalWorlds was developed. The user was front and centre of our thoughts all the way through development. Always falling back to the well understood persona (created from direct observation and informal interview) and fighting off the developers who wanted to drag us back to the techie status quo. I think we did have the advantage of not being developers and of having a clear vision of the pressures and barriers our users faced and what would work for them.

    It is a big leap for developers to change their ways but I think as we see companies adopting more Agile approaches to development, such as the use of Scrum, there will be more space and time to think about what the user needs. I think the combination of Scrum techniques with user interaction design have great potential to improve the lot of the user.

    Have a look at this video I posted on YouTube, it shows Alan Copper talking about ‘The user’. I have edited it down to a very salient piece. It will make you laugh as well:

    Hope to meet up again soon


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